This Girl Can

by Rebecca Hilsenrath

Published: 06 Mar 2015

There are advantages and disadvantages to having four sons. Disadvantages include the destruction of heirloom furniture, missing door handles, hand prints on the stairwell walls and living with decibel levels which cause visible alarm to the more timorous visitor. Advantages include not having anyone steal my clothes, learning more than I ever expected to about Premier League football and not worrying too much when my kids are out late at night.

This has changed somewhat in recent months with the arrival of my foster daughter, who likes running. And I have found myself saying no, she is not allowed to go running on her own after dark. It’s a healthy pastime and I know it helps her relax and it’s infinitely preferable to watching You Tube videos but – no, I said. Not after dark.

Last May, when I’d only been in role a few weeks, I gave evidence with colleagues to the Joint Committee on Human Rights on the subject of violence against women and girls. It’s very easy to overlook this age-old problem in modern Britain, especially if you are sitting, as I was, in the Palace of Westminster, in my new giving-evidence suit, still waking up with a smile every morning because I lead a lucky life and have a job I love. This doesn’t stop violence against women and girls being a pervasive problem which raises important issues under both the Human Rights Act and the Equality Act. 

The JCHR report on VAWG, published last month, encourages the Government to ratify the Istanbul Convention and work towards improved integration of policies across the country under an effective coordinating group in order to support the needs of particular groups of women. More effective data collection is also vital in order to effect change. The Commission endorses and welcomes the report and is proud to have contributed. A number of streams of activity across our programmes are relevant to this important area. They include work to address bullying in schools – including the emergence of insidious and dangerous cyber-bullying, a major initiative to improve the engagement of women and girls in sport and also an important new project on access to justice, which will focus on the impact of legal aid reforms on groups sharing protected characteristics, including women. We report on all of this as part of our international treaty-monitoring responsibilities. And at the other end of the spectrum, we have issued guidance on increasing the appointment of women to corporate boards, in the hope that empowering women and enabling role models will contribute to a more diverse national leadership and greater aspirations on the part of all our daughters.

Most recently, we have agreed to support a judicial review of Oxford University, which has declined to investigate a complaint of rape by a fellow student. The University's policy is only to investigate in exceptional circumstances in the absence of police action. And we have worked with a property company following an adverse ET judgement for a serious case of prolonged sexual harassment. We ensured that policies and procedures were updated and that in-house training on bullying and harassment was delivered to staff.

It’s very easy to count your blessings and reflect that women in the UK lead privileged lives. And that’s to an extent true, of course, and should not be forgotten or minimised by the fortunate, like me. But it occurred to me, reading the JCHR report, that this is partly because we compensate and conceal. We keep our daughters safe inside at night, because it’s a sensible way of dealing with the risk of violence. I’m not changing my mind about this, and my daughter will have to learn to run at other times. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t read the report and remember the reality and work towards a future where the streets are safe for everyone. And of course, society needs to address the respective causes of all violence, and we know that the statistics on violence against young men are also terrifying. 

Many years ago, I read a poem about the last victim of the Yorkshire Ripper. It is called 'Poem for Jacqueline Hill' and it haunted me because it dwelt on the point at which she hadn't yet got off the bus and yet her fate was set in motion, when she was 'alive, ordinary, admirable, easy to like, tired... about to die'. It then turns into something of a diatribe and loses me but it has a different answer for my foster-daughter:

Remember each night crossed without fear is a small victory.

This Girl Can.