Sex is the only protected characteristic in the Equality Act not to be covered by the legislation he is piloting through the Scottish Parliament. Instead a working group looking at a stand-alone offence of misogynistic harassment is to be established to decide if women can be better protected from abusive and threatening behaviour in that way, rather than be part of a law which covers all other forms of hate crime.
While this is an approach welcomed – and indeed recommended by some women's organisations such as Engender and Scottish Women’s Aid fearful that by including sex in the hate crime law it could undermine other legislation which aims to tackle gender-based violence against women – other groups, including For Women Scotland, fear that it leaves women without protection and sends out the wrong message to Scottish society. There are concerns the issue is being kicked into the long grass.
The timing of his appearance won’t have escaped Mr Yousaf’s notice, or indeed that of the MSPs on the justice committee. For the following day [Wednesday] is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (IDEVAW), which kicks off 16 days of campaigning on the issue around the world.
Never has discussion around violence against women been more vital – although such a statement feels as though it could be made every year.
Coinciding with IDEVAW is the publication of the Femicide Census, which reveals that on average, from 2009 to 2018, one woman was murdered every three days by a man in the UK, with the final tally standing at 1,425 victims.
Statistics from the UN also estimate that at least one-in-three women around the world will be beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her lifetime and the abuser will usually be male, and usually someone she knows personally.
A new poll by the children’s charity Plan International and the campaign group Our Streets Now, which seeks to make public sexual harassment a criminal offence, has also found that 51% of young girls in the UK, aged between 14 and 21 had been catcalled, followed, groped, flashed or upskirted during the summer.
Mr Yousaf and MSPs have a chance to tackle some of these actions through the Hate Crime Bill, say campaigners. By telling Scottish society that hatred towards women is criminal could begin to turn the tide against ingrained sexual discrimination which in too many cases is exposed through vitriolic abuse and death threats received by many women on social media, but in other cases leads to real life physical harm and death.
The pandemic has added to the urgency, as domestic violence rates are rising. Indeed the Femicide Census also reveals that 62% of women were killed by a current or former partner, most in their own homes.
IDEVAW starts 16 days of campaigning against violence, ending on International Day of Human Rights. Women’s rights have long been accepted as human rights. The Scottish Parliament now has the opportunity to agree that those rights include being protected from hate.