Women Just Want To Feel Safe

Earlier in the year I was canvassing in my ward and a man said to me that he thought I campaigned too much on minority issues like ‘women’s stuff.’  I’m not even sure where to begin with the many aspects of that statement that are concerning.  Providing a voice for those less often heard was why I got into this.  I watched with horror at the news when Grenfell Tower was burning.  Those poor people were not listened to by those in power, and it was at that moment I knew I wanted to get more involved in my local community, providing a voice to those that need it. 

To imply that you can campaign too much on an issue also troubled me.  Until the issue has been rectified, you cannot campaign too much.  Maybe he was concerned that campaigning would take me away from focusing on other things, like chasing up on missed bin collections, or vegetation cutting or any of the other concerns I get contacted about frequently.  But it doesn’t.  I work hard for my residents on an array of issues, as well as finding positive ways forward, and I campaign on a wide range of issues alongside that. 

What really irked me is the way he dismissed the concerns women have as a minority issue and that it didn’t require attention. 

I was contacted early in the year by a resident who wrote “I’m a mum of two daughters (young adults).  I’m really shocked at the amount of cat calling and intimidation girls and young women are experiencing in the area.  It seems to have got worse.” 

Hands up if you’re a woman and you’ve experienced cat calling, lewd comments, inappropriate comments about your appearance etc?  I think I was 13 years old the first time it happened to me.  Since then, I’ve lost count of the number of times it’s happened, the number of times I’ve had comments made about my appearance that have made my skin crawl.  I’ve also had far worse (which will be articulated further down in this blog).  And I’m not alone in these experiences. 

The trouble is society normalises the behaviour, so no one batts an eye lid.  Women are seen as objects that can be jeered at, touched for pleasure, and worse.  And the response is that women need to change their behaviours to avoid it.  How is that right?!  Why is it that women are told that the way they dressed was what was wrong?  Er no, self-control on the part of the man/men in question is what’s required. 

I wrote a briefing paper for my Lib Dem group about some suggested courses of action that we could ask the council to take on this matter.  We had a long discussion, and this culminated in my colleague, David Hare, presenting a motion at full council last Thursday.  The motion reads as follows:

White Ribbon UK is a leading charity engaging with men and boys to end violence against women and girls. Their mission is for all men to fulfil the White Ribbon Promise to never commit, excuse or remain silent about male violence against women and girls.

It is not enough for men to not be violent towards women and girls. Men need to take responsibility for helping to make change happen. All men can help prevent physical, mental or emotional violence against women and girls by speaking out whenever they encounter such behaviour. If men do not act to correct this, women and girls will continue not feeling safe to do many of the thing’s men do without thinking, making us a morally corrupt and emotional poor society, as we trivialise the sickness that is any type of violence against women and girls.

Wokingham Borough Council resolves to:

  • Seek White Ribbon Accreditation for the Organisation within the next 6 months and encourage all male councillors to take the White Ribbon pledge, never to take part in, condone or stay silent about violence against women.  As part of this Wokingham Borough Council will appoint a male Councillor as an Ambassador for White Ribbon.
  • Promote the Our Streets Now campaign to make street harassment of women a crime; ask the Chief Executive to write to the Home Secretary to ask them to make street harassment a specific crime; ask the Chief Executive to write to the four MPs who cover the Borough, as well as the Police and Crime Commissioner, to ask them to show their support for this campaign by signing the petition and by lobbying ministers to make street harassment a specific crime and encourage elected members and residents to sign the petition.
  • Ask schools, academies and colleges in the Borough to each develop a clear policy on tackling physical, mental, emotional or spiritual harassment of female pupils or staff, separate to their bullying policy and ask them to include education to prevent public sexual harassment, as part of their PSHE education.

What I am still struggling to come to terms with is the ruling group would not support the motion.  An amendment was circulated which had a male councillor’s name on it, but a female councillor presented it.  The amendment was designed to kick this into the long grass, referring it to some committee to ensure there was no duplication of existing work, and lots of claims in the speeches that there was lots already happening to tackle the issue we’re trying to solve.  They could not unreservedly support action. 

