The deadline for registering to vote in the 2015 General Election is today (Monday 20 April). If you don't register, you cannot vote. Much has been made of the fact that 9million women didn't vote in 2010, and that more women than men are undecided about which party they will support: winning women's votes is a key objective for all the parties.
And everyone who has the right to vote also has the right to be empowered to do so.
But that's where there is a hidden problem - one which, in 2015, still means women's right to vote is restricted. Some women cannot vote because it is too dangerous for them to sign up to the electoral register: retaining anonymity when signing up to the Electoral Register is complicated - and, in some instances, impossible.
For some survivors of domestic violence, anonymity is a matter of life or death. Women could be hunted down by a perpetrator - with devastating consequences. On average, two women a week in England and Wales are killed at the hands of a partner or ex-partner. We know from 40 years of experience and from listening to survivors that many perpetrators will stop at nothing to gain and maintain power, control and fear over their victims.
In order to be assessed for anonymous registration, you must have evidence that you have experienced domestic violence, and/or an attestation (letter of support) from a 'qualifying officer'. The problem with these regulations - written in 2001 - is that, far from creating a gateway for women to exercise their right to vote, they in fact stop most women who want to register anonymously from doing so.
The evidence list is very narrow: it only contains evidence related to the criminal justice system, when we know most victims of domestic violence never report to the police. Even then, it does not include recent sanctions such as Domestic Violence Protection Orders and Domestic Violence Protection Notices. The 'qualifying officers' are a group of people any member of the public will find difficult to reach - people that a woman is extremely unlikely to have had any previous contact with.
In England, these are: a police officer of or above the rank of superintendent of any police force in the UK, the Director General of the Security Service (MI5) or the Serious Organised Crime Agency (now the National Crime Agency), or a director of adult social services or children's services in England.
These regulations are so strict that many women wanting to register anonymously can't - so they are effectively barred from participating in the democratic process.
Women's Aid recognised this problem and sent information before the registration deadline to all Heads of Public Protection in England asking them to be aware of their obligations to provide a letter of attestation to survivors engaged with domestic violence services. This helped ensure that women who are being supported in services can register to vote - but we'd be the first to acknowledge that it didn't help potentially thousands of women who want to register but can't, due to these frankly ridiculous regulations.
Domestic violence dehumanises and isolates women in myriad hidden ways - and in myriad ways, by failing to listen to women's needs, or believe them, public agencies collude in their abuse. Denying women their democratic right is one of them. Imagine having found the strength to break free from your abuser and rebuild your life yet still being unable to make your voice heard. You know first-hand what survivors need from domestic violence services, what policy and legislative changes would make a difference to you and you children - and you want to vote for the party and policies that you believe in. But if you do, he could find you. And so, you are silenced, again. And yet again, the system set up to protect you actually colludes with the perpetrator.
Women's Aid will work with the new administration to ensure these regulations are changed. By the next General Election, we want all survivors to have the genuine right to be heard.Suggest a correction