12 February 2018
By Jacqui Hunt, European Director for Equality Now

While at the 2018 London Women’s March rally a journalist asked me whether participants were there in solidarity or because they were angry.  I hesitated a moment before answering. 

There is a lot to be incensed about. Society is way overdue in calling #TimesUp on inequality and violence against women and girls, and it is both incomprehensible and unconscionable that governments, businesses and institutions have still not taken all necessary steps to effectively address these issues.

However, some of the commentary in recent months on male sexual violence has generated a lot of heat but not much light, and I feel wary of using the word “anger” in case it is used as a weapon to propagate the longstanding sexist stereotype of a ranting woman who can be disregarded or told to ‘calm down, dear’.

Want I want to articulate is the growing awareness, determination and focus so clearly displayed by the many thousands of people attending Women’s Marches around the world. We are demanding urgent change.  We are justified, purposeful and will not go away.

Violence stems from and perpetuates inequality.  Humanity has to address these linked issues holistically and with commitment.  In countries across the globe, this means building more inclusive societies where women and girls are awarded the same respect, opportunities, access to justice and general treatment as their male counterparts. 

Our vision for the future must address male violence against women and girls.  The Femicide Census and the persistent focus by Rape Crisis on how to improve access to justice and services for survivors of sexual violence provide concrete recommendations that should be discussed and acted on. 

Funding for specialist services, including for black, minority, ethnic women and women with disabilities must be secured.  Who, for example, is paying attention to the needs of a woman with disabilities requiring special care who is desperately seeking escape from a violent relationship? 

Change is required in all areas of life to ensure each individual can realise their full potential free from violence, threat and discrimination.  This should be led from the top and cascade down through all our institutions. 

And we need leadership that doesn’t just focus on what’s in plain sight.  When women feel too ashamed of their bodies to go for a cervical smear examination despite knowing it could save them from a life threatening disease, surely everyone must realise a great deal must be done to improve things.

It’s important to acknowledge that some progress has already been achieved in various countries to promote equal representation across institutions, remove the gender pay gap and address other obstacles to women’s progression and leadership. 

To build on this, a gender impact assessment should be carried out by every country on all laws, policies and transactions.  Let’s examine what works and what can be done better.

Good examples include the review by Women’s Rights and International Trade MEPs of the European Union, focused on strengthening women’s rights in trade agreements; or the work by the Women’s Budget Group, which scrutinises UK government policy from a gender perspective. 

That banks are engaged in developing new protocols to support those escaping financial abuse and other forms of coercive control gives a small indication of how broadly we should cast the net for action. And what can governments learn from Sweden, which has the most generous parental leave policy of any country in the world and a tax regime that is designed to make it easier for women to enter the workplace.

Sweden’s Minister for Gender Equality, Åsa Regnér, explained in a speech at the UN: “In the creation of the Swedish welfare state, gender equality has been a major factor in many reforms, and particularly important in the labour market.”

“Access to affordable child care services and a more equal division of parental leave have been essential for women's and men's participation in the labour market. So have individual taxation and sexual and reproductive rights, including abortion rights. All these reforms have had an important impact on women's earnings, well-being and bargaining power in the household.”

For those who place value on financial rather than human cost, a 2015 study from the McKinsey Global Institute suggests $12 trillion could be added to global GDP by 2025 by advancing women’s equality. 

In the UK, the government must carefully study the recently released Sex Discrimination Law Review by the Fawcett Society and act on it to ensure that during the Brexit process the UK does not lose women’s rights currently enshrined in EU law and capitalise on this moment as an opportunity to enhance gender rights.

The Fawcett Society report also notes that women are sorely underrepresented in the Brexit process.  The same is true of parliaments around the world, and of leadership positions in the judiciary, law enforcement and business among others. 

As Equality Now pointed out in its study, The World’s Shame: How Laws Around the World are Failing to Protect Women and Girls from Sexual Violence, the lack of female representation at a global level means that bodies such as legislatures, the police and courts are not benefiting from the different life experiences of at least half their populations (and that doesn’t take into account additional intersectional discrimination).  A negative impact of this is that institutions of power hold views of the world and their own societies that are inevitably myopic and gender biased.

In short, around the globe men are generally the ones making and implementing laws and policies, including those relating to sexual violence, while it is women and girls who predominately suffer the consequences, not just of sexual abuse, but also of bad regulations and failing justice. 

The groundswell over the past year of calls for profound change include the heart-warming addition of many new voices, incorporating both women and men, girls and boys, from all walks of life.

#ListenToWomen encompasses all women, regardless of ethnicity, age, financial position, sexuality, physicality, refugee status or any other aspect of self that affects our identity and how we each interact with the world.  We must never lose sight of how discrimination can affect us all in multiple ways depending on where we sit.  And everyone must have a seat at the table to have their voice heard.

None of this should be news to those in positions of power.  Women’s rights organisations across the world, usually operating on a shoe-string budget, have been raising these issues for decades, proposing solutions and offering collaboration.  All governments must heed the message, follow through on their promises and turn words into reality.

Much of the thinking has been done, the time for action is now! 


Jacqui Hunt is European Director for international women’s rights organisation Equality Now. She is a prominent campaigner for women and girls rights and has spearheaded several of Equality Now’s successful campaigns, including for creation of a United Nations Working Group to focus on ending discrimination against women in law and in practice. Prior to joining Equality Now, Jacqui practised law at Linklaters and for a development finance institution which invests in building businesses and creating jobs in some of the world's poorest countries. She started her professional career with Amnesty International, working in campaigning and research at the United Nations and other projects. Visit the Equality Now website here.