International Women’s Day – more important than ever

By Matilda McMorrow, Librarian

Warning: The following extract contains sensitive information on sexual assault, attack and rape.

Following the killing of Sarah Everard and subsequent events last week, I want to highlight the importance of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month as part of the conversation.

We have an epidemic of femicide in this country. As pointed out in parliament by Jess Phillips MP, in the week after Sarah Everard was first reported missing, a further six women and a little girl were reported as being killed at the hands of men. As Phillips said: “It’s not particularly rare and it’s a fear that women live with. It’s an everyday thing.”

A man kills a woman every three days in this country. This figure increased during the first lockdown.*

The idea that women need to do the work to fix their fear of this has been emphasised in the police and press response to the recent murder of Sarah Everard. We are reminded not to walk the streets alone, not to go out after dark, to be cautious, to be afraid, to obey rules. We mould ourselves to work around the whims of men who might decide to hurt us. We are made to believe that men being dangerous is both an inevitability – the risk will always be there – and also somehow a strange outlier. We’re told the dangerous ones are ‘weirdos’, not like the normal men you know. It’s not normal men’s fault that there are dangerous ones around.

This danger is not inevitable. Men can choose not to be attackers, they can be taught to make better choices, they can intervene when other men display dangerous attitudes. The prevailing attitudes of men’s entitlement to women’s bodies can be counteracted in society. Even prosecuting more men who attack women, so there are consequences for their actions, would be a start.

And the men who attack women are not ‘weirdos’, a separate other group. They are the people we know. In 87% of cases where women are killed by men, they know their attacker (Office for National Statistics, 2020).  In 70% of cases, it happens in the woman’s own home.

Violence against women is frequently in the form of sexual assault or rape. In 2017, the latest year for which figures are available, the Office for National Statistics estimated that 3.4m women had been victims of sexual assault in their lives. That’s about 54 times the number of men. This included one million who had been raped, or had faced attempted rape. The justice system is failing women on this front. The cases of women being raped by men that get to court are actually decreasing year on year (CPS, 2020). Less than 3% of the rapes reported to the police are prosecuted. The majority of men in positions of power are doing little to improve this. In fact, they often perpetuate the damaging attitudes that lead to attacks.  Our own Prime Minister has been consistently quoted throughout his career objectifying and dehumanising women.

We need International Women’s Day for the reason it was created in 1910: to press for our demands. A whole day dedicated to international discussion of women’s rights, and active campaigning for those rights, which are still being withheld in this country as well as globally. On International Women’s Day in 1914, Sylvia Pankhurst was arrested in front of Charing Cross station on her way to speak about women’s right to vote in Trafalgar Square. Only a couple of days after International Women’s Day 2021, a group of COVID-masked and distanced women on Clapham Common, who were mourning the dead and speaking about violence against women, were attacked by police. Many were arrested on no legal basis.

When we are reminded of the enormity of the task in front of us, that is when we need to be reminded of our power for change. Women’s achievements are all the more impressive for the crimes against our sex committed daily, in our own homes.

Of course we want to celebrate women’s achievements every single day, but on International Women’s Day and during Women’s History Month let’s make it tenfold. We are reminded of the fight that lies ahead, so let’s be reminded we have the power to win. 
* If you’re wondering, it is in stark contrast to the numbers of men that women kill. Women don’t tend to kill anyone. 9/10 killers are men (Femicide Census 2021).