Women’s rights just took one step forward, one step back – Christine Jardine

The Domestic Abuse Bill is now likely to reach the statute books, but the High Court ruling affecting WASPI women’s pension entitlement has left them high and dry, writes Christine Jardine.

Women caught in limbo by a change to the retirement age protest in Glasgow (Picture: John Devlin)

I couldn’t help but feel over the past few days that there is a generation of women entitled to believe that somehow the rest of us have no respect for what they have been through.

Their contribution, and in many cases suffering, has been taken for granted, or worse ignored. And now that we are finally getting to grips with improving the lot of women in our society, they are not going to be invited to enjoy the newly established benefits.

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And yet last week saw long-awaited landmark legislation to protect mostly women finally reach the stage where we can confidently expect it on the statute books next year.

Even former Prime Minister Theresa May was there to make a powerful speech in support of a Domestic Abuse Bill which looked to have been a victim of Boris Johnson’s now-discredited suspension of parliament.

And there was one speech which will live with most of us for much longer than the remainder of this parliament. When MP Rosie Duffield began to speak, most of us assumed she was recounting what a constituent had been through.

It was only when she began to talk about the abusive partner meeting her party leader and criticising what she wore in the chamber that it began to dawn that this was an entirely personal story. And as someone only recently elected the scars must still be fresh for her.

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But as news of the pain she had so courageously shared spread, I couldn’t help but be wracked with guilt over the generations of women and men who had suffered this personal pain and indignity unacknowledged.

How had it taken us so long to recognise what was needed and to act? Even when it was recognised it took an age to get the bill this far.

In 2012, the UK signed the Istanbul Convention on protecting women from domestic violence. But seven years later it is still not ratified, nor its conditions met in the UK.

Much of that is addressed in this bill, but even that was originally promised in the Queen’s speech in 2017, and has only now just passed the second reading which means it will have to considered further.

Brief feeling of triumph

Certainly, although regarded by many as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to support victims and their families and pursue offenders properly, it is mainly relevant in England and Wales.

But its impact across the nation in setting a tone will be incalculable.

Once passed, we will have UK legislation which properly defines domestic abuse in law in a way which underpins the other measures in the bill.

For the first time, it will establish a Domestic Abuse Commissioner, part of whose role will be to raise public awareness of the issues and monitor government response.

Those are tangible, substantive measures. One of the things we must not lose sight of is that although the vast majority of the two million people who experience domestic abuse, whether physical, emotional or financial, are predominantly women, that is not always the case.

And the trauma tragically often extends to children whose lives can be blighted by witnessing a parent suffer.

It can lead to poor physical and mental health and makes it more likely that they will become involved in violence in later life. All of that, as well as the position of immigrant women trying to escape coercive or violent relationships, will now be tackled.

With these measures now likely thanks to the bravery of individuals like Rosie Duffield, the future looked much brighter for millions of women. At least it did on Wednesday last week.

But any relief or triumph I felt over our success in creating a better, more protective society was, however short-lived. Within 24 hours we faced a stark reminder that it is not always this way. Nor would everyone who has suffered be helped by this societal change.

WASPI women let down again

The next morning the High Court ruled that against the claims of a group representing women born at the start of the 1950s whose pension age had been changed twice, saying they had not been discriminated against.

These so-called WASPI women had been let down again.

For more than two years, women have come to me with stories of how the change in their state pension age had wrecked their retirement plans and often left them struggling to get by.

And for too long, the Government’s response has been derisory, often suggesting with not the slightest hint of irony that perhaps these women in their 60s should find a job. These are women who have worked their whole lives, paid tax, many of them raised families in some of the worst economic conditions.

Sadly some of them will undoubtedly also have been victims of domestic abuse.

They are the shoulders on which my generation have stood.

And yet ironically a move designed to create equality in the retirement age has left them once again high and dry.

It’s such a pity that while we recognised the needs of women going forward, we didn’t look over our shoulders at the needs of those who got us here.

For that generation, it must feel that the concerns of politicians do not extend to them.

All I can say is that it does matter to this one.