I imagine all of us today feel some combination of immense sadness and boiling anger from the events of last week – International Women’s Week.
The news that the remains of missing south Londoner Sarah Everard had been found was awful enough. As we know a serving police officer has been charged with her abduction and murder (it is vitally important that all of us on social media do not go further or say anything that may be considered prejudicial to a trial).
This horror provided one of those moments when there is some national focus upon male violence against women, its impact upon women’s lives and why so little is done about it. It must be more than a moment.
Women and women’s sector campaigners have been telling us about it for decades. Every woman has a story of not feeling safe or of some form of sexual harassment.
Not all are at the most extreme end. But it was misleading for the Metropolitan Police chief to refer to what happened to Sarah Everard as “incredibly rare”. I’d urge you to read this piece by experts in the field explaining the extent of the crisis and to draw on it in the conversations we shall doubtless be having in the staffroom and everyday life.
Then, as the voices of tens of thousands of women expressing grief and indignation at this continuing epidemic of violence were beginning to be heard, news broke that police forces were moving to ban dignified vigils and gatherings. The cruel irony of banning women from leaving the house to join outdoor vigils when we are experiencing a massive rise in domestic violence cannot be missed.
I was happy to sign a statement with other NEC colleagues calling to end violence against women and to defend the right to protest.
It concluded: “Violence against women must never be swept under the carpet – our voices must be heard.
“We call on the police to allow the vigils to take place and call on NEU members to attend.”
It was particularly galling for any educators who have spent the last week working in full schools lacking the necessary mitigation measures to be told that open air, socially distanced memorial events with mask-wearing encouraged could not go ahead on police interpretation of Covid restrictions.
Lots did go ahead, with many other people marking Saturday’s vigil on their doorstep. And then on Saturday evening we saw the atrocious scenes from south London where totally unwarranted policing led to women manhandled, handcuffed and arrested for participating in a vigil for a murdered woman.
It’s hard to find words. I don’t think I need to. The condemnation has been almost universal, with calls for the resignation of the Met police chief and even of the Home Secretary.
This goes beyond one policing decision or a few individuals. It goes right to the heart of our democratic rights. Tomorrow the government’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill comes before parliament. It includes a huge and dangerous extension of police powers to ban democratic protests. It includes the grounds of causing “serious annoyance or serious inconvenience”.
Two issues that are fundamental to our union and its values are raised this weekend: ending violence against women and girls, and the democratic right to protest.
Events have to some extent fused them. But I believe that we should let neither overshadow the other and that our union should play a leading role on both.
We have some excellent policy and resources already, such as the path-breaking “It’s Just Everywhere – challenging sexism in schools” and our Domestic Abuse and the Workplace toolkit.
I know several districts and regions have organised conferences and workshops around these and other materials. One thing our union can practically do is to intensify our campaign for the curriculum space and resources to make anti-sexist education a reality in every school and college. This should be part of our overall insistence upon a break from the pre-pandemic failed model.
Of course it is not all down to schools or just resources. But over a decade of cuts lies behind the decimation of women’s refuges and other frontline women’s services that has contributed to the crisis we are seeing. Now really is the time to support these local specialist services, their fundraising efforts and campaigning for statutory resources.
We can do that at the same time as mobilising our union’s strength to defend the right to protest. And it is urgent. Arbitrary and draconian police bans will be used against our and other unions if we do not stand up now. They will be used against our children and young people peacefully protesting whether over climate change or racism.
If you can, contact your MP this week to urge them to vote against it. Labour has confirmed they will be voting against the Bill but we need others to join them. You might have an MP who you think immovable on the issue, but a lot of surprising voices were raised in anger over the Met’s atrocious behaviour on Saturday.
I’m talking with other union colleagues and taking the views of those backing my campaign about what else we can do at this moment.
It is certain that we shall have to be prepared to protest. We do so safely and peacefully. For it is not a right we can allow to be taken away.