Ask A Feminist is our regular column tackling issues on sexism and womanhood in a real-life, 21st century context. This week, SNP MP, Dr Eilidh Whiteford, explains why it is vital that MPs vote in Friday’s Private Members Bill to support the Istanbul Convention on tackling violence against women. Just 100 votes are needed. Here, she explains why we can no longer afford to wait.
“Hello, are you new?”
The question came from half way up the stairs where Hasan, aged 9, was squinting through the bannister to see who was at the front door. “Just visiting” I said as I was ushered through the hallway.
Just a normal looking house, on an ordinary street in north London, but this house is a refuge run by Solace Women’s Aid. Right now it is home to five women and eight children, all of whom have fled from domestic violence.
Hasan has lived here for several months with his Mum, Mina, and his baby brother Yusuf. Mina moved to the UK over ten years ago with her husband, a businessman, but throughout her marriage she experienced violent abuse. When her husband turned his brutality on little Hasan too, a line was crossed for Mina and she made the decision to leave. Police took her to the refuge, many miles from her home. She is safe here.
Life in the refuge is crowded and noisy, with all the families sharing the bathroom and kitchen. The kids like playing with each other, and their ‘rules’ are pinned to the living room wall: be friendly, share toys, no football inside, don’t bounce on the furniture.
Mina doesn’t know what the future holds. Of course she wants to find a house, but it’s difficult with two small children. Mina’s husband wouldn’t allow her to work, so she’s not had a job for years, and she’s now living a long way away from family and friends who could help her juggle childcare. Finding a decent place to stay isn’t easy – rents are high, and many landlords don’t want kids. For now, the family will need to stay in the refuge until they’re able to make a fresh start
Before I leave, Mina offers to show me her room, which she shares with her kids. This is the only private space they have. Hasan is eager to let me see his lego - he’s built a house, and he shows it off proudly, but the symbolism is poignant.
There are lots of women and children like Mina. One in three women will experience sexual violence or domestic abuse during her lifetime. Every week two women in the UK are killed by a partner or ex-partner. Abuse doesn’t discriminate – it affects women from all backgrounds, all ages, religions, ethnic backgrounds and income groups. Yet too often, tackling what is probably the most widespread human rights abuse in the world feels a bit like an afterthought.
Abuse doesn’t discriminate – it affects women from all backgrounds, all ages, religions, ethnic backgrounds and income groups.
Here in the UK some good progress has been made recently to address serious issues like forced marriage, stalking and so-called revenge porn, but thanks to the Government’s austerity agenda, deep cuts to local public services threaten the future of refuges like the one I visited, and other women’s support services like rape helplines.
Changes to housing benefit rules will make it harder for women to leave violent partners. A shortage of refuge places, and too few affordable homes available mean that many women stay in dangerous, sometimes life threatening situations because they have nowhere else to go.
The Istanbul Convention is a comprehensive international treaty aimed at preventing violence against women, protecting the victims, and holding those who use violence accountable for their actions. It also commits governments to strengthening their efforts to end domestic abuse and sexual violence.
Also known as the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, the Istanbul Convention requires the government to take tangible steps towards ending violence against women. It would bring into force legal measures that require the UK to help victims – from provision of psychological support, to refuges and rape crisis services – and to prosecute perpetrators.
The convention requires a cross-governmental response, as it acknowledges that no single body can solve the wide-reaching problem of violence against women, by itself.
The UK signed up in 2012 following its approval by the European Parliament, but it has yet to ratify the Convention – so it does not hold any legal standing in this country. In the UK, we stand behind 22 countries which have already ratified it, including France, Spain, Serbia and Romania.
My Private Member’s Bill, being debated in the House of Commons on 16th December, demands a clear timetable from the Government to make the final changes required to bring domestic legislation up to standard, and introduces a new reporting mechanism, so MPs can measure progress.
If just 100 MPs turn up to vote on the Bill this Friday, then things can move to the next stage. We need cross-party support and to end the delay in this vital law.
The Istanbul Convention has the potential to make a real difference to the lives of women in every street, in every village, town and city in the UK. For a shockingly high number of us, violence is part of our daily lives, and that needs to end. Securing women’s right to live in safety should be a priority for all of us. It’s about time.