Guest blog: Neelam Sarkaria - Violence against women and girls and our justice system

9 March 2017

Neelam Sakaria 

Why is International Women's Day so important for me? I have been reflecting on where we are and what more we need to do to stop the continuing violence against women and girls (VAWG) here in the UK. 

As an Asian woman and barrister working as a harmful traditional practices expert and consultant and the Vice-President of the Association of Women Barristers my thoughts are focusing on the need to work and engage with practising communities. The law is a powerful tool to stop and prevent offences being committed but often the practising communities do not know that offences are being committed. 

It is startling that in 2017 and we are still talking about harmful traditional practices which by their very nature difficult to detect, report and prosecute - female genital mutilation, forced marriage, honour-based abuse, breast ironing, faith-based abuse and dowry violence.  

I previously worked for a number of years for the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) as a prosecutor, criminal justice adviser and senior policy manager focusing on criminal justice and VAWG to bring about changes that could make the criminal justice experience better for all of those involved in it.  

What is clear is that these offences are committed to control female sexuality and autonomy and mostly but not exclusively committed by men. We have some information about the possible numbers being committed (the police collect data on arrests and referrals to the CPS, and the CPS produce an annual report detailing the numbers that they have prosecuted) but we need to remember that the numbers currently available only reflect those offences which come to the attention of law enforcement and the prosecuting authority.  

There are many offences that remain undetected due to their very nature. There is a real need for support organisations and government to wok together to collect more comprehensive data on the level of offending. 

In 2010 I met the late Efua Dorkinoo and Janet Fyle - extraordinary, dedicated women committed to eradicating FGM driven by a strong passion and a desire to achieve equality for women.  My experience of working closely with the leading FGM survivor-campaigners (such as Leyla Hussein, Hoda Ali, Sarian Kamara, Jay Frederick, Hawa Sesay) has enriched my knowledge and experience.

This has certainly influenced my resolve to do my piece to stop such practices in England and Wales.  I frequently hear the harrowing accounts of the lifelong impact of their experience and this has stayed with me. 

The sadness I see in their eyes and the emotion they carry is moving. Working closely with Polly Harrar as a Community Champion for the Sharan Project which supports South Asian women who have been disowned following standing up against a forced marriage has taught me much about the longer term impact of forced marriage and honour-based abuse on women, particularly once they have stepped away from speaking with the police and the courts. 

Left with psychological problems and disowned by their families and communities, these women have to begin a new life leaving their past behind them. We often forget that victims of harmful traditional practices have experienced life-changing events that impact every area of their life. Professionals can step away from them and return to their homes but these survivors carry their experience like a heavy rock on their shoulders. 

As the former chair of the Association of Women Barristers, and an active member of the Committee since 2010 I have highlighted the plight of women in the criminal justice system as victims and defendants through articles in the legal journals, criminal justice seminars, workshops at the annual General Council of the Bar Conference focusing on prostitution, FGM, forced marriage and the family courts, child sexual abuse, the grooming of young women. 

My visit to Styal Prison, Cheshire in 2010 will stay with me forever - it was here that I met women who themselves had been born in the same prison and I was left cold when I met a woman born in Styal prison who had given birth to her baby here too. With little support in the outside world once women are sent to prison they lose everything including their children who are left to the state to bring up. 

Unsurprisingly, men in the same position receive the support of their partners. Women in prison often receive higher sentences compared to men in a similar position. I was touched by the fact that these same women could also be victims of violence against women and girls - victims of human trafficking, for example, will often find themselves before the courts for theft and other offences.  We now have a defence outlined in Section 45 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 for victims who are made to commit criminal offences. This came into force on 31 July 2015. 

My focus for the coming months will be to continue to train legal professionals. As a member of the Bar Council Equality, Diversity and Social Action Committee I am leading on a Europe-wide VAWG project and have arranged training on Forced Marriage, Honour-Based Abuse and FGM to take place on 8 July in London.  

Neelam Sarkaria is a barrister and Vice President of the Association of Women Barristers