We need to treat the dangers that women face every day as urgently, seriously and systematically as we confront the risk of terrorist attacks. It is a national security issue
I still remember leaving my house for the first time during lockdown. With the sudden absence of traffic and people, it felt like a scene from a zombie film. That’s not what stood out to me, though. As I entered my local park, the path narrowed and the man who was approaching got caught on a hedge, desperately trying to keep a two-metre distance from me.
I remember thinking how different it felt, now that men had to be vigilant about their safety all the time too. I wondered if a fresh appreciation of what women experience daily would arise, along with a shared determination to stamp it out.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. Before the first lockdown had even concluded, research revealed that one in five young women who had experienced street harassment said it had got worse during the first period of Covid restrictions.
There were fewer potential witnesses around or shops for them to duck into, and it appeared that men were taking advantage of this. The new measures also trapped women at home with their abusers, cutting them off from help and support – resulting in a 9 per cent increase in domestic abuse and twice as many femicides.
The reflex of some people when male violence against women is discussed is to say: “Not all men”. To which I reply: nearly 100 per cent of young women experience sexual harassment, more than 56,000 women report rape and 1.6 million women are victims of domestic abuse every single year in England and Wales.
Of course, in the strictly literal sense, “not all men” commit violence against women. But the endless repetition of this point risks obscuring the essence of the threat, its structural nature. And that does involve all men.
We are dealing here with a deeply entrenched problem that permeates society and transcends generations, and we need men to acknowledge this. More generally, we also need them to reflect upon and be open about the ways in which they benefit (or at least are taught to believe they do) from the inequalities that make this violence possible. All these factors are indivisible.
The sheer scale and ubiquity of male violence against women and girls means that it is almost laughable to suggest that we can eradicate it with piecemeal individual actions alone. On Friday night the Women’s Equality Party invited women to tweet, using the hashtag #EnoughIsEnough, examples of the lengths to which they go to try and keep themselves safe.
Within 45 minutes more than 18,000 posts had been shared. We projected women’s messages onto the Houses of Parliament to signal our insistence that it should be politicians, and not women, who take responsibility for ensuring our safety.
Watching the live feed – and I encourage you to scroll back through the hashtag – two things struck me. The first is how much we lose collectively as a society, how much of ourselves is drained, when women have to spend so much time and energy making themselves smaller; and how that creates space for perpetrators to make themselves bigger.
The second is how much violence against women and girls has in common with terrorism. Both thrive on fear. People have been surprised by the outpouring of rage and sorrow from women at vigils and on social media in response to Sarah Everard’s death.
What they have failed to grasp is that with every act of harassment or violence that women experience, there is a much broader impact and a price more widely paid, as we feel and fear the potential for more or worse violence to be inflicted. This is how terrorism works. The damage it inflicts is psychological and indiscriminate, as well as physical and specific.
That fear, that feeling of living under siege, of being intimidated, is all too real. True, most women will not be kidnapped or killed. But the more important point is that male violence against women is absolutely not rare. Domestic violence claims fifteen times as many victims in Britain as terrorism – and that figure does not include the women who take their own lives as a result of the abuse they endure.
Cases of violence against women are increasing, while terror attacks – despite the wall-to-wall media coverage of every incident – are no more frequent than they were a few decades ago. Most women experience harassment or male violence many times – whereas the chances of an individual being a victim of more than one terror attack in the UK is lower than the proverbial double lightning strike.
Yet when the UK suffers a terrorist assault, we don’t think it odd that people feel anxious about being killed. Nor, crucially, do we dismiss or belittle their fears. On the contrary, we enter a period of national mourning, reflection, and solidarity. The Queen often makes a speech. Politicians scramble to reassure and respond.
Public information campaigns are mobilised and security messages beam out from tannoys in potential hotspots, to raise awareness and get citizens to speak up if they see something suspicious (for example: “See it. Say it. Sorted.”). Those involved in national security work directly with those at risk of being targeted to offer specialist advice and support. And – often – yet another national review is held to assess our preparedness to deal with a similar incident next time.
Imagine if just a fraction of this political will and public service bandwidth were devoted to preventing and detecting violence against women and girls. Imagine if a portion of the £2.6bn annual counter-terrorism budget was allotted to prevention programmes and support services for women.
Instead, all we got last week was the heavy-handed deployment of police officers – not to deal with the threat of violence, of course, but the threat of women coming together to grieve.
Don’t get me wrong: I am not for a moment suggesting that more policing is the solution. There is simply too much evidence showing that misogyny and racism are deeply ingrained in the nation’s police forces: in which context, let us not forget the officers who took selfies next to our murdered sisters, Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry, or those officers who wrapped 13 feet of surgical tape around Joy Gardner’s face and head during a raid that ended with her death.
What I am saying is that we need a radical shift of perspective if we are to tackle this problem at root, and not just occasional upsurges of concern that ebb away as the news agenda moves on. We need to acknowledge, explicitly and as an urgent matter of strategic concern, that violence against women and girls is a national threat.
Tackling this threat should be as much a priority for police and ministers as the prevention and punishment of terrorism. What is required – what we must demand – is the recognition of a simple but powerful principle: that everyone deserves to live free from the fear of violence.
Mandu Reid is leader of the Women’s Equality Party