Rachel Burgess (Labour) gave a really impassioned speech.  Both this and all speeches can be found online via this link.  This is the speech I gave:

I echo what Rachel just said there.  This is like the previous amendment: procrastination, no commitment and in the intervening period, more women and girls are going to suffer as a result of this. 

Almost every woman at this meeting tonight, will have survived some form of sexual harassment or assault.  For some of us, it will have been on multiple occasions.  It is such a widespread, daily occurrence that it is rare to find a woman who hasn’t experienced some kind of sexual harassment or assault. 

We are not saying that men don’t get attacked.  What we’re saying is that women and girls are disproportionately the victims of violence because they are women and girls.  I should be able to go out in an evening and not have my drink spiked; I should be able walk through town and not have to hide in a shop until the stalker stops stalking me; I should be able to go away on a business trip and not have my boss try and rape me.  Those are 3 real things that have happened to me. 

Violence towards women and girls stems from the misogynistic culture that is prevalent in our society which has been normalised.  Men who kill women do not suddenly kill women, they work up to it.  There is a direct correlation between the normalised objectification of women and girls, and the harassment and violence we are subjected to.  We too easily as a society brush off the catcalling, the lewd gestures, the inappropriate comments about how we look, the sexist jokes.  We have normalised this, and it must stop now, not once it’s gone to some talking shop. 

I am really pleased that the council is developing bystander and allyship training.  This is a positive step forward.  But it barely scratches the surface of what needs to be done.  The council have adopted an equalities plan, which doesn’t mention women or girls in it even once.  The 3 priorities focus on:

  1. Listening to and learning from our communities
  2. Acting on our commitments
  3. Building a diverse and engaged workforce, where everyone is respected

We are asking you to listen and learn, to act on your commitments, to engage as you’ve promised and set an example as Cllr Halsall said we would.  Please act now on these promises. 

We’re asking that you raise awareness and lobby government to make street harassment a specific crime – you can vote for that tonight; that you work with schools to set up specific policies and education in PSHE specifically on this – you can vote for that tonight; and that this council seeks white ribbon accreditation which goes far beyond what this council is already doing. 

If you genuinely care about ending violence against women and girls, voting against the amendment and for the original motion allows this local authority to be a proactive role model.  As you decide which way you’re going to vote, think about your female colleagues, your mothers, your wives, your sisters, your daughters, your granddaughters.  Vote against this amendment and for the original motion for them.  And I just want to say that I’m so angry at you.  Really angry!

I want to provide some more context as to why I was so angry.  The female councillor who presented the amendment has been jeered at in the council chamber by some of the male councillors in a previous meeting.  The ex-leader of the council, Charlotte Haitham-Taylor, referenced in her resignation speech when she was ousted by the old boy’s network, #metoo and was visibly distressed afterwards by the ordeal she had been through.  I have had officers tell me that they tell female officers when they first start, not to have meetings with certain men on their own.  I personally have experienced very inappropriate behaviour towards myself: inappropriate comments about how I look; late night phone calls trying to intimidate me; I was even told that I was voted in for my appearance only.  When I raised some of the actions internally, I was simply told, “well it’s your word against his.” 

Misogyny is rife and there is no action being taken to tackle it.  We presented a model of how it could be tackled internally, and how this could be used as an example out in the community, so we start to see societal change.  As my colleague Stephen Conway so eloquently put it, whenever the ruling group present a motion, we will try to find reasons to support it (doesn’t mean we always do, but we often do).  However, when we or Labour present motions, they either amend or vote against it.  We regularly hear from the Conservatives how much they want cross party working, but in practice, there isn’t much reciprocity.  And the result of this is decisions are made that are not in the best interest of those we represent. 

So we have a council that has a problem with the way women are treated, a motion being presented to tackle the root causes, an amendment to that motion written by a man, given to a woman to present that ultimately denies there is a problem.  A lot of people are quite rightly angry about this.  This coming Thursday (25th November) is White Ribbon Day.  It’s a national day to raise awareness of the issue.  There is also a meeting of the Council’s Executive that day starting at 7pm in the council chamber.  A group of us from all walks of life are going down from 6pm to demonstrate outside the council offices and to lobby the Executive members to reconsider and make a commitment to ending male violence against women.  I hope those reading can join us.

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