Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/755/16279
International Women's Day 2013
Stop violence against women
From the Savile scandal, to gang rape in India, to allegations against a leading member of the Lib Dems, a common thread runs through many recent news stories: sexism, violence against girls and women, and abuse.
To mark International Women's Day, which takes place on 8 March, the Socialist outlines why violence against women exists and how it can be tackled.
Eleanor Donne, Socialist Women committee
The 'Slutwalk' protests have been an 'in your face' challenge to the reactionary idea that how women dress and behave can 'invite' rape.
The idea that men rape because of uncontrolled sexual urges - that they 'can't stop themselves', is still widely held.
In fact three quarters of rapes are pre-planned not 'spontaneous'. Safety campaigns urge women not to indulge in 'risky behaviour' like drinking and walking home in the dark.
Yet nearly half of rape survivors are attacked in their own home, usually by their partner or ex-partner.
In 2005 an Amnesty International poll found that a third of people in Britain think women who behave 'flirtatiously' or are drunk are partly to blame if they are raped.
A quarter felt the same if the woman is wearing 'sexy' or revealing clothes and 20% if she has had a lot of sexual partners.
These findings (which apparently showed that women and men held roughly equal views) revealed the extent of prejudice and double standards where men and women's sexuality are concerned.
However, the fact that large numbers of young women and men took to the streets to protest against 'victim blaming' on the Slutwalk demonstrations in the last two years reflects and reinforces a growing understanding of the need to challenge such prejudice.
Violence, including sexual violence, at the hands of a partner or ex-partner is not something that only happens in a few 'dysfunctional' couples or families.
One in five women and one in 20 men will face sexual assault at some time in their life. At least one in four women experience intimate partner violence (IPV). Home Office statistics show that two women a week are killed by their partner.
IPV accounts for a quarter of all violent crime and (according to Amnesty International research) costs £5.8 billion a year to the criminal justice system, health and social services, local authority housing and loss to the economy through time off work.
Why does it happen?
There have been some headlines recently about a rise in IPV, linking this to the effects of economic recession.
Any statistics on crime need to be treated with caution as sometimes cause and effect are not always clear.
Cuts in support services, benefits cuts and a housing shortage are likely to force more women to remain in violent relationships when they otherwise may leave.
Money worries, the loss of a job and the status that goes with it can increase pressures in any relationship.
However, the idea that unemployment, poverty and bad housing in themselves cause domestic violence is not true.
There is ample evidence to show that perpetrators and survivors come from many different economic backgrounds.
Perpetrators of domestic violence give lots of reasons for their abusive behaviour; financial difficulties, jealousy, alcohol, 'nagging', pressure of work.
Any of these or something else could be a 'trigger' but fundamentally the purpose of the violence or threats is to exert power over a partner and control what they do.
The feeling that such power is legitimate is rooted in ideas about men being at the head of the family, and reinforced by material inequality.
Most of us think of our family in terms of personal relationships, our loved ones. For the capitalist system, however, the family is first and foremost an economic unit.
Big business shareholders and their apologists in government maximise profits by keeping wages low. But they also keep to a minimum the 'social wage' - the costs of feeding, clothing, housing and educating a new generation of workers, caring for those too young, old or sick to work, by offloading this from the state onto individual families.
The family is also used as a means of social control - reinforcing the hierarchy in society. This is much more blatant in societies with semi-feudal social relations such as Pakistan, India and some Middle Eastern and African countries where men's authority often has the full weight of the law and religious authorities behind it.
This helps to explain the horrifying levels of rape and violence against women in much of the ex-colonial world.
Tory and New Labour governments alike have upheld the traditional idea that a key role of the family is to teach discipline, blaming 'family breakdown' for social problems such as crime or rioting.
In Britain we are generally free to choose our partners and to end relationships. Women can no longer be imprisoned for adultery.
However, it was only just over 20 years ago that law lords finally ruled that marital rape was illegal.
The idea of 'conjugal rights' can still give many men a sense of entitlement to sex - hence the level of rape by partners or ex-partners (around one third of attacks).
So-called 'date rape' is still often posed as less serious than stranger rape - scandalously, even by former Tory justice secretary Ken Clarke.
The legal right of husbands to beat their wives was removed 150 years ago, but domestic violence continued to be downplayed by the police as a private matter.
Some organisations claiming to represent father's rights have argued that IPV is no longer a gender-based crime and that men are now 'equal victims'.
This argument is based on some discredited statistics and is refuted by many others which show that women make up by far the majority of those suffering more serious assaults, choking, strangling, and repeated violence.
This is not to say that men do not get abused by their partners, male or female, and when this happens they should have access to appropriate support.
The fact that sexual coercion and violence against women is still so widespread in countries which outlaw such behaviour, has led to a pessimistic view that it must be 'natural' rather than socially constructed - a kind of 'universal male behaviour'.
Violence and rape are the most extreme and deeply rooted expressions of women's oppression, but there is nothing 'natural' about them, any more than there is about war and inequality.
Some evolutionary biologists speculate that rape is a 'by-product' of early man's primeval need to procreate - they argue that aggressive and sexually promiscuous males passed more of their genes on.
Rape, they say, is a 'side effect' of an evolutionary advantage. If this is the case, why is it that anthropologists studying early human societies which existed for tens of thousands of years and surviving hunter gatherer societies, find very little, if any, evidence of aggression, still less sexual coercion?
In fact, it was much later 'civilisation' (class society) founded on exploitative relations outside and inside the home that, over time, imposed severe restrictions on women's sexuality, and removed them from their previously vital public role in tribal societies.
