Wera Hobhouse – 2023 Speech on International Women’s Day

The speech made by Wera Hobhouse, the Liberal Democrat MP for Bath, in the House of Commons on 9 March 2023.

It is an honour to speak in this debate that has ranged widely from local to national to global women’s issues. We have heard some powerful speeches and contributions. International Women’s Day is a time to celebrate the progress that we women have made, while recognising how far away we are from true equality and true recognition of women in law.

The most powerful speech every year is the one from the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips). She makes us all sit here for many minutes in silence to reflect on the terrible stories that we hear each year of women who suffer domestic abuse and violence. I agree that we are still very far from making real progress. I thank the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Dame Maria Miller), who always ensures that we have these discussions every year on International Women’s Day. It is important that we continue to have that debate in the House.

Disrespect for women remains endemic across society. Half of British women have been sexually harassed at work or their place of study. Women are 27 times more likely to face online abuse than men. Nearly a quarter of women have experienced sexual assault or attempted sexual assault since they were 16, and one in 14 women have experienced rape or attempted rape. These are more than just statistics—these are women, these are lives and every story is a story of trauma and hurt. We all need to recognise that for what it is. They are not statistics, they are lives, and that reflects everyday reality for women and girls across the UK.

My Worker Protection (Amendment of Equality Act 2010) Bill aims to protect women from sexual harassment in the workplace. Too many people are suffering silently because they feel unable to report that, or because their concerns are not taken seriously—we have heard many examples of that today. My Bill strengthens protections for those women by imposing a new duty on employers to prevent their employees from experiencing workplace sexual harassment. The Bill would also make employers liable for the harassment of their staff by third parties, where they have failed to take all reasonable steps to prevent such harassment from happening. I have been pleased to see such cross-party support for my Bill, but legislation is only part of the solution. To fight misogyny, a root and branch culture change is needed.

Last Friday marked two years since the brutal murder of Sarah Everard by a serving Met police officer. Wayne Couzens exposed himself to women just four days before her murder. His victims have argued that, if their reports had been taken seriously by the police, Sarah might still be alive. The terrible story of Sarah’s murder, and the police failings that have been identified subsequently, are still difficult to come to terms with. The first report of Operation Soteria Bluestone found that some serving officers do not think that sexual offences should be a priority for policing. It quoted one officer who believed that cases of rape and sexual offences were “pink and fluffy”. That officer openly admitted to avoiding such cases in favour of burglary and robbery. The new Metropolitan Police Commissioner has said that they are investigating 1,000 sexual and domestic abuse claims involving 100 of its officers. Those are more than just bad apples; they are part of the rotten culture of misogyny.

Police in England and Wales are recording record numbers of rape offences, but rape prosecutions are down by 70% over the past four years. Last year, charges were brought in only 4% of recorded rape cases. This is a national scandal. We say these things again and again, every year on International Women’s Day we point out that we need to make progress, and we do not make progress. The Government need to listen up, because only with a momentous culture shift can we begin to address the concerns and fears that so many women have about engaging with policing and the justice system.

In my constituency, Avon and Somerset police—I want to give them credit—have shown what can be done with a dedicated, well-resourced team and the right leadership. I hope they will lead by example and take other police forces along. Their team have tripled charge rates and brought more cases to the Crown Prosecution Service. However, much more needs to be done across the country. Nearly half of women have said that their trust in the police has declined following Sarah Everard’s murder, and the Government must focus on rebuilding that trust. Liberal Democrats are calling for immediate action to ensure that police vetting procedures are fit for purpose to start rebuilding that trust.

Violence against women and girls is a global threat. During war and natural disasters, women face unique dangers. In Turkey and Syria, humanitarian groups have warned that women are finding it harder to access aid, and are at severe risk of exploitation. Conflict-related sexual violence is one of the oldest weapons known to people— I give credit to the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall), who has raised this issue in Parliament many times and is working hard on it. He has my full support. Such violence destroys bodies and communities, and its impact is felt long after the fighting has finished. The Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s office has identified 171 victims of sexual violence by Russian troops, 119 of whom are women. I am sure that many colleagues across the House share my admiration for the bravery of the women of Ukraine—indeed, they have already been mentioned today. We should not underestimate the substantial trauma that women and children are suffering, especially if they have experienced sexual violence.

I also want to remember the women of Afghanistan. In January, Mursal Nabizada, a female MP who remained in Kabul, was killed. Just four of the 1,500 Afghan citizens who were eligible for the UK resettlement scheme because they were at high risk after the Taliban takeover have now arrived in the UK. Women and girls were meant to be a priority, but they have been left without a specific route to apply for safety. That is a shameful Government record and nobody can walk away from that. Women all over the world are leading movements against authoritarianism.

Many constituents have contacted me to express their solidarity with the women of Iran. I echo that and pay tribute to their courage in the face of atrocious human rights abuses. Many have reported sexual assault. Let us not forget those women, because it is very hard to take on those regimes, which are all led by men. Women’s voices have been ignored for centuries, and in many parts of the world they still are; 2023 must be the year that Governments around the world listen up and hear us.