Dear Elizabeth Truss, Nadine Dorris and Priti Patel,
As the Minister for Women and Equalities, Minister of State Mental Health, and Home Secretary, I am writing to you because you have the responsibility to tackle an issue that your government has failed to acknowledge, namely the lack of gender-based-approaches to policy implementation during the COVID-19 crisis. I am specifically referring to the unsafe and ill-thought out guidelines on how the general public was advised to utilise ‘outdoor spaces for activities and exercise’ during all three national lockdowns.
Women in the UK have reported a 66% increase in levels of anxiety during the COVID-19 crisis, compared to 47% of men (Kaur-Ballagan, 2020). These statistics are startling when in isolation, but partnered with previous statistics that indicate that women are twice as likely to experience anxiety than men (RAMH, 2018) and that 1 in 4 women will require treatment for depression compared to that of 1-10 in men (RAMH, 2018), what we have here is an incredibly concerning mental-health problem, onethat has been exacerbated by the government’s ignorant agenda when it comes to advocating for women’s rights and safety.
In the wake of the closure of fitness and leisure facilities- including gyms and swimming pools, women have been unable to engage in physical activity due to the lack of safe spaces available outdoors. Women make up 54% (Sport England, 2020) of the membership nationally for indoor fitness, leisure centres and gyms; we have to start asking ourselves, why is it that women feel safer exercising indoors? The most obvious answer is street harassment.
Street harassment is the most common form of Gender Based Violence (GBV), with new studies finding that 97% of women in the UK (UN Women UK, 2021) have experienced some form of street harassment, at least once, in their lives. A statistic that will come as no surprise to women, as fears surrounding street harassment have sky-rocketed during the pandemic. Street harassment takes many forms, such as indecent exposure, catcalling, public masturbation, sexual assault and rape. A study has found that 75% of women are scared about exercising outside alone (Plan International UK, 2018) due to the fear of being harassed by strangers.
It is evident to me, and to those of us that identify as women, that we do not have the freedom that others in our society possess to access outdoor spaces for physical activity.
One woman has disclosed to me that:
“The opportunity to exercise is limited. The winter months and days, whilst getting longer, still make it difficult for me to find time to safely exercise outside.”- Rebecca
A female personal trainer has told me that:
“Lockdown particularly disadvantages women. I have recognised this with those of my clients who have dropped out of contact. Many have reported feeling unsafe exercising outside, and I understand that the fear of harassment is the primary cause of this.” – Zoe
What is clear to me is the expansion of health inequalities, due to government negligence and underfunding of public health and educational resources.
We have watched the daily death toll in the UK rise to 1812 (GOV.UK, 2021), we have faced three national lockdowns, each demanding that the British public to stay inside our homes, only permitting us to an hour of exercise outside our homes each day. I agree with the necessity of these three sporadically introduced mandatory lockdowns across the year, however, the reduction in active adults in the UK is a worrying consequence of such national policies.
Before COVID-19, the number of adults classed as active amounted to 63.6% of the population, an increase of 404,600 adults from 2018-19 (Sport England, 2020). For the first time, 61% of women were regularly active compared with 65% of men; a record statistic indicating a closing of the gender gap in activity levels. However, what we have seen as a consequence of COVID-19 is an increased inactivity level of 7.4% of women; an increase that has once again set women back and widened parity between the sexes (Sport England, 2020). So why does this gender gap in activity levels matter?
Research carried out by the Black Dog Institute has found that as little as an hour a week of exercise can be incredibly effective in the fight against anxiety and depression. Exercise provides a wide range of mental health benefits, from: “building methods of coping and resilience, to distracting from negative thoughts and improving memory and sleep.” (Black Dog Institute, 2020). Mental healthcare specialists have extensively advocated exercise as a “non-pharmacological treatment” to reduce the consequences of isolation and social distancing during the past three national lockdowns. A sedentary lifestyle facilitated by the “stay at home” nationwide lockdown, an uncertainty of job security and a more significant role in the family home life has increased levels of both anxiety and depression for women in the UK (Stockwell et al., 2021).
Suggested below are my recommendations that I believe the government should consider when shaping future lockdown and street harassment policies. All suggestions are based on an intersectional structural feminist lens towards public policy. This particular approach is more relevant than ever, given that COVID-19 has impacted BAME groups disproportionately worse than any other group (Public Health England, 2020).
Intersectionality focuses on the demand for ‘understanding gender discrimination in terms of the multiple identities simultaneously affecting women’ (Dauer, 2014), whilst a structural approach to violence encourages us to question the policies and politics that systematically reproduce social and economic inequalities that determine who will be at risk of assault (Dauer, 2014).
Firstly, I believe that it is vital for the affected communities (those who identify as women and are affected by inequitable social health structures) to play the central role in the construction of policy and legislative change. A community-based research approach should take place. Community-Based-Research-Organisations (CBROs), need to be in partnership with local councils working hand-in-hand with GBV charities (Schensul, 2015). CROs must remain independent from the government, providing nodes of multiple knowledge with the active focus of providing communities with a voice. This provides an authentic discussion to take place, accounting for a multitude of women’s experiences. This will result in a highly specialised discourse around street harassment and mental health, not just concerning the increase in inactivity levels by women but also in raising awareness of what street harassment looks like to ALL that identify as women. This is not just a one size fits all story. Fundamentally, all voices need to be taken into account by organisations that understand the topic at large here.
A case study from the USA, carried out on College Campuses by anthropologist Jennifer Weis, highlights how, by incorporating local-level mental-health practitioners and victims’ knowledge, a holistic and historically informed (Wies, 2015) multi-tiered policy approach can be fed from the bottom-up, shaping institutionally governed policies.
