Assembly – Violence Against Women

On the 15th September at 5.13am, my life changed forever. After a relatively short labour (my words, not my wife’s), Amelia Beatrice Crombie arrived in the world, a little bruised and beaten, but very well in herself. She was on the small side, but, like her father, possessed an enormous head. We had spent months preparing for this moment, attending courses, talking to friends who had recently had babies, but nothing could have fully prepared us for that moment. To go from two people who had no real responsibilities in the world other than our jobs, and ourselves, to suddenly being the sole care givers over this tiny, helpless human being who was entirely reliant on us. The weight of responsibility was huge and, like most new parents, we had no real clue what we were doing (and still don’t), but every day is a learning curve. Most of my clothes are covered in milk-based vomit (which for those of you who remember my last assembly will attest, is up there with my worst nightmare), newborn babies do not sleep nearly as much as all the baby books promise, and I firmly believe that changing a nappy could be an A Level subject. 

At nearly ten weeks now, Amelia is really developing a personality – she is trying to communicate with us, she has started to smile when she sees us, and her head continues to grow at an extraordinary rate. I find myself looking at her wanting her to stay a baby forever, and yet imagining the kind of young woman she will grow up to be. This is really exciting when I think about all of the incredible female role models in her life already. But I equally find myself wondering what type of world will exist by the time she sits in a seat like yours, aged 13, aged 15, aged 18. This is something that terrifies me. When I was your age, I was blissfully naive, or unwillingly ignorant about the challenges that all women face in this world, challenges that I simply cannot understand on account of the fact that the world is a somewhat different place for people who look and sound like me. This is not meant to be patronising, or condescending, it is unfortunately a truth. I don’t give a second’s thought to going for a run in the evening; I don’t worry that I will get wolf-whistled or cat-called  if I walk past a group of people or followed home when I get off the train; I don’t have to worry about what my career will look like when I return after the birth of a child. My daughter is lucky, in many ways: she was born in the UK, in a liberal society where women’s rights are recognised and widely talked about. She will have access to an education, she will be able to drive, she will be able to vote freely without pressure. And yet, here in the UK, the statistics tell me that she will still face persecution and discrimination, simply on account of her gender.

From the United Nations Website:

Five years ago, the #MeToo movement, founded by activist Tarana Burke in 2006, exploded and sparked global mobilization creating a moment of urgency in preventing and responding to violence against women and girls.

Since then, unprecedented awareness and momentum have been created thanks to the relentless work of grassroots activists, women’s human rights defenders and survivor advocates worldwide to prevent and eliminate violence against women and girls.

At the same time, there has been a rise in anti-rights movements, including anti-feminist groups, resulting in shrinking space for civil society, a backlash against women’s rights organizations and a rise in attacks against women human rights defenders and activists.

The United Nations believes that supporting and investing in strong, autonomous women’s rights organizations and feminist movements is key to ending violence against women and girls.

On the 25th November, under the banner of the word ‘Unite’, the United Nations is championing ‘End Violence against Women & Girls.’

According to the UN, ‘violence against women and girls is one of the most widespread, persistent and devastating human rights violations in our world today and yet it remains largely unreported due to the impunity, silence, stigma and shame surrounding it’.

They state that: ‘The adverse psychological, sexual and reproductive health consequences of violence against women and girls affect women at all stages of their life. For example, early-set educational disadvantages not only represent the primary obstacle to universal schooling and the right to education for girls; down the line they are also to blame for restricting access to higher education and even translate into limited opportunities for women in the labour market.’

While gender-based violence can happen to anyone, anywhere, some women and girls are particularly vulnerable – for instance, young girls and older women, women who identify as lesbian, bisexual, transgender or intersex, migrants and refugees, indigenous women and ethnic minorities, or women and girls living with HIV and disabilities, and those living through humanitarian crises.

‘Violence against women continues to be an obstacle to achieving equality, development, peace, as well as to the fulfillment of women and girls’ human rights.’ 

When Sarah Everard was murdered on 3rd March 2021, it sparked vigils, mass movements and social media trends: websites such as ‘Everyone’s Invited’ offered opportunities for people to tell their stories, protected by anonymity, that highlighted for the first real time in my life time, the very real feelings and threat that women and members of other communities feel on account of male behaviour.. But this is not the first time this has happened nor has it been the last. In 1977, women in Leeds took to the streets to protest the police’s decision to impose a curfew on women to stay at home after dark in response to the murders of 13 women – a decision that targeted female behaviour as if they were the problem (creating, as Margaret Atwood labels in her novel ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ – a culture of ‘freedom from’, but removing all ‘freedom to’). If social media had existed in the 1970s, the phrase ‘reclaim the night’ would have trended, as women up and down the country took to the streets to protest restrictions placed upon them, rather than any action looking to target male behaviour. In 2021, the phrase #NotallMen trended – a slogan that significantly missed the point. Yes, not all men act violently or in an intimidating manner, but, as the retaliating trend stated: #allwomen experience it. The voices of women are powerful.

As I speak, England are playing football against Iran, a country that has hit the headlines again on account of police brutality directed towards women. On 16th September, Mahsa Amini was arrested for failing to wear her hijab ‘correctly’. According to authorities, she passed away in police custody after collapsing, but reports have since surfaced that officers beat her with a baton and banged her head against a vehicle. Thousands have bravely taken to the streets to protest the end of violence against women, and the increase of women’s choice. Devastatingly, many more deaths have been reported as police have clashed with protesters, but there seems to be growing belief amongst the people of Iran that change is afoot. The voices of women are powerful. 

In this room, it is the voices of young people that  are powerful. We know this. This is a room of educated people, of powerful activists across the gender spectrum, of voices who speak up for the voiceless, an international community of young people who can help to shape the world of the future. When I look around this room, it gives me hope – a hope for a safer future internationally;  a hope for a society where all men join the voices of women in campaigning for a world free of violence; a world where girls around the world are born with the same opportunities that Amelia has, regardless of their country of birth. Institutions such as the United Nations have a lot of power to influence governments, but it is the individual conversations and interactions that happen in playgrounds, in classrooms, in boarding houses, at universities, in the workplace, on the streets, in homes, that change a culture. Make sure your voice, whatever your gender, is heard. Speak up and speak out. In the words of one brave protester on the streets of Iran: ‘It is not about me, it is about the next generation’. You have the power to shape the next generation. Use that power responsibly. Thank you.

Director of Sixth Form, Nick Crombie