MP: Tackling attacks at home is crucial to eradicating violence on women

Shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry delivers her speech during the Labour Party Conference at

Emily Thornberry delivers a speech during the Labour Party Conference at the Brighton Centre in Brighton - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

I spent a lot of Mother’s Day thinking about why young women of my daughter’s age don’t feel safe on the streets of London.

As I read their stories online, I found myself asking how it can be possible that – for all the differences between my generation and theirs – their experiences feel so sickeningly familiar, and their emotions all too recognisable.

I suspect there is hardly a woman in Britain today who hasn’t had memories bubble up in the last week of things that have happened to them that they would rather forget. Memories of catcalls, being flashed at, subjected to unwanted attention, being groped, followed, and worse.

When I was in my 20s, I attended Reclaim The Night demonstrations. I marched under the same banners and made the same rallying cries as I’ve seen from women’s rights campaigners this week.

I don’t think it can be said that the violence and intimidation that women are subjected to has lessened over my lifetime.

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For decades, women have been responding to the violence we face by demanding safety and freedom. For decades, we’ve not been taken seriously. For decades, nothing has been done.

And then we see the latest face of a missing young woman on the news, we get that terrible feeling in the pit of our stomach, and the whole ritual of anxiety, horror, anger and protest unfolds again, always inevitably followed by more government talk and no government action.

Sarah Everard was walking home alone when she disappeared.

Sarah Everard was walking home alone when she disappeared. - Credit: MPS

And although it remains extremely rare for a woman to be snatched, raped or murdered by a stranger, in our minds this behaviour exists on a continuum. How can we ever know when being shouted at in the street will stop there, or whether the next car to follow us will contain our attacker?

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The terrible sexist jokes may be quieter than they were in the 1970s and men may be slightly more self-conscious about talking to a woman’s breasts and not to her face. But fundamentally, women are still made to feel vulnerable and unsafe, particularly when out at night and on their own.

The challenge that continues from one generation to the next is not letting fear control us. We should be able to wear what we want to, go where we want to, do what we want to safe from the risk of being attacked.

The protection of women and girls may begin with educating men and boys, but it cannot stop there. The police and criminal justice system should work for us. The government should not get away with having no plan to deal with violence against women and girls in all its forms.

But there is an even more uncomfortable truth that we must face. Whilst women may regularly be intimidated by men we don’t know outside the home, victims of assault, rape and murder are more likely to be attacked in the home by a man they know, and often by a man they love.

Those attacks, and the verbal abuse that often precedes them, can come as a terrible shock when they first happen, but take on a horrible air of inevitability as an abusive relationship continues. They are hard to process and even harder to talk about, even with our closest friends and family, let alone a police officer. But far too often, that inability to speak out proves fatal.

A woman is killed by a man every three days in Britain. Most of the time, because it happens in the home, it hardly makes the news. Countless more women are raped by a man they thought they could trust. This is how it is. But it shouldn’t be.

If we are serious about tackling male violence against women, and breaking the seemingly endless cycle we have seen repeated again this week, we must get serious about the intimidation, abuse and attacks that women suffer not just in the streets, but in their own homes.

At long, long last, let’s actually do something to make violence against women and girls unacceptable in all its forms and in all its settings. Let’s show every man who needs to be shown that if they operate anywhere on the continuum of intimidation and violence against women, that will have serious consequences for them, where currently - all too often - it has none.

If my generation has failed to create that world for our daughters, let’s at least not fail their daughters too.

  • Emily Thornberry is Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury

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