Violence Against Women: Open Letter to the First Minister

Friday March 19th, 2021

Dear First Minister Mark Drakeford MS,

On Saturday 13th of March, women across Wales came together to mourn the loss of two of our own. We did so knowing that the violence experienced by Sarah Everard and Wenjing Lin could have happened to any one of us. We strongly condemn the response of the Metropolitan Police, and urge the Welsh Government to renew its efforts to protect women, challenge patriarchal and racial structures of oppression, and champion both cisgender and transgender women throughout Wales.

The tragedies of recent days and weeks should not be considered ‘one-offs’. Evidence shows that around two women are killed every week, usually at the hands of their male partners. 1 in 12 victims of femicide are killed by strangers. Moreover, 97% of women between the ages of 18 – 24 have experienced sexual harassment, with 80% having experienced such abuse in a public setting. We say this not to cause alarm – but rather to highlight the urgent need to address the often hidden instances of sexual and physical abuse within our society. We also wish to draw attention to a recent survey report conducted by Welsh Women’s Aid which reveals 81% of women in Wales have suffered sexual harassment at work on at least one occasion. Without immediate and systemic change, women continue to be at risk.

Such risks have increased in light of the Coronavirus pandemic. Figures from the ONS show an increased number of domestic abuse-related offences occurring under lockdown conditions. Women, particularly those from low socio-economic backgrounds, have been found to have disproportionately carried the financial burden of lockdown. We still do not know the extent of COVID-19’s impact on women. However with the easing of restrictions on the horizon, the Welsh Government must do all in its power to attempt to reverse the damage caused to women as a result of COVID-19 – particularly those who are disabled, Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME), or of low income.

We welcome the Deputy Minister, Jane Hutt MS’s supplementary Legislative Consent Motion in support of the proposed changes to the Domestic Abuse Bill (2019-2021), as well as Welsh Government’s commitment to a fair standard of support for survivors under the Istanbul Convention, which the UK government has yet to ratify despite it being opened for signature in 2011. We also welcome the Welsh Government’s recent commitment to approaching Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) from a public health perspective – an approach which is in line with Welsh Women’s Aid’s Blueprint on Prevention. VAWG is not inevitable and the Welsh Government must do all in its power to guarantee the safety of women.

Having consulted WEN members, we believe the Welsh Government’s focus should be on: societal changes; educational changes; and legislative changes.

In the spirit of the women who gathered on Clapham Common and those who lit candles in their homes for Wenjing Lin and Sarah Everard, we call on the Welsh Government and the Senedd to consider the ways in which they can prevent and end gender-based violence and create a society in which women are not only safe, but empowered.

Societal Changes

A multi-faceted approach is needed if we are to outlaw sexism and gender-based violence in Wales and the focus must be on prevention. The Senedd must make use of the levers at its disposal as a body that ‘represents the interests of Wales and its people’ to encourage this societal change.

Over the past week we have seen countless women bravely come forward with their stories. Some responses in the media have reminded us just how much work still needs to be done. Victim-blaming remains common-place, with voices continuing to challenge women on what they had done to incite their abuse. This contributes to society’s continued shaming of women for actions which, if undertaken by men, would not be considered a point of contention. Only 19% of Welsh women report workplace harassment. 33% of victims do not have faith that their report would be taken seriously or believed by their colleagues. This must change. The Welsh Government must do all in its power to address this imbalance, in particular the way in which shame and blame are transferred from the perpetrator to the victim.

As you know, in 2003 the Welsh Assembly became the first legislature to have an equal number of men and women enter the chamber. Fast-forward to 2021, and we are yet to see a woman of colour become a member of the Senedd. Having a greater number of women in leadership roles will not, in and of itself, solve the issue of sexism within Welsh society. However, we urge the Welsh Government to support the aims of our Diverse 5050 coalition campaign which would result in a greater diversity of women standing and getting elected to the Senedd and local government.

The last few weeks have evidenced once again that organisations across the UK suffer from institutionalised forms of prejudice and discrimination. It is only through proactive initiatives and efforts to enable women to thrive in the workplace, that we will begin to see the changes desperately needed in our legislature, government, and judiciary, as well as in our workplaces and schools. Evidence from Canada shows that the greater the number of women in decision-making positions, the ‘healthier’ the population, with fewer deaths and greater investment in health and education. Dismantling patriarchal structures in this way benefits all members of society and will help contribute to the cultural shift needed to finally put an end to violence against women.

Educational Changes

Educational settings pose an important opportunity to tackle the age-old narrative that ‘boys will be boys’. For too long, men have evaded responsibility for the harm and abuse they inflict upon women. Issues such as domestic, sexual, and physical abuse are often discussed as ‘women’s issues’. This is a distortion of the truth – these are men’s issues which impact upon women. Working with women’s organisations, the Welsh Government must reshape this account and centre the focus instead on men and boys and how they can best go about changing their behaviour.

In school settings, it is crucial that boys are alerted to the existence of misogyny and the structural barriers facing women in society. Evidence shows that normalisation of sexual harassment between young people starts in primary school. The Welsh Government is in a position to have direct influence over the way in which relationships and sex are discussed in school. It is crucial that Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) adopts a more holistic understanding of the complexity of relationships in 21st century Wales. This means understanding different forms of sexual manipulation, harassment, and assault as well as the role of technology in young people’s lives. ‘Safety’ within RSE should also take into account issues of consent, abuse, and mental wellbeing. An integral part of this is understanding sexual coercion, toxic masculinity, conditional consent, and the institutional inequalities and power-dynamics facing women in society today. All men bear the responsibility to call out misogyny and sexist behaviour, and education and bystander-training pose the opportunity to give them the tools to do so. Such training should be made available across society, and should not be confined simply to students. We welcome the Curriculum and Assessment Bill’s commitment to making the RSE curriculum available to over-16s upon request.

