Harriet Harman – 2021 Speech on International Women’s Day

The speech made by Harriet Harman, the Labour MP for Camberwell and Peckham, in the House of Commons on 11 March 2021.

I thank the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) for securing the debate, and I agree with every single word that she said in her excellent speech.

This International Women’s Day debate comes in the shadow of the menace of male violence against women. I am sure we all feel the same as the Home Secretary, who said that she is “deeply saddened” by the developments in the Sarah Everard investigation, and we all hope against hope that we will not hear the news that we all dread. But at the same time as the sadness, there is real anger among women at the threat that they face on a daily basis. That is not to spread alarm; it is to spell out the reality.

Here we are, in the 21st century, in a country where women and men expect to be equal, but we are not. Women, particularly young women, are terrified of the threat of male violence on the streets—men who try to get them to get in their car, who try to get their number, who follow them, who film them, who will not take no for an answer. Every young woman, every day, walks under this threat, so they adopt myriad strategies just to get home from work in the dark—choosing the busiest route, even if it is longer; keeping their keys in their hand; trying to go with someone rather than alone; getting a friend or their partner to map their location on a phone app; phoning on the way home so that they know they are expected.

Women will find no reassurance at all in the Metropolitan Police Commissioner’s statement that it is

“incredibly rare for a woman to be abducted from our streets.”

Women know that abduction and murder is just the worst end of a spectrum of everyday male threat to women. When the police advise women not to go out at night on their own, women ask why they have to be subjected to an informal curfew. It is not women who are the problem here; it is men.

The criminal justice system fails women and lets men off the hook. Whether it is rape or domestic homicide, women are judged and blamed—“Why was she on a dating app?” “Why was she out late at night?” “Why had she been drinking?” “What are those flirty messages on her phone?”—and men find excuses, raking up her previous sexual history in court to try to tarnish her character and prejudice the jury. Let us hear no more false reassurances; let us have action.

Next Monday, we will be debating in this House the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. That is the chance for the Government to banish the culture of male excuses from the criminal justice system and, instead of blaming women, start protecting them.