The killing of Sarah Everard, yet another tragic loss to add to the long list of women killed by men, may yet prove to be a watershed moment in the ongoing battle to recognise and in turn eradicate gender-based violence in this country.

This year’s 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence campaign, which starts today, Thursday 25 November, has the potential to seize upon the national outrage and increased recognition of the problem of gender-based violence caused by her killing and turn it into real and sustained action to eradicate this insidious and pervasive form of violence.

The 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence (also known as the ‘Global 16 Days Campaign’) is an international campaign that aims to raise awareness about gender-based violence, share ideas and develop effective strategies to combat it, and to advocate for the implementation of such strategies.

It started in 1991 as an initiative of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership (CWGL), housed at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, in the United States. The CWGL continues to coordinate the global campaign which is supported by various United Nations agencies, and which has, in its 30-year life, involved over 6,000 organisations working across 187 countries, reaching approximately 300 million people.

A human rights issue

The original catalyst for the campaign was the need to have violence against women recognised as a human rights issue; a violation and abuse of the rights of women and girls. Only two years after the campaign’s inception, in 1993, it was recognised as such at the United Nations Conference on Human Rights held in Vienna and crystallised in the landmark UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women. This progress was built upon by two regional treaties dedicated to combating gender-based violence namely the Inter American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence against Women (also known as the Convention of Belem do Para) and in Europe by the Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (also known as the Istanbul Convention). These global and regional developments have been reflected in the passage of domestic legislation in many countries around the world including the UK.

Nevertheless, gender-based violence, namely harmful acts directed at an individual based on their gender or gender identity, or violence that affects persons of a particular gender or gender identity disproportionately, is endemic in most countries around the world. It includes sexual, physical, mental, and economic abuse, and specific forms of harm such as child marriage, female genital mutilation, and so-called ‘honour crimes.’

According to UN Women estimates, one in three women will be subjected to some form of gender-based violence in their lifetime. In the UK, the Office for National Statistics estimated that 1.6 million women experienced domestic abuse in 2019.

2021: End Femicide

Each year, the 16-Day campaign focuses on a particular theme. This year, the campaign is focusing on the issue of femicide under the clarion call ‘End Femicide,’ as well as gender-based violence in the workplace.

One hundred and thirty seven women a day are victims of femicide worldwide, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. Defined as the killing of a woman because she is a woman, the term ‘femicide’ includes the killings of women by intimate and former intimate partners and family members, as well as gender-related killings in the public sphere committed by strangers, such as the killing of Sarah Everard.

In the UK, the Femicide Census collects data on women killed by men. Its census for 2009-2018 reveals a stark and shocking picture; that 1,425 women were killed during this period. In other words, approximately every three days a woman is killed by a man in the UK. The data also shows that 62% of those women were killed by a current or former partner, and that 59% of them had been subjected to a continuum of abuse and violence prior to the fatal incident.

Gender-based violence in all its forms is a scourge on our society. The emotional and psychological costs to those left behind when it is fatal, and to those who survive it when it is not, are invariably traumatic, debilitating, and enduring. Children who live amidst such abuse can be psychologically scarred by it and risk being imbued with dangerously skewed expectations of intimate relationships and derogatory and demeaning biases and values about women potentially resulting in them becoming embroiled in such violence in later life. The financial cost to society is also enormous; a 2014 study of the UK undertaken by the European Institute for Gender Equality estimated the cost of intimate partner violence in the UK as £24 billion per year.

So, how can the Bar get involved?

As practitioners, especially in the criminal and family law justice systems, barristers can spend a great deal of their professional lives engaged in cases involving violence against women. We can contribute to the campaign in our professional role every day, not just for the 16 days, by ensuring that we are educated about gender-based violence, its causes and effects, and about how the law and its use can be improved to recognise the dignity of the survivor and offer more effective and meaningful outcomes for perpetrators other than simply punishment. We can use our voices in the professional sphere to raise awareness, to advocate for adequate prosecution of such offences, and for gender-based violence being treated as a human rights abuse. We can also ensure that the tools of the law, such as the recently passed Domestic Abuse Act 2021, are used to best effect. We can lobby, as individuals and collectively, for further needed changes to the law. For example, we can add our voices to the call for gender-based violence to be included in the violence encompassed within the ‘serious violence duty’ to be placed upon local authorities, the police, and other specified agencies under the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill which is currently going through Parliament.

As individual members of the Bar we must hold each other accountable for behaviours that are less than acceptable. Senior practitioners must show leadership not only by modelling appropriate behaviour but also by engendering an atmosphere in which gender-based violence cannot take root and, should it do so, by acting swiftly and effectively to eradicate and punish it.

We must also ensure that chambers is a workplace free of gender-based violence. For staff and members alike, it must a place in which the values of equality, dignity, non-discrimination, and non-violence are real and thriving and where, should the need arise, anyone who may be the subject of any form of gender-based violence feels able, and is enabled, to speak out and be protected.

This must be the everyday norm in our personal and working lives and in the work we do. Insofar as it is not, we must use the opportunity of the 16 Days Campaign to raise awareness, to raise our standards, and commit to making those values a reality. By doing so we can make a very significant contribution to the campaign and its aim of ending gender-based violence in all its forms.