Commentary and opinion on national and regional politics by Seema Malhotra

Friday, 13 March 2009

Let a Million Women Rise

(This post was also posted on LabourList this week)

A shocking news story this morning about the murder of Katie Summers, stabbed to death last year in a frenzied attack by her ex-partner is a stark reminder of the risk to their lives that many women, often unsuspecting, come to face in their own homes. The IPCC are launching an investigation into the police handling of Katie’s murder. Just 24 years old and with two young children, she had called them in the days leading up to her death, following multiple incidents of domestic violence.

It is also an important reminder about the relevance and symbolism of International Women’s Day. I spent Saturday marching with 6,000 other women, on the Million Women Rise march through the heart of London. The aim was to make a simple statement: it is time to end violence against women.

I hadn’t had any particular expectations of the day, but by the end of the march, I became convinced that those I had walked with were some of the bravest women in Britain. Many not just victims, but now fighters for change. One woman I talked to had been a rape victim. She said that violence against women needed not just a political response, but a change in social attitudes – a much greater awareness of its prevalence and of its impact. A second was a woman who as a child had witnessed violence at home – and grew up thinking it was normal. She wanted to stop children also being the hidden victims of domestic violence. A third recounted the sexual attack on her by a stranger when young; now much older, of course she coped but the trauma left her unable to walk in woods for ten years, and in many ways the crime still lived with her every day.
We can become quite immune to some of the numbers. Up to 600,000 incidents of domestic violence reported each year in the UK. Around 5% of rape claims ending in conviction. Two people a week murdered, just like Katie, by their partner or ex-partner. But the Million Women Rise march was not just about British women, and the violence that so many face behind closed doors. Gender has a relevance across class and across countries.

The march was also to remind us about how violence is used against women as a weapon of war, and how Britain, and British women, can offer support to women victims in other nations. And the feedback from the international speakers was a huge reminder of how significant such solidarity can be.

The march organisers (all volunteers) have a simple aim – that the march grows each year, and as it does so, awareness grows of violence against women, and what needs to be done about it. They hope that soon One Million Women will be marching together – as a statement of support for the victims of the on average 1500-2000 known incidents every day in the UK, and the millions more across the world. As Sabrina, the founder, said to me “There are 30 million women in the UK – why can’t we get one million to join us?”

One big takeaway from the march, particularly in the new Age of Obama, the king of grassroots connection, was the absence of politicians with the exception of Margaret Moran MP. A stark reminder that politicians with hard power need to do much more to connect to passion power – as part of staying relevant to people and the issues they campaign on. And in doing so, they will also learn a great deal.