Secondly, I understand that Priti Patel has recently re-opened a survey published by the Home Office on “Violence Against Women and Girls”. Here, I raise the issue of using comparable datasets that ignore that social behaviours are not inherently comparable (Randall, 2020). The power of quantitative surveys eradicates heterogeneity, thereby misrepresenting the messiness of human experiences and lives. A survey does not open up conversations; rather, it neatly boxes away the opinions of those who have access to resources that allow us to fill in this questionnaire. Moreover, the use of a survey can often cause respondents to complete it with caution (Randall, 2020), as quantitative data can be misused and misinterpreted, thus spinning a narrative favouring those in positions of privilege.
Thirdly, education is vital. If we are to address the problem at large here, the government needs to reform sex education in every school curriculum’s nationwide. Adolescents need to be equipped with the correct tools to mobilise and reflect on the heavily institutionalised gendered norms upheld by several misogynistic cultural traditions in the UK. A study carried out in Uganda aims to address GBV (Lundgren & Adams) and has emphasised the importance of teaching, modelling and advice-giving to reshape gender roles and norms. (Lundgren & Ashburn, 2015) Research showed that both sexes of adolescents sustained behavioural changes that promoted preventative strategies to combat past generational GBV traditions, by incorporating newfound education into traditional community activities, through dance gatherings or wang-oos (Lundgren & Ashburn, 2015). If we are to revolutionise the sex education curriculum in the UK then perhaps we too can start to incorporate adolescent knowledge and understanding from the classroom and into the wider sector of society, bridging the gap between different generations through traditional activities.
Health should be at the centre of all policies; however, it is clear that women’s mental health in particular has suffered at the expense of the government’s COVID-19 public health response. I hope that you take my recommendations into account and relay these inclusive initiatives to your government. It’s crucial to start understanding how the multiple dimensions of gender-biased policies effect the majority of our society and our health.
Black Dog Institute. 2020. During COVID-19, you can exercise your way to better mental health – Black Dog Institute. [online] Available at: <https://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/news/during-covid-19-you-can-exercise-your-way-to-better-mental-health/> [Accessed 8 March 2021].
Dauer, S., 2014. Anthropological Approaches to Gender-based Violence. Working Paper, 1(304), pp.1-12.
GOV.UK Coronavirus (COVID-19) in the UK. 2021. Deaths in United Kingdom. [online] Available at: <https://coronavirus.data.gov.uk/details/deaths> [Accessed 23 March 2021].
Kaur-Ballagan, K., 2020. Gender differences in attitudes towards Coronavirus. [online] London: Ipsos Mori. Available at: <https://www.ipsos.com/sites/default/files/ct/news/documents/2020-05/fawcett_society_presentation.pdf> [Accessed 14 March 2021].
Lundgren, R. and Ashburn, K., 2015. “I’m a REAL Father Now!”: Using Applied Anthropology to Promote Positive Masculinities to Reduce Family Violence in Northern Uganda. In: J. Weis and H. Haldane, ed., Applying Anthropology to Gender-Based Violence, 1st ed. New York: Lexington Books, pp.135-152.
Plan International UK, 2018. STREET HARASSMENT: IT’S NOT OK- GIRLS’ EXPERIENCES OF STREET HARASSMENT IN THE UK. [online] London: Plan International UK, pp.1-9. Available at: <https://plan-uk.org/file/plan-uk-street-harassment-reportpdf/download?token=CyKwYGSJ> [Accessed 9 March 2021].
Public Health England, 2020. Beyond the data: Understanding the impact of COVID-19 on BAME groups. COVID-19. [online] London: PHE publications, pp.25-30. Available at: <https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/892376/COVID_stakeholder_engagement_synthesis_beyond_the_data.pdf> [Accessed 17 March 2021].
Ramh.org. 2018. Gender differences in Mental Health – RAMH. [online] Available at: <https://ramh.org/guide/gender-differences-in-mental-health/> [Accessed 9 March 2021].
Randall, S., 2020. The tensions between comparability and locally meaningful data. In: V. Petit, K. Qureshi, Y. Charbit and P. Kreager, ed., The Anthropological Demography of Health, 1st ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.276-300.
Schensul, J., 2015. Community-Based Research Organizations: Co-constructing Public Knowledge and Bridging Knowledge/Action Communities Through Participatory Action Research. In: S. Beck and C. Maida, ed., Anthropology in a Borderless World, 1st ed. Oxford: Berghahn Books.
Sport England, 2020. Active Lives Adult Survey November 2018/19 Report. [online] London: Sport England, pp.1-33. Available at: <https://sportengland-production-files.s3.eu-west-2.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/2020-04/Active%20Lives%20Adult%20November%2018-19%20Report..pdf?BhkAy2K28pd9bDEz_NuisHl2ppuqJtpZ> [Accessed 8 March 2021].
Stockwell, S., Trott, M., Tully, M., Shin, J., Barnett, Y., Butler, L., McDermott, D., Schuch, F. and Smith, L., 2021. Changes in physical activity and sedentary behaviours from before to during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown: a systematic review. BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine, 7(1), p.e000960.
UN Women UK, 2021. Prevalence and reporting of sexual harassment in UK public spaces. [online] London: APPG for UN Women. Available at: <https://www.unwomenuk.org/site/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/APPG-UN-Women_Sexual-Harassment-Report_2021.pdf> [Accessed 4 March 2021].
Wies, J., 2015. Campus Sexual Violence Policies and Practices: A Holistic and Historical Approach to Research and Practice. In: J. Wies and H. Haldane, ed., Applying Anthropology to Gender-Based Violence Global Responses, Local Practices, 1st ed. New York: Lexington Books, pp.119-132.