I got a nice International Women’s Day surprise when I woke this morning to the news that Nick Clegg had announced in a speech in the Hague last night that:
“On the eve of International Women’s Day, I’d like to express the UK’s support for the principles in the Council of Europe’s Convention on Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence. A landmark agreement aimed at lifting the standards of protection for women across Europe. We are getting ourselves in a position to sign later this year”
This is undeniably, unequivocally good news.
I have blogged previously on our campaign to get the government to sign up to the Council of Europe Istanbul Convention on ending violence against women. Our petition, backed by End Violence Against Women, Forward, Asylum Aid, We Will Speak Out, and Rights of Women, calls on the government to join the 18 other member states* which have committed to take a stand on violence against women and girls.
Would it be churlish to point out that it would be better news if they actually signed it, rather than just committed to signing it? Or to point out, as Baroness Scotland put it, that “I praise God they have finally signed it, but I’m shocked they didn’t sign immediately [in 2011].”? The answer is probably “yes” so I will refrain from churlishness.
I will however point out that this commitment is all the more important given the context of cuts to women’s VAWG services, cuts to legal aid, and cuts to various housing and social benefits that offer a lifeline to many women living in refuges and rebuilding their lives after escaping a violent relationship.
Sylvia Walby’s excellent report on the impact of the cuts on VAWG services makes for sobering reading. It reports that 230 women were turned away by Women’s Aid on a typical day in 2011 due to lack of space, that specialist BME services are being forced to close, the number of Independent Domestic Violence Advisers (IDVA) has been reduced, and that statutory provision, including those police and court services that involve specialised expertise, has also faced cuts.
The interim findings of Vera Baird QC’s Commission into how cuts are impacting on women’s safety were published yesterday and paint a gloomy picture of street lights being turned out, police numbers cut, refuges closing their doors, transport staff cut, legal aid cuts, housing and social benefits cut, and women fleeing domestic violence being advised to sleep on park benches or to seek a bed in A&E.
Next week will see TUC Women’s Conference which will include this year a panel discussion entitled Everywoman Safe Everywhere (the name of the Vera Baird Commission) with Vera Baird QC, Professor Sylvia Walby, Holly Dustin of End Violence Against Women, and Carolyn Jones of the Institute of Employment Rights. The panel will discuss with delegates the impact of cuts, austerity, and attacks on employment rights on women’s safety and access to justice.
The UK is seen as a world leader in tackling violence against women and girls – that was one of the ironies of the government procrastinating over the signing of the Istanbul Convention. Signing up to the Convention will be a positive step forward but the Government must commit to fund, promote, support and safeguard the VAWG sector if the act of signing is to be anything more than a symbolic gesture.