Today is International Women’s Day, a celebration of women everywhere and this years theme is our #PressForProgress. 

2018 most significantly marks the centenary of women in the United Kingdom receiving their first legal right to vote. Fewer people remember that this right to vote was restricted to property owning women over 30, still excluding the majority of women, especially those from the working class. It is a timely reminder that, although we have made such progress, there is still much more to be done, that the autonomy of women both within the UK and across the globe are still restricted in many ways. Whilst women in England, Scotland and Wales received the right to a safe and legal abortion in 1967, our sisters in Northern Ireland must still cross the border and pay privately, even child victims of rape. Rape within a marriage has only been recognised since 1991, a mere 27 years. Progress, really, has been shockingly slow. 

The age of consent in the UK has been set at 16 since 1885, meaning that any sexual activity between a minor and an adult able to consent is explicitly outlawed. However, CSE was not made a criminal act in itself until 2015, at which point it received a home office crime code. The definition was only coined in 2009, and revised in 2015 to finally acknowledge the perpetrator as solely responsible for their own actions. This information begs the question, how many children have been failed by a society that did not recognise the crimes committed against them? And how many more people will be failed by a society that does not recognise or respect their experiences of sexual violence? 

The legal definition of rape in England stipulates penetration by a penis: other forms non-consensual sexual contact is recognised only as sexual assault. Coercive and controlling domestic abuse only became recognised in 2015, defined as behaviour intended to harm, humiliate, control, punish or frighten a victim, or is otherwise exploitative for the perpetrators personal gain. However, only intimate relationship partners or immediate family members are recognised in this definition, further excluding a variety of victims of abuse from any chance of justice. This is yet another example of the inadequacies of legislation and its ability to tackle such violence.

Perceptions of CSE often mirror wider perceptions of sexual violence: the victim knew what they were doing, they were asking for it, they were behaving recklessly. Despite growing recognition in recent years, particularly surrounding the scandals in Rochdale and Rotherham, there is still a long way to go. With each new scandal revealed, the media seems to be almost indifferent to the suffering of children and teenagers unless it suits an agenda, an agenda based on tired sensationalised stereotypes surrounding the victims and perpetrators. White girls groomed by Asian gangs and young boys groomed by football coaches are beginning to receive the recognition and justice they deserve, but what about the rest of us? Those of us abused by individuals, or within our own families are no less deserving of support. Those of us abused by an older partner we felt provided us the love and attention we so desperately needed are no less deserving of support. Those of us coerced and blackmailed into sharing explicit pictures are no less deserving of support. Those of us forced to stand on a cold street corner earning money for the abuser we relied on to meet our basic human needs are no less deserving of support.

On this International Women’s Day, take a moment to think about the massive contributions towards progress thousands of women are making every day. Whilst I am grateful for concessions afforded to us by the proto-feminists, Suffragettes and Suffragists of the previous century, and the further liberation of reproductive rights and equal pay, the battle is still yet to be won.  From the incredible achievements of survivor and artistic, Fiona Broadfoot who recently won a 20 year battle against sexually exploited women being forced to disclose their convictions, to Emma Sulkowitz dragging a mattress on her back around her university campus to remind the world of the rape she suffered at the hands of a fellow student. Think about the Saudi Arabian women protesting tirelessly and risking arrest for their simple right to drive a car, and the Rwandan women who make up 64% of elected representatives versus the UK’s mere 32%. We still have a fight on our hands in regards to child sexual exploitation and the oppression and abuse of women globally, so throughout this year of celebration, we will continue to push for progress.