Every hour, six women across the globe are killed by men – usually by their partners or family members. That’s 137 women, every single day. These are likely to be gross underestimates. We know that at least six women are suspected to have been killed by male violence in Wales in the last year. We believe that VAWG, in its many forms, should be incorporated into the RSE curriculum, and we welcome its inclusion in the Senedd’s Curriculum Bill. We also welcome the Welsh Government’s commitment to creating an RSE code and statutory guidance. We hope such guidance will focus on the prevention of gender-based violence through recognising and addressing harmful social norms and stereotypes which perpetuate and normalise gender inequality and discrimination. Through open discussion of VAWG, domestic abuse, coercive control, and practices such as female genital mutilation (FGM), it is possible to give all members of society the tools to identify and prevent abusive behaviour.

Legislative Change

The Senedd can be at the heart of the campaign to limit VAWG and push for gender equality. We are pleased to see Westminster’s drive to encourage Police to record misogyny towards any woman as a hate crime. This response, however, would be strengthened by a preventative approach to VAWG.

Moreover, instances of rape have increased dramatically since 2012-2013 when there were around 18,400 reported cases. By 2019-2020 that figure had increased to 62,200. However, 2019-2020 saw only 2,102 prosecutions and 1,439 convictions for rape in England and Wales. According to Welsh Women’s Aid, by the end of 2019/2020 251 survivors of sexual violence remained on waiting lists for support. During the same period, 574 survivors were unable to access support in refuges because of a lack of service space. The Welsh Government, alongside representatives in Westminster, must work together to immediately address the startling disparity between reports of and convictions for rape and to address the evident gaps in support for survivors.

Moreover, it is apparent that the real number of instances of sexual assault and rape taking place in the UK far exceed those published by the media. The same can be said of instances of FGM and other forms of abuse. The Welsh Government must work alongside charities, community leaders, interest groups, and law enforcement to ensure that women feel empowered and safe to tell their stories. This means playing a role in repairing the damage caused to the relationship between women and the police in light of the Clapham Common Vigil and other instances of institutional misogyny within the police force. It is vital that women feel able to come forward knowing that those in positions of authority, whether they are police officers, politicians, or members of the judiciary, have been given comprehensive training on VAWG. Women’s safety in this regard, must be a priority.

We urge you to consider and implement the recommendations in this letter in the full knowledge that a safer Wales for women is a safer Wales for all. We need urgent and committed action across Welsh Government on delivering the Gender Equality Review recommendations. We would also like to see a dedicated sub-group of the Strengthening and Human Rights Steering group to take this forward so that pace and momentum is not lost.

We look forward to your reply and, in the meantime, please do let us know if we at WEN Wales can be of further assistance.

Yours Sincerely,

Catherine Fookes, Director, WEN Wales
Cerys Furlong, CEO, Chwarae Teg
Sara Kirkpatrick, Chief Executive, Welsh Women’s Aid
Shavanah Taj, General Secretary Wales TUC
Rocio Cifuentes, Chief Executive, EYST Wales
Leila Usmani, Founder, BeDiverse
Patience Bentu, Community Engagement Officer, Race Council Cymru
Davinia-Louise Green, Director for Cymru, Stonewall
Rachel Cable, Head of Oxfam Cymru
Sophie Howe, Future Generations Commissioner for Wales
Zoe King, Acting Joint CEO, Diverse Cymru
Joy Kent, Chair, Cynon Taf Community Housing Group
Frances Beecher, CEO, Llamau
Rhian Davies, Chief Executive, Disability Wales
Heidi Lewis, President Soroptimist International Wales South
Rachel Minto, Chair, Cardiff Women’s Aid
Dr Sally Rees, Chair, Fair Treatment for the Women of Wales
Eleri Evans, Chair, Wales Assembly of Women
Alicja Zalesinska, Director, Tai Pawb
Shahien Taj OBE, Director, Henna Foundation
Noreen Blanluet, Director, Co-production Network for Wales
Michelle Whelan, Chief Executive, Calan DVS
Julie Beck, Deputy Chief Executive Officer, Safer Merthyr Tydfil.
Lynne Sanders, Chief Executive, Swansea Women’s Aid
Jane Stephens, General Manager, Montgomeryshire Family Crisis Centre
Vikki Cornish, Communications secretary, Wales Assembly of Women
Professor EJ Renold, Cardiff University
Tania Silva, Trustees, WEN Wales
Sabiha Azad, Community Engagement Officer, Welsh Women’s Aid
Lowri Walters, Lawyer, Trustee WEN Wales
Dr Alison Parken, Research and Policy Consultant
Bex Kentfield, Ask Me Project Coordinator, Welsh Women’s Aid
Rachel Ashworth, Professor of Public Services Management and Dean of Cardiff Business School
Dr Sarah Jenkins, Cardiff University
Sarah Lethbridge, Director of Executive Education and External Relations, Cardiff Business School
Professor Sin Yi Cheung, Professor of Sociology, Cardiff University
Dr Sara MacBride-Stewart, Reader in Health Medicine and Society, Cardiff University
Dr Katy Greenland, Cardiff University
Megan Thomas, Policy and Research Officer, Disability Wales
Bobbie Sheldrake Programme Action Co-ordinator Soroptimist International, Wales South Region.