Scope for change
As socialists we are optimistic about the potential for developing a society which does not rely on exploitation of one class by another and allows us the opportunity to develop personal relationships free from the pressures not just of poverty and overwork but of gender inequality.
Violence against women and the cuts
- 31% cut to funding for sexual and domestic violence services
- 230 women were turned away by Women's Aid on the average day in 2011 because of lack of space in shelters
- The legal aid budget is being cut by £350 million a year - it is estimated 54% of women suffering from domestic violence would not qualify for legal aid
- The number of Independent Domestic Violence Advisors has been reduced: in 2011 among 8 major IDVA service providers, 2 faced funding cuts of 100%, 3 cuts of 50%, 3 of 40% and 2 of 25%
- 2 out of 6 specialist refuges for women from black, Asian and minority ethnic groups closed and 2 others suffered significant funding cuts
- Respect services, working to reform male perpetrators of domestic violence, suffered budget cuts leading to a 78% reduction in the number of clients they were able to assist
- Statutory provision, including those police and court services that involve specialised expertise, has also been reduced following funding cuts. This includes cuts in the operating levels of Domestic Abuse Officers, a unit on female genital mutilation and domestic violence courts
What do socialists do? Campaigning can make a difference
Alongside the gloom of statistics and stories about rape and IPV, there has been another side to the past year.
From Delhi, to Europe and America, huge anger at rape and sexual violence has spilled onto the streets in the form of protests.
In India, rage against the enormous prevalence of rape and sexual violence resulted in a mass movement that shook the establishment.
While more modest in scale, protests such as Slutwalk, which have been organised closer to home, have challenged many of the myths surrounding rape, and a culture that blames victims.
So what do socialists say about challenging violence against women? Can campaigning make any difference? Or is the problem too ingrained for anything to be done?
Fight for change now
Socialists argue that the root cause of women's oppression, and its often violent expressions, is the existence of a society based on class division, hierarchy and exploitation.
Therefore an end to sexism would require some quite fundamental changes. In fact ultimately, it would require an end to capitalism, which profits from women's secondary position in society, if we are to begin the work of making abuse a thing of the past.
Saying this, however, does not exclude winning improvements for women in the here and now. In fact, as with all issues, it is through working class people getting organised and fighting to make things better, that we can begin to build a movement that can win victories and develop the confidence to change things more fundamentally.
That's why socialists not only participate in protests and movements like those mentioned above, we actively set out to develop and lead campaigns on these issues.
In the 1990s, it was members of the Socialist Party's forerunner, Militant, who initiated the Campaign Against Domestic Violence (CADV) with others.
It was set up in response to a number of appalling stories of abuse, as well as of women being given life sentences for killing extremely violent partners in acts of huge desperation.
The campaign began with a series of aims, which included raising awareness of domestic violence, winning changes to the law to improve the position of abused women, fighting for decent provision of refuges and other women's services and for the trade unions to take this up as a workplace issue.
The campaign was political - not aimed just at helping individuals (important as that is), but at setting what is sometimes seen as a personal matter in the context of its causes and possible solutions within society.
One of the campaign's biggest successes was to help ensure that almost every trade union in the country had a clear policy on domestic violence, making it a workplace issue. CADV was able to win other important victories, including legal changes.
Rape Is No Joke
In 2013, socialists continue to fight on these issues. The recent launch of Rape is No Joke by Socialist Students is an example of how we are doing this.
This campaign is particularly focussed on challenging some of the sexist attitudes and culture that help increase the acceptability, and indeed the prevalence, of rape and violence against women.
In particular it is targeting misogyny in comedy and the rape jokes which are now prevalent in some parts of the scene.
While these jokes are of course symptoms of wider trends in society, they also reinforce reactionary ideas which can impact on lives.
Around this year's International Women's Day, Rape is No Joke has organised a week of action. Rape joke-free comedy nights, stunts and meetings are all planned to coincide with this important date for the workers' movement.
Socialists aim to unite working class people to fight sexism and oppression and for an end to the rotten capitalist system which creates them.
The Socialist Party has a proud tradition of fighting violence against women, one which is being continued and developed in the present.
If you want to help fight sexism and argue for a socialist society - one free of the brutality of women's oppression - then join the Socialist Party today.
The Socialist Party's demands:
- An end to victim blaming! Decent education in schools, workplaces and trade unions about the myths and facts of rape
- Decent support - including legal, emotional and where necessary practical - for survivors of sexual assault, rape and domestic violence
- No to closure of domestic violence support services! Increase and improve the services to help those women affected by domestic violence
- A mass building programme of decent, affordable social housing to make sure women have somewhere to go should they choose to leave a violent relationship
- No cuts to legal aid. Increase threshold for legal aid so that all women can access it for divorce cases. No to enforced mediation
- The right for all women to have full control over when and whether they have children. Protect and improve abortion services
- A united mass campaign against all the cuts, including a 24-hour general strike
- A socialist alternative to class and sex inequality. Join the Socialist Party!
The Rape Is No Joke campaign is organising a week of action 4-10 March. Meetings, comedy nights and protests will be taking place around the country, including this event in London on International Women's Day.
See rapeisnojoke.com for details of what's happening near you, to get involved and to download the week of action campaign pack to help you make plans.
In The Socialist 7 March 2013:
Socialist Party news and analysis
Socialist Party feature
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party reports and campaigns
Socialist Party workplace news
Socialist Party review