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What’s equal about a woman paying her rapist’s childcare costs?

Dr Charlotte Proudman

Even in 2022, women are not equal. “Equality” is cited frequently when speaking about men and women and access to the same opportunities and rights in our society. But the reality is that despite the advances we have made, women remain an oppressed class. 

You might think this language is dramatic. Let me tell you, as a barrister I see cases day in, day out in court, where I represent vulnerable, marginalised women as well as wealthy, powerful women, and they all have one thing in common: they are victims of domestic abuse. I represent women who have suffered FGM, forced marriage, child marriage, rape, and violence in the home. I am constantly staggered by the atrocities that men can commit against women. 

Gender-based violence is very real. But don’t just take my word for it, look at the statistics – and remember that behind every statistic is a woman or girl with a story. 

In our country, a staggering 85,000 women experience rape or sexual assault each year, a woman is killed by a man every three days and a shocking 97% of young women are sexually harassed. In many ways, male violence against women and girls has become so normalised that we no longer notice. It is woven into the fabric of our society and our lives, moulded into our language and reaffirmed by the gender inequality that is encased in the law. 

That’s where I come in. I want you to support my new organisation: WomenNOW! I have partnered with the Good Law Project, a brilliant and groundbreaking organisation founded by Jo Maugham QC. Unlike any other organisation or campaign group, the GLP has challenged our government, held them to account and, in doing so, reaffirmed our democracy. 

They’ve achieved this by using the law strategically to bring about change – and that is what I’m interested in. WomenNOW! challenges the archaic, sexist policies and laws that women are still subject to in the twenty-first century. If you think our laws work for all women and reflect the abuse we suffer, you’re mistaken. They don’t. 

In over a decade of campaigning to change the law, we’ve had some success. Forced marriage is now a crime and the law changed recently to protect victims of FGM; the government has also committed to outlawing virginity testing. FGM is a highly abusive act that leaves women and girls with lifelong consequences and I’ve seen first-hand how these changes to the law have resulted in hundreds of girls being safeguarded. But it’s clear the law needs to change with far greater urgency. 

Changes currently being championed by WomenNOW! include criminalising the sharing of private (not necessarily sexual) photographs of women online for a man’s gratification or to shame them. We are also fighting against rapists having automatic right to contact with their children, the sharing of women’s refuge addresses in family law proceedings, and the annulment of marriage on the grounds of non-consummation.

We’re campaigning because there’s still no register for domestic abuse perpetrators and “sex for rent” exploitation of women tenants by landlords is still not a crime. The list goes on. 

We are lobbying Government to change the law because the impact of changing laws is that societal norms and values change. Women gain access to legal redress through the courts and the law acts as a deterrent to perpetrators. Our laws reflect the kind of society we want to live in – an equal one. Critically, changes in the law bring issues about gender inequality to the forefront of public attention; lessons are learned.

For example, I successfully represented Kate Griffiths MP in the recent family law case. Her ex-husband, Andrew Griffiths, the disgraced former MP caught in a sexting scandal, had applied to the court for child contact and she argued he was a risk to their child.

The family court found he had raped his wife in her sleep, physically and verbally abused her and coercively controlled her; the court also found he had been verbally abusive to their eight-week-old child. Despite this, the court ordered that Kate, a rape victim, should subsidise her rapist’s costs of supervised contact with their child, even though he was the one posing a risk. 

I argued that a rape victim should never financially subsidise her rapist’s costs. The High Court agreed, indicating that there would be a strong presumption in future against a rape victim financially supporting her rapist.  

Strategic cases like this have the potential to bring about significant change that benefits countless future victims. America is already ahead of the game, with groups such as the ALCU bringing strategic litigation to challenge discriminatory laws, such as regulating or outlawing abortion, and women’s pay inequality.

Rights of Women and Centre for Women’s Justice also work effectively in bringing legal challenges on behalf of vulnerable women. It is time for the UK to commit to organised and collective action in which challenges are brought under the law.

While the law can bring about powerful change, the media has a vital role in communicating its achievements, especially to a younger audience. Instagram and TikTok are important news and information platforms for younger feminists.

WomenNOW! will focus on strong outreach on social media, engaging the younger generation in feminism and equality, raising awareness of important campaigns, and encouraging solidarity from male feminist allies. 

If you believe in equality you will understand we need to use all the power in our armoury: this includes the law and our courts. You can support us by making a donation to WomenNOW! through the Good Law Project donation page.

Dr Charlotte Proudman is an award-winning family law barrister. As a Fellow at Queens’ College, Cambridge, she lectures on gender inequality under the law, and FGM. Her book “Female Genital Mutilation: When Culture and Law Clash” has just been published by OUP. She was instrumental in drafting amendments to the Domestic Abuse Bill, introducing FGM Protection Orders and criminalising forced marriage. She is a legal advisor to Our Streets Now, a campaign to criminalise sexual harassment and Girls Not Brides UK which aims to criminalise child marriage

 

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