Like many women, I watched in horror as the right to a safe abortion was stripped away from Americans last week. My stomach churned at the red state politicians who were salivating over their so-called trigger laws, immediately banning abortion in all circumstances.
I’ve read about women being turned away at abortion clinics who were itching to shut their doors. I’ve seen people on social media offer American women refuge in safe states or foreign countries to help them get an abortion, using code words in a desperate attempt to avoid government surveillance. These encrypted messages make the “land of the free” feel like a dystopian novel, as women are being told to make their digital footprint smaller, to remove all period tracking data from the ether, to go back to pen and paper.
It’s easy to convince ourselves that something like this could never happen in Britain; we want to believe that our geographical distance equates to a political gulf as America winds back the clock on women’s rights. Yet the harrowing reality is that our government is on a mission to strip women of their freedoms as we speak, as it introduces its so-called Bill of Rights to parliament. Notably, the government has refused to add the right to an abortion to the new Bill.
The new bill looks to replace the current Human Rights Act, a cornerstone of our legal framework that gives women the right to live a life free from violence. It gives survivors legal aid and protections, and empowers them to hold the state and its institutions to account when they fail to protect them. The new bill threatens to weaken these rights, thus allowing the powers at be to evade scrutiny – silencing survivors who have been devastated by their failings in the process.
The Human Rights Act puts pressure on the police to thoroughly investigate cases of abuse, provide legal assistance to defendants and to protect vulnerable people who cannot advocate for themselves. These rights were exercised to legally challenge the Met’s unthinkable actions during Sarah Everard’s vigil, for example, and to shed light on the police’s failure to investigate the “black cab rapist” John Worboys.
They are also used when a police force fails to act on reports of violence before a woman is murdered by her partner, or if the state fails to offer safe accommodation for women and children fleeing abuse. Under the new bill, justice in these cases will become even more difficult to achieve.
If you are wondering just how often these failures happen, you’ve not been paying enough attention. While the government continues to push the epidemic that is domestic abuse to the back of the agenda, hundreds of women are being robbed of their lives, including names that will be imprinted in your memory: Sarah Everard, Biba Henry, Nicole Smallman, Sabina Nessaand now Zara Aleena, who was murdered on the streets of London on Sunday morning.
This, paired with an alarming amount of abusers working in the Met – including an officer from Wayne Couzen’s unit who was recently charged with 41 charges against women, 5 of which were rape – means that the force has now been put under special measures by a watchdog, owing to its chronic inability to protect the public. With the institution in peril, there couldn’t be a more dangerous time to strip victims – and the organizations that advocate for them – of their right to challenge the powers who abandon women facing violence.
It’s not just the Met, either. Abuse victims are neglected by authorities across the country, and all too often the warning signs are there. The cost is often fatal; women like Yasmin Chkaifi, a 43-year-old mother-of-two who was stabbed to death by her ex-husband de ella, had a restraining order against her perpetrator that he breached ahead of the attack. Yasmin had warned friends that she believed her former partner de ella was going to kill her, and her son de ella said that he was “always in touch with the police but they did nothing to help her.”
Or women like Jessie Laverack, who took her own life in 2018 to escape the serious abuse she was suffering at the hands of her perpetrator. This week, after four years of turmoil for her family from her, an inquiry found that every agency responsible for helping Jessie had failed her. She was considered to be high risk by authorities, owing to the persistent abuse she was suffering, but the police and domestic abuse worker downgraded this status in her most vulnerable moment, while living alone and under constant threat from her ex partner.
If women are facing this level of neglect while our human rights are still intact, imagine how dangerous things will become when the police aren’t held to account. The government is removing women’s agency at a time when its institutions are failing them the most.
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Unsurprisingly, the new bill also acts as an extension of the government’s sinister hostile environment. Just like the inhumane Rwanda scheme, the rights of migrant women with insecure immigration status could be weakened if the bill passes, with Women’s Aid warning that “survivors of domestic abuse could be deemed ‘undeserving’ of human rights and remedies under these proposals”.
The government already refuses to offer financial aid or housing to migrant women fleeing abuse, so this decision is hardly surprising. The current Human Rights Act gives universal protections for all, but this rotten government wants to pick and choose who protects it from violence.
This direct attack on women’s rights should scare us all. It will allow men like Wayne Couzens to see through the cracks; it will keep rape prosecutions at an all time low and it will weaken our ability to challenge the institutions who should be keeping us safe. Make no mistake, more women will die at the hands of men under this atrocious bill.
When we feel our hearts aching for women in America, we must look closer to home to fight for those being failed by our government too. Some of our politicians have far more in common with American extremists than we like to admit: there are men sitting in parliament today that would welcome a ban on abortion, and removing our human rights only makes that reality more tangible.
The war on women is global and the Bill of Rights is just the latest attack that we must vehemently oppose.