When I was growing up I was often told to be careful not to get myself attacked by men. The list of things to be careful about included, but was not limited to: not talking to strange men, not wearing short skirts, not drinking too much, not walking home on my own. I'm 46 now and Labour MP Chris Williamson just added another to my list: don't sit in train carriages with men.
I'd like to think that Williamson decided to liven up the dog days of August with this debate so that he could then unveil Labour's new strategy for ending violence against women and girls by recognising the structural inequalities that cause it, and dismantling them. Unfortunately the horrified reactions from excellent women MPs in his own party suggest he just really thinks it's a good idea to cordon women off like this. So we must engage, and explain why it's really a terrible, terrible idea.
Telling women to sit in female-only carriages excuses violence by men. It places the responsibility for avoiding violence on women. It fails to make men responsible for their actions. It casts violence against women on trains as a thing that happens on trains, and requires a train-specific response. It makes male violence small, and nothing to do with men.
Williamson says we need this action now because of the urgency of the statistics: figures from the BBC last month showed that 1,448 sexual offences on UK trains were reported in 2016-2017, up from 650 in 2012-2013.
Let's have a look at some other statistics, and our response to them. A report by the Women and Equalities Commission showed that a third of girls between 16 and 18 had experienced unwanted sexual touching. This demands concerted political action and serious media analysis. Instead too often the response is to police girls' school uniforms and warn them it's their fault if their short skirts provoke male classmates. A report by the Ministry of Justice, Office for National Statistics and the Home Office showed that 85,000 women are raped in England and Wales every year. The standard response? To police women's clothing and behaviour and warn them it's their fault if anything they wear or do provokes men. A report by the Home Office shows that domestic abuse will affect one in four women in their lifetime. Yet the government has cut services supporting survivors of domestic violence, allowing the development of an alternative rationale: it's women's fault for not leaving abusive partners.
So you can see why Chris has responded the way he has to the latest statistics on violence on trains: there is a long-established pattern here across politics and media. Look only at the problem, look only at women and whatever you do don't raise your head and look at the vast wide landscape around us where an epidemic of violence against women is playing out.
We have to do better. The Women's Equality Party formed because it's taking too long to stop this. And the longer it takes to stop this, the more normalised it becomes. Today's suggestion is that women sit alone on trains. It's not a stretch of the imagination to wonder how long before someone seriously suggests that women shouldn't go out at all.
The only way to stop violence against women on trains is to stop violence against women. The way to stop violence against women is to stop making this a women's issue. We have to hold men accountable for their actions. We have to build a society based on tolerance, respect and consent in which men and women have equal choices.
We have to teach young girls and boys that they are equal, instead of feeding them ludicrous, gendered stereotypes that fuel another generation of power imbalance. We have to create an equal education system that halts the occupational segregation of young men and women into jobs that we rate and remunerate differently. We have to see care as vital infrastructure and value those who provide it. We have to set standards by which women are equally represented in politics and in business. We have to train juries and magistrates and police forces in unconscious bias. We have to have mandatory, funded, quality sex and relationships education for all.
No, there is no silver bullet. But that doesn't mean this is impossible. It is entirely possible. It's a matter of political will.Suggest a correction