This is my final column before the current parliamentary session ends and campaigning starts in earnest ahead of the election on 6th May. My intention had been to share some reflections on the last five years as Orkney’s MSP before making the case for why the next session of parliament must put the recovery first as we rebuild from the pandemic and deal with the climate emergency.
The brutal murder of Sarah Everard and its aftermath, however, demand otherwise. Her apparent abduction as she walked home across Clapham Common is the stuff of nightmares, made all the more gut-wrenching by the fact that a serving police officer is charged with this most heinous of crimes.
These horrific events must also be seen in the context of growing anxiety and anger about the harassment, intimidation and much worse that women and girls routinely face on a daily basis. Indeed, a survey published last week to coincide with International Women’s Day suggested sexual harassment in some form is the lived experience of almost every young woman in the UK.
That is profoundly disturbing and demands of all of us some honest self-reflection. It certainly makes a powerful argument that there are no bystanders in this and that men and boys need to be ‘active allies’ in efforts to address behaviour from the inappropriate to the threatening, abusive and potentially dangerous.
Meantime, recent events have added impetus and urgency to demands for a move away from public safety messages that urge women and girls to modify their behaviour. However well-intentioned this advice might be, it implicitly excuses the behaviour of those who feel at liberty to harass and intimidate and instead blames victims. That is no way to trigger the change we need to see.
Unfortunately, protests planned at the weekend in memory of Ms Everard and to drive home the message that streets and public spaces should be safe for women, day or night, came into conflict with ongoing restrictions on public gatherings due to Covid. It’s not clear why an accommodation could not be reached between organisers and the police, but images on Saturday evening of officers handcuffing women protesters are ones that have further damaged a force already reeling from the identity of Ms Everard’s murderer. An urgent review into events at the weekend is underway, but police already appear to be taking a more ‘hands off’ approach to subsequent vigils.
There is, though, a wider debate about protections that are needed, not just in public spaces but in the home as well. The uncomfortable truth is that while horrific murders by a stranger capture public attention, the far greater risk to women and girls invariably comes from those they know, including family members. Reported incidents of domestic abuse are truly frightening and almost certainly understate the true extent of the problem.
In response, both the UK and Scottish Parliaments are in the process of adopting new domestic abuse legislation. For Holyrood, this is the second such bill in as many years, following earlier steps to combat coercive and controlling behaviour.
Yet there are calls to go further in tackling behaviour borne of a hatred of women. There is now a strong groundswell of support, again at a UK and Scottish level, for a standalone offence of misogynistic harassment. In Scotland, responsibility for coming forward with recommendations on such an offence now falls to a working group, chaired by Dame Helena Kennedy. She has committed to completing this task within the next year, which will be challenging but is all the more important in light of recent events.
Clearly, we need a cultural shift in attitudes that sees all of us being more challenging and less accepting of the behaviour women and girls have been expected to tolerate. This is not an issue that can be resolved with the wave of a legislative wand.
Hopefully, however, the work of Dame Helena and her colleagues will allow MSPs to pick up the baton early in the next session of parliament. I hope, after the election on 6th May, I am in a position as Orkney’s MSP to play a part in those efforts.