February 6, 2018
Katharine Sacks-Jones – Director, Agenda
Exactly a century ago today, the Representation of the People Act went through Parliament, adding the voices of 8.5 million women to the political conversation. It was a watershed moment – and one that as 21st century women we will never take for granted.
One hundred years since (some) women first won the right to vote, there has undoubtedly been huge progress, but the dream of women having their say on equal terms has not yet been fully realised. Many women are still excluded from public debate and the most marginalised women still struggle to get their voices heard.
Many thousands are still not able to exercise their right to vote: women in prison face legal barriers, and women with particular disadvantages like homelessness and addiction face practical and social ones.
But more broadly advancements in gender equality haven’t been distributed to all women equally, and some are at a particular disadvantage.
Research for Agenda has shown that one in 20 women in England has experienced extensive physical and sexual violence as both a child and as an adult. These women often face very difficult lives. Many are deeply traumatised and go onto face multiple problems like very low self-esteem, poor mental and physical health and turning to drugs and alcohol as coping mechanisms.
Mainstream services do not cater to their particular needs, and without appropriate intervention, many face lifelong problems.
Their voices are often absent from conversations on women’s rights generally and indeed on issues that affect their own lives. We need to listen to this group of women, recognising their whole lives and the breadth of support they need. Importantly, we need to raise their voices and make others listen to them too – so that they are not consigned to a life of poverty and abuse.
And 2018 presents a number of important opportunities to deliver real change for this group of women, including in Parliament.
This year the landmark Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill will be a chance for Government to address the long term impact of violence against women and girls. This would have been unimaginable in 1918 – marital rape would not be outlawed until 1994, and legislation on domestic violence would be equally slow.
In the years before 1918, imprisonment of suffragettes saw the female prison population rise to its highest proportion than at any time since. One hundred years on, there are still too many women in prison, many of whom are extremely vulnerable and should be receiving appropriate community support rather than jail time. But this year, the Female Offenders’ Strategy presents a once in a generation opportunity to halt the tide of women ending up in prison.
And today, despite vast improvements since the Edwardian era, when women were commonly diagnosed with ‘hysteria’, women with mental health conditions are still not receiving the support they need: that’s why the Department of Health and Social Care has set up the Women’s Mental Health Taskforce, which I co-chair with Health Minister Jackie Doyle-Price, to tackle signs of a growing crisis in women’s and girls’ mental health.
It took almost a century of campaigning for women’s right to vote to be delivered. Another century later, we stand on the shoulders of those women as we push for equality for all women including the many who still struggle to be heard. We must never be complacent.
This is about enabling all women to vote at the ballot box, but also about ensuring women’s voices are heard across all sectors of society and government.
Because if we don’t listen to women, it will be at least another 100 years before we break the cycle of poverty, abuse and disadvantage in women’s lives.