A Woman’s Right to Vote
Thursday 11th May 2017
When people learn that domestic abuse can deny a woman her right to vote, they can hardly believe it. But it’s true: the provisions for anonymous registration on the electoral roll exclude many domestic abuse survivors. With support, however, it is possible for some to exercise their democratic right, and Women’s Aid is urging domestic abuse services to support survivors to register wherever possible, before the deadline of 31 May (later than the general deadline of 22 May). To help, we have produced guidance with the Electoral Commission which can be accessed here.
Women who have lost so much that the rest of us take for granted must not lose this too.
Domestic abuse is the deliberate and systematic violation, again and again, of the victim’s human rights by the very person she should be most able to trust. It strips away autonomy and self-expression, and replaces them with fear, secrecy and shame. No wonder recovery can be a long process and needs specialist support and a place of safety and security, sometimes even a refuge – a secret location which the perpetrator must never find, which means any risk of it becoming known, such as the electoral roll, is potentially life-threatening.
When domestic abuse survivor Mehala Osborne fled to a refuge, she was horrified to learn that yet another right was being denied her: the right to vote. “I never realised how much having a vote meant until it was taken away from me,” she says. “I had already been through enough, and to be disempowered even more was so difficult.” She decided to launch the Right to Vote campaign and Women’s Aid was determined to support her all the way.
Women’s Aid and Mehala identified three fundamental reasons why the existing provisions for voting anonymously exclude thousands of domestic abuse survivors. First, and most important, the evidence required in order to register anonymously relates exclusively to the criminal justice system – yet we know that fewer than half of domestic abuse survivors have involved the police. Second, the “letter of attestation” required for anonymity has to come from a narrow range of very senior public sector figures, not easily accessible to most survivors. And third, the process ignores the fact that many survivors are at risk for many years, sometimes their whole lives, and should be eligible to register anonymously at any time, with no expiry date.
Last year, we were celebrating when Cabinet Office Minister Chris Skidmore MP committed the Government to removing any barriers that prevent survivors from exercising their democratic rights. He launched a policy document for consultation, with responses due at the end of this month, in time for the local elections next year, and even more importantly the general election expected in 2020. Then came the snap general election and there is no way the changes can be made before it takes place. It’s a major disappointment.
We are not giving up – and you can be sure Mehala isn’t either. We will hold whoever is in power after the election to the commitments made, which we believe will reinstate the democratic rights of thousands of survivors.
In the meantime, we call on all professionals supporting survivors of domestic abuse to use our guidance and help them to vote if possible. And we call on all political parties to commit to the principle that no future government can justify taking away the rights of women who need every support the state can provide in order to make their voices heard.
At Women’s Aid, we strive continually to push violence against women higher up the political agenda. It’s not traditionally seen as a vote-winner – but that is starting to change. However, policies which disproportionately disadvantage women – whether that’s abuse survivors specifically or all women – are still the norm. This simply can’t go on.
To support our efforts to get all political parties to make violence against women a priority, and to ensure that the impact of policies on women can no longer be an afterthought, we urge all women to use their vote on 8 June.