The British South Asian Youth Summit had a virtual meeting recently, hosted by Labour Party MP Virendra Sharma, to bring together activists spanning nine countries to draw attention to the increasing threat of violence against women. UK Senior Policy Advisor Cecilia Jastrzembska, one of the speakers at the event, encapsulates the key outcomes and the road ahead.
The pandemic has had an incalculable effect on the world, and not an equal one. Contrary to right-wing rhetoric, we were never in the same boat to begin with. The onset of Covid-19 has meant an unmistakable widening of the chasm of inequality, with more and more cracks spreading along the faultlines of pre-existing gaps. For one, women have been on the frontline of the pandemic, representing 70 per cent of the health workforce globally, and are far more likely to lose jobs than men.
As data emerged proving the intensification of all types of violence against women during Covid-19, the United Nations dubbed the disproportionately gendered and often fatal impact on women the “Shadow Pandemic”.
On 5 December 2020, activists spanning nine countries across the globe convened at the second-ever British South Asian Youth Summit, hosted virtually by Virendra Sharma MP. The summit fell within the United Nation’s 16 days of activism for Ending Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) and made the campaign its central theme. Female representatives from the UK, India, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Maldives, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka spoke alongside Baroness Verma, Chair of UN Women, member of the House of Lords and former Minister for Tackling VAWG Overseas. Collectively, they exchanged information on the latest statistics on different forms of violence from their countries and discussed policy recommendations to mitigate the growing international threat to women.
“I am the biggest advocate for mitigating climate change, because the biggest impact will be on the poorest and the poorest among them will be women and girls,” said Baroness Verma.
As the UK delegate and Vice Chair of the Young Fabians (progressive political thinktank) National Executive Committee, I set out a simple acronym for women and allies to follow when tackling these issues – LIVES. When we Listen to, Inquire about what they need, Validate the experience of, Enhance the safety of and Support women as a global community, we can save lives.
L: Listen to survivors and collectively speak out. Women are constantly told, both subliminally and directly that the onus of responsibility is among them to take precautionary measures to prevent assault; such as covering up, buying rape alarms, and avoiding intoxication. In order to rewrite this toxic narrative and dissolve the climate of impunity for perpetrators, public awareness campaigns need to focus on changing the goalposts. The onus of responsibility needs to be squarely on men and boys not only not to do harm, but to be allies. Instead of victim blaming, we need to listen to survivors’ accounts, and believe them. And the more we speak out when targeted, the more women are protected from harm.
I: Inquire. We need to inquire about what survivors need and respond appropriately, not stigmatise the occurrence of abuse. Due to a lack of female representation and institutionalised misogyny, judicial systems are often not fit for purpose, with questions such as “well why didn’t you close your legs?’ asked of rape victims frequently making headlines. We also need to challenge tendencies such as reductively questioning ‘well why didn’t she leave him?’ when seeing the culmination of abusive cycles in murder, given that 70% of women killed are killed in the year post-separation from their partners.
E: Enhance their safety. The No Woman Turned Away project for example, supports women who encounter barriers when trying to access refuge space. In 2019, 19.4 per cent of the women supported by this initiative had NRPF, (No Recourse to Public Funds) because of immigration statuses, meaning that without this project, they would have been homeless or been forced to return to their abusers. This needs to be completely overhauled. A woman being abused is a woman being abused, and should be offered aid regardless of what it says on a piece of paper.
S: Support victims meaningfully: In the UK for example, we have an emergency funding pot for refugees from the Ministry of Housing, but it is not enough. Specialist services in the UK are operating on short term, insecure and inadequate resources. The result of this is a network of stop-gap services where women are receiving no long term care, and consequently end up in the same cycles of abuse. We need committed, consistent, ring-fenced funding delivered by specialist organisations for survivors which is commensurate with the threat level we face. The black and white of it is, without more capital investment, more women die.
Complicity and misrepresentation
Finally, we need to challenge media complicity and misrepresentative reporting. For example, UK headlines in the first lockdown read ‘Covid-19 murders’ describing femicide. Yet Covid-19 did not kill these women. Their male partners did. These descriptions construct damaging narratives which blur causes and suggest that the virus is to blame, rather than it simply being a catalyst which magnified pre-existing behaviours. We are targeted because we are women, not because there is a pandemic, or how much we drank, or how we dressed.
When we consciously replace narratives which impede accountability for perpetrators and use affirmative action to drive gender parity in Parliamentary representation, less lives will need saving in the first place.
The delegations agreed to form virtual policy working groups corresponding to their geopolitical spheres, as well as to run larger, overarching events with international women’s charities to inform country-specific policy options. The next is on the February 6th.
by Cecilia Jastrzembska