Combatting rape, assault and harassment of women

Notes from the front of 9-11-2017

Combatting rape, assault and harassment of women

The case of Harvey Weinstein – who stands accused of rape, assault and harassment of dozens of women in Hollywood over decades – has blown the lid off the rampant level of sexual violence and harassment against women, including in British society. The case has provided the opportunity for women to shine a light on this crisis and provoke a big discussion on how to combat it.

The #MeToo social media campaign which took off following the Weinstein allegations coming to light, saw 1.7 million posts on Twitter from 85 different countries between 15 – 24 October of women sharing experiences of sexual violence and harassment. This campaign has given some indication of the magnitude of the problem.

Rape, assault and harassment of women are all serious problems in British society today. Approximately 85,000 women and 12,000 men are raped in England and Wales along every year – overwhelmingly the perpetrators are men. In addition nearly half a million adults are sexually assaulted in England and Wales each year.

Yet rape is not taken sufficiently seriously by the criminal justice system. For example the conviction rates for rape are far lower than other crimes, with only 5.7 per cent of reported rape cases ending in a conviction for the perpetrator. Support from the police is lacking and the services and support such as rape crisis centres which exist for women are being significantly cut back as part of the austerity offensive.

A recent poll from ComRes revealed that 53 per cent of women say they have been subjected to some form of harassment – including inappropriate banter, unwanted sexual advances or sexual assault whilst at work or whilst studying. In 30 per cent of cases it is a boss or senior manager who committed the act of harassment.

A report from the TUC in 2016 on sexual harassment in the workplace revealed similar findings. 52 per cent of all women polled had experienced some form of sexual harassment, one fifth had experienced unwanted sexual advances and four out of five women did not report the sexual harassment to their employer. The issue is more widespread among women aged 18-24 years old – with 63 per cent of this age group saying they have experienced sexual harassment at work.

Women also experience sexual harassment in public spaces. A YouGov poll commissioned by End Violence Against Women Coalition in March 2016 found that 64 per cent of women of all ages have experienced unwanted sexual harassment in public places. For young people, aged 18-24 years old, 85 per cent had faced sexual harassment in public spaces whilst 45 per cent had experienced unwanted sexual touching. 63 per cent of women said they generally feel unsafe in public spaces and almost half do conscious “safety planning” when going out in evenings.

In the wake of the Weinstein scandal some of the sexual violence and harassment within the British political establishment has been revealed. For example, a dossier released by a group of Westminster parliamentary researchers detailed 40 Conservative MPs, including several cabinet ministers, accused of making unwanted sexual advances or behaving inappropriately towards colleagues and junior staff. These revelations have intensified the crisis in the Tory Party. The Defence Secretary Michael Fallon has had to stand down and other MPs are being investigated.

Instances of similar behaviours have also been reported in the Labour Party. A couple of MPs are currently suspended and a Welsh minister was suspended amid claims of sexual misconduct and since has been found dead.

The main political fights taking place, within the Tories – for and against a hard Brexit- and within Labour – for and against the Corbyn leadership, are playing a role in the framing of these scandals.

However, what is clear is that when women have reported being assaulted or harassed to senior members of their own party, usually no serious action is taken and even criminal behaviour, including rape, is being covered up. An absolute minimum change must be that such reports are properly investigated, by the police if appropriate, with action taken against the perpetrators.

Tackling this issue in wider society beyond Parliament should also be a priority. There should be more resources within the police and criminal justice system to combat criminal acts of rape, sexual assault and harassment. Cuts to women’s support services should be reversed. A seismic shift in society’s expectations of how women should be treated and how men should behave is also required – a starting point could be a huge public awareness campaign including in primary and secondary schools, as well as employers working with trade unions to implement action plans in the workplace to discourage sexual harassment including the recommendations outlined by the TUC.