Harriet Harman

Member of Parliament for Camberwell and Peckham. Mother of the House of Commons.

Speech to Women's Institute

Harriet Harman MP Speech to NFWI Conference on International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women

Mary Sumner House

25th November 2008


I'm delighted to be able to speak to you today at your conference and to engage in discussion with you on the question of violence against women on White Ribbon day.

I'd like to pay tribute to the NFWI for putting the spotlight on violence against women.

There's three things I'd like to say at the outset
Firstly, that we all know from our common sense that the overwhelming majority of rape and domestic violence victims are women and the overwhelming majority of perpetrators are men.
Secondly, that it has stayed too much in the shadows, been too swept under the carpet, because of women feeling stigmatised and ashamed of disclosing that they've been raped or that they've been beaten up at home and because in the past the criminal justice system did not give it the priority that it justified.
Thirdly, that it's not just right in principle that we have stepped up our efforts to protect women from violence and stop men getting away with it, it's also the case that when we do step up our action we make a big difference. It is not "just one of those things" - it is not something that we just have to live with, that we can't do anything about.

It is and remains a big problem.  But it is a problem where - thanks to changing public attitudes, women's greater independence, new laws and tough action by the police, prosecutors and courts -  we are seeing signs of serious progress after 11 years of determined action to tackle violence against women. 
I never want to spend too long taking satisfaction in our progress because there is still so much more to be done, so many more wrongs to right and so much suffering still to end.  But it's right to recognise the improvements that are being made because it challenges the myths that progress is impossible.  It is not, and the figures tell us so. It is an encouragement to do even more. 

More rapists are being caught and prosecuted.  In 1997, 517 rapists were convicted. The latest figures (for 2006) show that 754 men were convicted of rape. This is an increase in rape convictions of 45.84%. This did not happen by itself.  It is because of the commitment of women in government to make tackling rape a priority in the criminal justice system. 

We toughened and clarified the law with the 2003 Sexual Offences Act.  We have overhauled the support for victims of rape with new Sexual Assault Referral Centres.  When victims of sexual assault go to the SARC in my constituency of Camberwell, the Haven, they are looked after by an expert team who will treat their cuts and bruises (or worse), provide emergency contraception, test for sexually transmitted infection and keep forensic samples for use if there is a trial later. 

The DNA database - which I strongly support - has helped convict rapists, sometimes many years after the crime.  Rape victims can now give evidence from behind a screen, or by video link to lessen the terror of facing a rapist in court.  All rape cases are now handled by senior and highly trained specialist rape prosecutors. 

And I pay tribute to those prosecutors who have led the way bringing cases to court when in years gone by they would have just dropped them.  Specialist squads of police now mean that there is a much better response when a woman reports rape.  Operation Sapphire in the Metropolitan Police is a great example and we are determined that all forces should live up to the standards of the best.

I also pay tribute to the work of the organisations that support victims, including Rape Crisis Centres, which provide the specialist support and counselling often needed to help victims step forward. In March we announced an emergency fund of £1 million to enable Rape Crisis Centres to stay open. Last week we announced the final round of funding which has helped twenty centres continue their important work.

But it has been more than just changing the law, better support for victims, improving police investigation, and the court processes.  Tackling rape means constantly having to challenge the view that "When a woman says no she might mean Yes".  It means asserting that wearing skimpy clothes and getting drunk does not mean that a woman is "asking for it".  And it means recognising that whilst rape by a stranger is a terrifying ordeal, being stalked and raped by an ex-husband or former boyfriend can be just as devastating.  

We know that many women feel so terrorised and traumatised by rape that they can't face reporting it to the police. We want and expect to see the numbers of reported rapes rising. Increased reporting shows the criminal justice system winning women's confidence and means more criminals can be brought to justice. There's progress on domestic violence too.  

We just need to remember here, that we're not talking about a shouting match in the kitchen, we're talking about criminal violence.  This is assault, GBH, kidnapping, malicious wounding, and homicide. It is of women being injured and their children living in terror.  It is a tale of serious injuries, hospital admission and of death.

In 2003, only 46% of domestic violence cases brought to court resulted in a conviction. Now that's 72.5% (April 2008). And between 1997 and 2007/08 there has been a 58% fall in the number of domestic violence incidents. That is the figure from the British crime survey which counts not what is reported to the police but what women themselves say about what has happened to them. Fewer crimes of domestic violence and more convictions is the trend we want to see continue. 

Again, that did not happen by itself....

