Authors:Sue James
Last updated:2023-09-18
Editorial: In the legal arena, and elsewhere, true equality for women remains elusive
Louise Heath
Description: Supporting International Women's Day 2023
As we prepare to celebrate International Women’s Day on 8 March, it feels like much still needs to change for women to have real equality in our society. One of the Legal Action articles that still ranks among those with the most hits on LAG’s website covered domestic abuse and housing in 2021. Highlighting the prevalence of domestic abuse, the latest artwork from Banksy, ‘Valentine’s Day Mascara’, shows what looks like a 1950s housewife, wearing yellow rubber gloves and a pinny, with a swollen eye and a missing tooth. She appears to be shutting a man in a freezer – his legs and feet just visible. The freezer, which had been dumped in front of the wall, was removed by the council and then returned – twice, apparently, the second time to preserve the freezer that is now to be exhibited along with the artwork in Dreamland, Margate.
LAG’s inaugural NHS Charging Conference on 3 March, in partnership with Maternity Action, will focus on the disproportionate and discriminatory impact that NHS charges have on migrant women. As Ros Bragg and Christine Benson write in this month’s magazine (pages 12–13), one of the lesser-known elements of the hostile environment is the policy of charging women with insecure immigration status for their NHS maternity care. While there are exemptions for the protection of the most vulnerable groups, their implementation is poor as NHS trusts don’t have the systems to identify the women and the women often don’t know that such exemptions exist. This can have a long-term impact on those women, not just financially, but because the Immigration Rules were changed in March 2022 to add additional barriers to settlement where there are outstanding debts.
As I write, the importance for women of proper data-keeping has been shown by research by Cheryl Thomas KC (Hon), professor of judicial studies at UCL, published in the Criminal Law Review. She analysed rape and sexual offences charges and pleas in the Crown Court from 2007–21 and found that, despite the myth that juries have low rates of conviction for rape, in fact ‘the jury conviction rate for all sexual offences has steadily increased, with a jury conviction rate of 58 per cent in 2007 increasing to 75 per cent in 2021’ (page 25). As Professor Thomas states, the truth about what decisions juries reach on rape charges and other sexual offences provides important information for complainants:
It’s clear that there are serious problems with how rape complaints are handled by police and how long cases take to reach court. But juries are not responsible for this. They can only decide the cases put to them, and this research shows that if rape complainants can put their evidence to a jury, they have a good likelihood of securing a conviction.
The research has serious implications for women who may be reluctant to pursue a prosecution on the basis of a low conviction rate. The figures are depressing, though – 141,596 rape charges over a period of 15 years – and these are only charges that have been pursued through the Crown Court. As more needs to be done to address issues of violence against women, it was good to read that the government has announced that it will make violence against women and girls a Strategic Policing Requirement, meaning it will be set out as a national threat for forces to respond to, alongside other threats such as terrorism, serious organised crime and child sexual abuse.
One of the youngest world leaders, and the second female head of state to give birth in office, resigned and BBC News (World) asked: ‘Jacinda Ardern resigns: can women really have it all?’ A prime minister who showed dignity and compassion in politics felt like she hadn’t got ‘enough in the tank to do [the job] justice’. It was a strong and decisive move by Ardern and in stark contrast to the UK’s recent leader’s exit from office. The comment was a reductive, sexist headline, which was subsequently changed after a huge backlash, and I think pretty much shows that, in 2023, women do not have it all – but not because of their own abilities.