This week we celebrated the stories, among others, of two brilliant women who helped change their profession forever. Rose Heilbron and Helena Normanton were among the first female barristers and the first two women ever to be made King’s Counsel (KC) in 1949.

Both of these women were passionate advocates for two causes that are core tenets of equality. Helena believed women should be paid the same as men for equal work. Rose believed that it was a waste of talent for women to be unable to return to work having had children.

Their stories were shared as part of Advocating Girls: a collaboration between The Abbey and five partner schools from the independent and maintained sectors, with the generous support of Lady Justice Geraldine Andrews and Gray’s Inn. Together we organised an event looking at women and girls and the law. Students ran the whole show with extraordinary capability and assurance: there were drama performances and talks and a remarkable panel of speakers including the Rt Hon Baroness Shami Chakrabarti, HHJ Anuja Dhir KC, Caroline Carberry KC and Sultana Tafdar KC.

The panel discussion came immediately before a performance telling Rose and Helena’s stories. When asked about obstacles in the law in 2023, the panel identified two of the most significant as the lack of equal pay and the failure to support women’s return to the profession having had children. Then we heard brilliant student performers, using Rose and Helena’s words, vocalise exactly the same concerns from over seventy years before.

There are plenty of reasons for frustration in the persistence of these and other challenges. And there are plenty of reasons for dismay in the continuing lack of fairness for women and girls in law, particularly with regard to sexual offences.

The Office for National Statistics estimated in 2022 that there were 2 million adult victims of rape in the UK. If they linked hands to form a human chain, it would stretch from the south coast to the Scottish border. For all forms of sexual assault, the number was 8 million. That human chain would stretch from Reading to Moscow.

In 2021 alone over 67,000 rape offences were recorded: 184 a day (only recorded cases – the true number is likely to be many multiples higher). Of these 3.6% ended in completed prosecutions; 2% in conviction. Trust in the system is low and declining and that starts from first response. A recent survey showed that 71% of men and women believe the culture of policing must change to respond better to violence against women and girls.

This is the context for the continuing work of Advocating Girls: to become a campaign connecting girls at school and professionals in policing and law so that voices are heard and experiences shared. To respond to these continuing injustices with a relentless, fierce and unyielding hope to support and accelerate change.

This emerging campaign is a collaboration between The Abbey, Wimbledon High School GDST and City of London School for Girls and will see continued partnerships with other schools and across the justice system.

Despite the ongoing challenges, there was so much to celebrate in the event this week. The remarkable trailblazers who began the process of change. The extraordinary progress that has been made already. The sense of unity about the path ahead.

Above all it was an occasion to celebrate the achievements of the eminent women so generously giving their time and the students from all six schools. They were so impressive in their vitality and clarity of purpose. The room was full of both realism and optimism, of resolve and potential.

When Helena Normanton spoke of what gave her hope, as she battled the repeated obstacles in her way, she said simply that she believed discrimination in the end was doomed. She believed that ‘while any woman is held back from the position to which her talents draw her, the whole of womanhood is lowered’; and that ‘women would not stand it, and nor would men’. Advocating Girls is about continuing to see that belief and that hope fulfilled.

Will le Fleming, Head