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Evelyn Akoto – Cabinet Member for Health and Wellbeing: ‘We must make real changes for women’s safety

I recently attended a meeting to discuss the endemic issue of violence against women and girls. However, my first thought wasn’t on what questions would be asked of me, but knowing that it would be my first in-person evening meeting for some time.

I started to work out how I would travel home from the office by myself. I didn’t notice it at first, but I spent a long time thinking about the best route to travel home late at night.

I am sure that most women reading this may recognise this internal safety manual we run through just to carry out simple daily activities like traveling around. Southwark’s recent women safety survey asked women in the borough what situations, if any, made them feel unsafe. Without a doubt, travelling alone at night, especially in dimly lit areas, was a top contender with bus stops and train stations also mentioned.

So, as part of our response we are going to work on improving our public spaces by looking at how we can make the five hotspot areas identified by female residents, safer. We have also recently launched the Safe Spaces initiative, providing places in the borough as safe havens for women to seek help and discreetly make a call if they are in danger or experiencing abuse or harassment.

The high profile murders of sisters Nicole Smallman, and Bibaa Henry in June 2020 and more recently Sarah Everard in March 2021 brought the issue of violence against women and girls again into sharp focus. However, this is not a new phenomenon; all around the world women continue to be murdered, raped, or physically and psychologically controlled by men on a daily basis.

One in three women globally will come to some form of harm at the hands of a man. An investigation by UN Women UK found that 97% of women aged 18-24 have been sexually harassed, with a further 96% not reporting those situations because of the belief that it would not change anything.

This problem is so pervasive that it cannot be called anything other than a global public health crisis of epic proportion. Yet, as women we continue to ‘manage’ the situation the best we can, and like a rite of passage carefully passing on the safety manual down to our daughters.

25th November 2021 will mark the international day for the elimination of violence against women and girls and will kick-start the 16 days of activism. For me however, this global campaign serves as a reminder that we have not fought hard enough to eliminate gendered base violence.

Women have struggled for equality and against oppression for centuries, but so often solutions continue to focus on the actions that women must take to protect themselves, and away from the perpetrators.

Male violence is not the responsibility of women to fix.

If we are going to have a chance to stop violence against women and girls, men must engage; they must play their part in helping to end this blight. Men must begin examining and challenging attitudes and behaviours – everyday sexism and misogyny that permeate our everyday discourse.

Our ‘Empowering Communities’ conference on 6th December will focus on tackling male violence against women. We will also run a separate men only workshop during the 16 days of action focusing on misogyny, attitudes and behaviours.

Human rights are universal. Women and girls have a right to be safe and we must use all our voices to demand it.

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