An account of our International Women's Day, House of Lords Seminar, by Cumberland Lodge Scholar, Rebecca Love
The 8th of March marks International Women’s Day, a global celebration of the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The day represents a call to action for accelerating gender parity. Talks, rallies, events and marches are held across the world. Appropriately, the day also brought together a remarkable group of individuals for the follow-up seminar to Cumberland Lodge’s 'Violence Against Women: A Determinant of Health' conference.
A diverse group of policy makers, opinion formers, medical practitioners and members of the police force congregated for the seminar to discuss the key points that emerged from the February conference and to identify ways to take action to improve the way that violence against women is addressed in the UK. Held in the House of Lords on a sunny afternoon, the 90 minute session was packed full with passionate, persuasive, contributions from the speakers and a subsequent lively discussion from the attendees.
The conference and seminar were timely, building on the momentum for action on violence against women over 2016-2017 across the UK. With the publication of the Strategy to end violence against women and girls: 2016-2020, the crucial role of the NHS in responding and integrating services for violence against women was recognized. Multiple actions by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) and NHS continued to drive developments in this area. Since February’s conference, there have been several policy developments, including Prime Minister Theresa May’s recent commitment to work on a Domestic Violence and Abuse Act.
These developments and the government pledge to take steps to address this issue offers an excellent opportunity to take action on the key points from the Conference. The Rt Hon Baroness Butler-Sloss chaired the seminar which featured three speakers and was followed by an energetic discussion. Winnie Li, a writer, activist and researcher, began with a personal account of a violent assault and stranger rape in 2008. Winnie described the brutal attack and her experience navigating the complex and disjointed systems that exist for sexual assault victims, in the days, months and years following her attack. She explained how she fell through the cracks in the system and was continually forced to advocate for herself to get the support she needed – something others may not be able to do. One example she described was her desperate attempt to source anti-HIV medication (post-exposure prophylaxis), which must be taken in a 72 hour window following intercourse, by having to call all of the sexual health clinics across London. These very personal examples of a bureaucratic system failing to meet the basic needs of victims were many and provided a powerful start to the seminar.
Dr Neera Dholakia, the lead GP for Safeguarding Children and Clinical Lead for Mental Health in West London CCG, spoke about how to make health services take more responsibility and a bigger role in addressing violence against women. A crucial component of this is encouraging health providers to develop comprehensive services integrated with local NGOs and other stakeholders. Dr Dholakia highlighted the need for greater and more sustained funding to be put into the healthcare system to effectively address the issue. Common funding terms of only a few years are insufficient to see real changes in behaviour and health outcomes across entire systems. Ellie Ball, an Independent Sexual Violence Advisor (ISVA) and the last speaker of the seminar, agreed that an integrated response across services is needed. In light of her experiences with victims, she raised how improvements in the fundamental knowledge and awareness of GPs on sexual violence issues could make an immense difference to patient outcomes and wellbeing.
The final discussion amongst all attendees was packed with persuasive and passionate insights for change. These included the need for integration of the voluntary and health sectors, the challenges associated with accessing support services across geographical boundaries, and the intersection of the problem with other issues including immigration, homelessness and education. It is evident that violence against women is a complex issue that will require a multi-sector, collaborative approach. In spite of the challenges, it was apparent that for the delegates present that there was no shortage of ideas, energy and drive to continue to tackle the issue and push for better outcomes for victims.