Last March, shortly before the first lockdown, I came to the WOW Festival at the Southbank Centre. In her introductory speech, Jude asked us to put up our hands if we could imagine a world in which violence against women did not exist. The reaction was mixed. Some hands flew up; some remained firmly planted in laps; most of us glanced at each other, rather taken aback. Dared we even dream of a world without rape and sexual abuse? Or were we too indoctrinated into believing that violence against women is normal, just “one of those things”, part and parcel of being born female…?
This country has been appalled and saddened by the loss of women to violence this year. On average, one women is killed by a man every three days. Sarah Everard, Sabina Nessa, Wenjing Lin, Geetika Goyal and Bennylyn Burke are names which, with all the others, must never be forgotten.
Each one of these women endured unimaginable torment – and their loved ones who are left behind continue to suffer in the wake of their deaths. On 30th September, Sarah Everard’s mother stood before her daughter’s killer to give her searing victim impact statement. She said, “If Sarah had died because of an illness, she would have been cared for. We could have looked after her and been with her. If she had died because of an accident, people would have tried to help - there would have been kindness. But there is no comfort to be had, there is no consoling thought in the way Sarah died. In her last hours, she was faced with brutality and terror, alone with someone intent on doing her harm. The thought of it is unbearable. I am haunted by the horror of it."
I know that all of you today join me in paying tribute to all these precious lives that have been brutally ended, and in renewing our commitment to do everything we can to end violence against women.
The challenges are immense. The Crime Survey for England and Wales shows that 144,000 women were victims of rape or attempted rape in the last year for which these figures are available. This equates to roughly 16 of the most serious sexual offences every hour. Sixteen every hour.
On the same day that Wayne Couzens was arrested, a survey was published stating that 86 per cent of young women in the UK have been sexually harassed in a public place. This included women who had been followed and coerced into sexual activity – all while in a public place. Even more shockingly, of these young women, 96% did not report the incidents. It is, as almost all women know, a deeply disturbing experience to be sexually harassed. Yet somehow, a culture of silence has grown up, in which these women conceal their experiences of such offences. Why? There are, of course, many explanations. But there is one significant reason on which we are focussing today. Shame.
Shame is one of the most powerful emotions felt after sexual violation. The victim feels invaded and dirty; weakened by having been put in a position of helplessness by someone stronger – possibly by someone whom she previously trusted. Often, this sense of shame causes the victim to blame herself, mistakenly take responsibility for the crime, and want to hide away from others. And yet she has done nothing wrong.
I said that the challenges are immense. However, the forthcoming Festival gives us hope that they can be overcome. There are, I believe, two important steps we can take as we aim to create the world free from violence against women that Jude has pointed us towards.
Firstly, we have Shameless. Together, today, let us resolve to support survivors to be “shameless” and not to take on misplaced feelings of stigma. Through speaking up about our experiences, we break the wall of silence that allows perpetrators to go unpunished; and increases the feeling of isolation that so many survivors describe.
Secondly, we need to get the men in our lives involved in this movement. We do not, in any way, hold all men responsible for sexual violence. But we do need them all on board to tackle it. After all, rapists are not born, they are constructed. And it takes an entire community – male and female – to dismantle the lies, words and actions that foster a culture in which sexual assault is seen as normal, and in which it shames the victim. So let us all leave here today and try and get the men in our lives to participate in building a “shameless” society.
Because how many more women must be harassed, raped or murdered before we truly unite to forge a violence-free world?