It came from new laws, including the Domestic Violence Crime and Victims Act, more support for Women's Aid and Refuge, specialist Domestic Violence Courts, improved police handling of cases and work by specialist Domestic Violence Prosecutors who press on with a case even when the offender has pressurised the victim to "withdraw" the complaint. 

But here again, we have to continually challenge reactionary attitudes, that domestic violence is a private matter between husband and wife and we shouldn't intervene, or that she must have brought it on herself. 

But there's still a mountain to climb to end violence in the home. And there are still too many men who blame their victim in domestic violence with assertions that his violence was not his fault but hers, and was caused by her misbehaviour towards him.  

Much has been done to tackle this culture of excuses, including by the Sentencing Guidelines Council.  You cannot escape a charge of GBH, or reduce your sentence, by saying it was because your wife was having an affair. 

But, paradoxically, it is still the case that if you commit the most serious offence and kill your wife, you can avoid a murder charge by saying that she provoked you.  This is the provocation defence which reduces the charge from murder to manslaughter. 

Infamously in Barrister chambers, it is often called the "nagging and shagging" defence.

When I was Solicitor General, the Government Minister responsible for prosecutions, I met families of domestic homicide victims and had to explain to them why the intentional killing of their daughter or sister would not result in a murder charge.  They could never accept it - and why should they?

When wife killers got just a few years in prison having pleaded the provocation defence, as Solicitor General I referred the cases to the Court of Appeal to increase the sentence but was told that if we wanted change, we would have to change the law.  So that is what we are going to do. 

The Senior Law Lord, Lord Phillips, has said he confesses to feeling "uneasy" that a wife's infidelity will no longer be a defence to her murder. But changing the law reflects our belief that whatever happens in a relationship domestic violence should never be excused.  Women should not have to be subjected to it and men will not be able to get away with it.

As we get on with tackling centuries old problems, new problems emerge.  Look at the adverts in your local newspaper.  They advertise women for sale for sex. Many are young women from Eastern Europe, from Africa or SE Asia, tricked and trafficked into this country and forced into prostitution. 

We've stepped up action on this and we will now take the radical step of changing the law so that as well as prosecuting the pimps and traffickers we will prosecute the "punters", the men who pay for sex with exploited women.  We'll never stop this evil trade unless we tackle the "demand" side.    It might be called the "oldest profession in the world" but it's not a profession, it's the modern day version of the slave trade.

I hope that members of the NFWI will help protect women from being brought here from abroad and being forced into the sex trade.  You can do this by looking at your local newspapers and seeing whether in the classified ads, amongst the skip hire and the lost pets, you see ads for women for sale.

Things like:

NEW THAI GIRLS - choice of 2 available, satisfaction always
BRAZILIAN GIRLS - £60 full service
FINCHLEY MAXIMUM HIGH MASSAGE - Different young international ladies daily. 7 days. In/out calls. All services available

The newspaper society, which represents local papers, has at our request toughened up their guidance.  But these ads are still there. 

So when you see them can you think about writing to the editor and complaining.  Local papers are important and should not be used to adverstise this sleaze, exploitation and human misery.

 And let the NFWI, and us, know what the editor says.

We are also giving greater protection from the proliferation of sleazy "lap dancing" clubs, allowing local communities and local council's greater powers to prevent them opening.   

And I've strengthened the Women's National Commission, not only by giving it more money but by a swathe of new appointments of radical pioneering women, including Bea Cambell, Mary Ann Stephenson and Juliet Lyons.

In the new year, Jacqui Smith [the Home Secretary] will be launching a consultation on violence against women and women's safety. We are proud of our achievements, but we're not complacent - which is why we want to ask people about what more we should be doing to tackle these crimes. And the research being launched here today will play its part - giving us a clearer picture of what is happening in local communities across the country.

So I will pause only for a second to celebrate the progress we have made over the last 10 years and to pay tribute to those in the police, the CPS, the courts, Refuge, and Women's Aid who battled to tackle violence against women long before it was made a government priority.

Our progress tells us that while we have not ended the suffering caused by violence against women, we can make change and bury forever the myth that domestic violence and rape are things you just can't do anything about.

Members of the NFWI have a great deal of experience and commitment.  I value the advice and support we get from the trustees and staff in the WI head office but I'd like to ask you to consider how each of you can help by thinking about stepping forward to be a local councillor or a member of your local NHS trust board.

Women often rule themselves out from these things before we have even started, so before you say ‘it's not for me' I would encourage you to think again. Having more women involved in public life is key to getting the right outcomes on issues - like violence against women - that matter to women.


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