In this feature, first published in the April 2018 edition of Anglican World, Amelia Brown examines a campaign led by an Anglican woman in England to force the British government to take steps to prevent violence against women.
Women in the Democratic Republic of Congo travelling alongside their own troops through war torn areas. A 19-yearold college girl in California walking home from a party. A 12-year-old girl in Pakistan given in marriage to a man 30-years her senior. While each life and context is vastly different, each of these women faces the real possibility of violence, threat of rape, forced marriages, so-called “honour” killings, and domestic abuse.
These issues, and more, plague women from one part of the world to another, from east to west. Violence against women may be so ingrained into society that the possibility of ending it is overwhelming. Many of us may wish to do something, but have no clue how to begin. Fuelled by passion and faith, one young woman brought gender justice to the attention of her own government.
In 2011, the Council of Europe – an intergovernmental body working to uphold human rights, democracy, and the rule of law across its 47 member-states – drafted a Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence on Women and Domestic Violence. Known as the Istanbul Convention, it is one of the most comprehensive legal frameworks on gender-based violence, setting standards for how a government should tackle violence against women in terms of prevention, prosecuting, and monitoring. By 2017, 45 countries had signed the convention; and 28 had gone on to ratify it.
The UK was one of the nations that signed the convention. But it has yet to ratify it and so has never been under formal obligation to fulfil the convention’s requirements.
Robyn Boosey, a member of St John’s, Hampton Wick, decided it was time to change that. She had come to faith at the age of 13. Since her time in university, she has viewed the gospel through a social action lens. Most recently, that meant organising, launching, and managing a social media and action campaign demanding the government to take steps towards ratifying the Istanbul Convention: ICChangeUK.
As Robyn discovered, the UK held back ratification of the Istanbul Convention until it could pass appropriate legislation that would allow it to be compliant. In the years since the UK had signed the Convention, passing such legislation moved to the back of the agenda and became forgotten. ICChangeUK was set up to mobilise supporters to reach out to their Members of Parliament and bring these issues back to the top of the government’s agenda.
Robyn’s story began in 2014 after an intensive week spent at Campaign Bootcamp, a residential advocacy and activism training programme. There she combined an initial passion for women’s issues and an inspiration to start an advocacy campaign. After learning about the Istanbul Convention and that the UK had yet to ratify it, Robyn decided to give her new skills a try.
“At first the whole idea was quite naive. It was based around the idea that we’d start a change.org petition, like many campaigns do these days, that would go viral, the government would realise the error of their ways and they would say OK, and ratify it. We thought it would be quite a quick process,” Robyn recalled.
Quickly, she and her co-leader realised that the process would take far more work. They would need allies both inside and outside the government, and target their actions to supporters and MPs personally. Ultimately, their campaign needed to prove enough of an immediate and popular need to wade through the layers of bureaucracy that passing laws demands.
Robyn and her team first approached Christian and secular women’s organisations for support. Even this first step took more work than expected. Organisations were slow to open up to the campaign, taking time to build up relationships. This entire process of relationship building and low-key social media awareness actions took about a year.
In the second year, they began creating relationships within Parliament itself. It was during this year that Robyn and her team were able to push for Parliamentary Actions, or openings for members of Parliament to debate subjects. Little by little, they gained ground. They asked their online supporters to contact their MPs. At one point, they even asked supporters to send their MPs “motivational mixtapes.” These “mixtapes” could mean tweeting or sending playlists on a flash drive of songs encouraging MPs to take up the cause. Finally, after about a year, Robyn and her team had the opportunity to take advantage of a Private Members’ Bill.
This Private Members’ Bill is a unique process, through which a Member of Parliament may propose a Bill on whatever subject they chose, rather than the government driving the legislation. In general, this isn’t an easy or recommended process for change-makers. The odds of such a Bill gaining enough support to pass are low. With their partners’ support, Robyn and the campaign were able to convince MP Eilidh Whiteford to introduce a Bill about the Istanbul Convention. Together they began to encourage more MPs from multiple parties to take part in debate and readings of the Bill.
That said, not all MPs were so encouraging. In fact, some opposed the Bill in no few words. One MP even tried to filibuster the bill. Yet, against all odds, the Bill went through various readings, and eventually to a vote. What went from being an idea dreamt up by a handful of young professional women in their living room became a major social media and public campaign for change.
While the campaigning isn’t yet finished, Robyn reflected on the improbability of its success, and how she felt God’s hand at work throughout the process. As Robyn discovered, mobilising MPs and bringing about the Bill was neither an easy nor a quick task. Even once they’d raised enough support to bring around voting on an initial Bill, now known as the Istanbul Convention Bill, they faced an uphill battle.
A vote required a minimum of 100 MPs to be present and the vote was taking place on a Friday evening close to Christmas. Robyn recalls that she dreamt that 130 would attend, but the likelihood of even 100 on such a date was extremely unlikely. And yet, when the vote came, over 135 MPs attended that first vote. Moreover, the vote passed.
“It was like that verse, ‘I can do infinitely more than what you ask or imagine,’” Robyn explained. “God has repeatedly reminded me throughout the campaign that if I want to make the biggest impact possible then I have to start with Him. Don’t try to do it all in my own strength. And whenever He’d remind me of that, and I’d pray, we’d have quite a big breakthrough.”
The Bill went on to became law – the Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence (Ratification of Convention) Act 2017 – in Spring last year. It requires the government to report annually to Parliament on steps being taken to ratify the Convention. The government has announced that it will introduce a Domestic Violence Bill to bring into law obligations it would need to undertake before it is able to ratify the convention.
While the purpose of the campaign was not exclusively Christian, Robyn’s faith fuelled her drive.
“It comes from this place of justice and God is a God of justice. God cares deeply about all people and every human being has dignity in His eyes.”
She also reflected on how sometimes people are confused by her work and how she bridges it with her faith. For Robyn there is no confusion. Working to end violence against women – whether that means domestic abuse, rape, FGM, forced marriages, or any of the other cases laid out in the Istanbul Convention – connects to the Gospel.
“We have to recognise that gender inequality is not the way that God planned the world – since the Fall, that’s when the power imbalance started to go wrong,” she said. “It’s part of His vision for setting things right in the world. And for some crazy reason He wants us to partner with Him in that.”
Robyn offered suggestions to any Christians, particularly young adults, who want to see change in their world, wherever they are. Her best advice? Just start something, start small, and pray. As she found in her own experience, “He’s saying come on, you’ve got a role to play, you’ve got so much to give. You are needed.”