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When Will Women’s Rights Be Human Rights?

It has been more than a week since the latest case of a British woman being struck down and murdered on the streets of our nation. Her name was Sabina Nessa. She was a primary school teacher heading out for a drink at the pub. An ordinary woman doing ordinary things in ordinary circumstances. She did nothing wrong, provoked no attack, and sought no danger. It was still not enough to save her from her fate. Make no mistake, Sabina Nessa committed the same offence that many others had committed before her: she was a woman.

Being a woman might not be a criminal offence in British law, but the culture of Britain has made it clear that femininity and womanhood are misdemeanours punishable by anything from violence and harassment to rape and death. A UN special rapporteur criticised Britain’s ‘in your face’ sexist culture nearly 8 years ago, claiming that the ‘boy’s club sexist culture’ leads to certain perceptions about women and girls. Years later, Britain’s sexist culture has never been so present or so evident. Yes, even more so than in the times of suffragettes when the streets rang with empowered cries of ‘Votes for Women!’.

The clarity of sexism in the UK is not shown through its visibility, but rather its indiscernibility. Britain’s sexism is deep-rooted, hidden, deceptive, and rife. It is embedded throughout the framework of the nation and woven into the very fabric of our society. It is an epidemic more powerful than any disease and it is killing more women every day.

Sabina Nessa was not the first and she will not be the last. The problem which this country faces is one shared by the rest of the world too. Women’s rights are not as stringently protected as human rights, which is to say that women are not treated as human. There are protections and privileges which exist for men which do not for women. These differences are below the surface, hidden, unknown.

An example of this can be found in the simple environment of a car manufacturing process. The renowned author and researcher, Carolina Criado Perez, provides a detailed account of this in her book Invisible Women. Perez writes that, in the EU, there are five car tests that a car must pass prior to being allowed on the market. In none of these tests is an anthropometrically correct female crash test dummy required. Moreover, the female crash test dummies which do exist are not actually female, but rather a scaled-down male dummy. Resultingly, women are 17% more likely to die in a car crash, 47% more likely to be seriously injured, and 71% more likely to be moderately injured than men. The reason: a lack of data concerning women. Due to this gap, men receive the privilege of safety features through laws which mandate the use of equipment specifically created around the male body.

The societal conditions which have led to the needless deaths of innocent women have not occurred in isolation; they are the result of a culture which has perpetuated bias against women from the time that the foundations of nations were being laid. The death of Sabina Nessa was not a one-off. It was a malicious crime of apparent opportunity as she endeavoured to walk just five minutes down the road.

Tributes rushed to meet the news of her death. Downing Street lit a candle and said that ‘Tonight we remember Sabina Nessa’. The Duchess of Cambridge said that she was ‘saddened by the loss of another innocent young woman on our streets’. People were shocked and saddened, but not surprised. It is a harsh and cold land which meets the news of death without surprise, but, frankly, it is not surprising. Women are being killed in the streets and the saddest thing about it is that it has become a regularity, a cause for sadness but not disbelief.

Throughout the world, women are told to be careful, hold their keys between their fingers, let someone know when they are home, watch their drinks carefully, not to go out alone, not to wear overly provocative clothing, not to underdress, not to look too pretty, not to look too sad, not to menstruate, to menstruate properly, to bear children, not to have too many children…to change. The world is a place where nothing you do is good enough as long as you are still a woman. Women do not need to change; the world does.

The world needs to awaken from the slumber which has encapsulated it for so long. It is not a nightmare – this is the world we live in. It is unfair, cold, dark, and dangerous. There are some dangers in life which simply cannot be eradicated, but none of these risks need to be worse simply because you are different to a man. It is time to change the system, not the women. It is time for women’s rights to be human rights. I write as a man, as a feminist, and as someone who has grown tired of hearing the next name added to the list of innocent dead.


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