This Saturday, November 25, marks the annual UN International Day of Elimination of Violence against Women, writes city council leader Bella Sankey. This year’s theme is Invest to Prevent. It calls on governments worldwide to invest in prevention to eradicate violence against women and girls.

This awareness day shouldn’t exist, but the reality is that it still needs to. Globally, an estimated 736 million women, almost one in three, have been subjected to physical and/or sexual violence in their life.

And this doesn’t include sexual harassment figures. A 2022 investigation by UN Women UK found that 97 per cent of women aged 18 to 24 have been sexually harassed, with a further 96 per cent not reporting those situations because of the belief that it would not change anything.

I’ve been one of them. As a young woman, growing up in Brighton and Hove in the 1990s, sexual harassment was commonplace. I remember planning my routes about town carefully to try to avoid areas where I knew I’d get harassed. I remember having my drink spiked at a seafront club. And I remember on one school trip to London being grabbed by a man in front of my class at a busy railway station. This behaviour was so normalised we wouldn’t have thought of reporting it to police.

While reporting of sexual violence has increased and reflects a greater willingness to report crimes, victims are being met with an over-stretched police service and a creaking justice system. In 2022, just 1.6 per cent of rapes were charged – down from 8.5 per cent in 2015.

In Brighton and Hove, like other parts of England we have seen a huge rise in the number of recorded sexual offences in the city. In the year 22/23, the numbers were at a record high level and six men have been charged with sexual assault or rape on or near Brighton beach in September alone. This is unacceptable, intolerable and must be tackled with urgency.

Last week I met temporary Chief Superintendent for Brighton and Hove Rachel Carr to discuss, among other things the police force’s approach to violence against women and girls. I was pleased to hear that in response to the spike in sexual violence the police have changed their strategy, changing the times and areas they patrol at night. I was also pleased to hear of an increase in the proportion of domestic abuse cases being charged in the past few months.

As a born and bred Brightonian, I’ve enjoyed many nights out in our city and I want everyone, residents and visitors, to experience and enjoy all our city has to offer without concerns for their safety. But it shouldn’t be the responsibility of women to keep themselves safe, they should not feel threatened in the first place.

In recent years, tackling violence against women and girls has not been approached with the level of urgency required and have been hampered by a lack of political will, cuts to policing and a lack of confidence in the justice system. A significant shift is required that focuses on prevention, and on bringing the perpetrators to justice.

Nationally Labour is committed to using all of the levers of government to deliver on a mission to halve levels of violence against women and girls within a decade.

This includes domestic abuse, rape, sexual violence, stalking and "honour" killings. Labour will also restore public confidence in the police and criminal justice system to its highest level, by putting specialists into the court system and the police service, introducing a new Domestic Abuse Register to track offenders and help protect victims. A new perpetrator programme will target 1,000 most dangerous abusers and sex offenders who pose a risk to women.

As your Labour council we are committed to tackling the issue locally with a strategic and co-ordinated approach. There are some fantastic organisations in our city who are laser focused on ending violence against women and girls. We want to work in partnership with them and the police on this shared goal.

The council has recently launched a consultation on our VAWG strategy, which is open until January 1 2024. We want to hear about your experiences and your ideas. The four priority areas in the draft strategy are: a better co-ordinated response between services, prioritising prevention through education, supporting survivors, and building an accountable community by holding perpetrators to account to reduce the harm they cause.

In January we will also be holding one of “Re-imagine” events on the issue of VAWG. This is an opportunity for all members of our community to come together and share their ideas for how we can reimagine a city that is safer for women and girls.

Bella Sankey is Labour leader of Brighton and Hove City Council