We Need a New Wave of Feminist Activism

Violence Against Women
by Ian Sinclair
October 30, 2007, Morning Star

Feminism is finished. Kaput. Outdated. Irrelevant. Didn’t you get the memo?

But wait a minute. What about the estimated 30,000 women who are sacked, made redundant, or leave their jobs every year because of pregnancy discrimination?[1] Or the 4,000 women that are estimated to be trafficked in to the UK annually to feed the growing sex industry?[2] And let’s not forget the increasing number of women being imprisoned, women’s gross under representation in parliament, the judiciary and the higher echelons of business and the fact women still continue to do the majority of domestic labour.[3]

However, while all these facts are pertinent to the continuing subjection of women, perhaps the most shocking issue facing women today is the level of violence that is directed against them, something Amnesty International have been highlighting since 2005 with their ongoing Stop Violence Against Women campaign.[4]

The cold statistics are sobering. In England and Wales one in four women will be a victim of domestic violence in their lifetime, while one in twenty women have been the victim of rape.[5] Rather than an aberration, it is clear violence against women is widespread, common in all communities, regardless of class, ethnic or generational differences.

We need a wholesale re-imagining of the threats women face. While the mainstream media persistently focus on stranger danger, in fact the most dangerous place for a woman is her own home. Often, this supposed cosy, secure haven, is actually a place of fear, injury, and for some, death, with two women killed by their male partner or former partner every week in the UK. Gill Hague, Director of the Violence Against Women Research Group at the University of Bristol, notes “the home is after all behind closed doors, away from the public’s eye, protected by the spoken and unspoken rules about privacy, about not interfering in other people’s business”.[6] Regarding sexual assault, women are also most likely to be attacked by men they know – again partners or acquaintances are the most common perpetrators.

Dismayingly violence directed at women continues to be seen as acceptable by many people. For example, a 2003 BBC Online/ ICM survey of men and women found that while 78 per cent of respondents said they would report to the police or RSPCA if someone was kicking or mistreating their dog, only 53 per cent would intervene by going to the police if they knew someone was kicking or mistreating their partner.[7] Mind blowing as this statistic is, it dovetails with previous research such as a 2005 NSPCC survey of 2,000 teenagers which found 43 per cent of respondents (both boys and girls) believed it was acceptable for a boyfriend to get aggressive in certain circumstances – if a girl cheated on him, flirted with someone else or “dressed outrageously”.[8]

Underpinning this general acceptance of violence against women is the widespread attitude that women are partly to blame for the crimes committed against them, with a 2005 Amnesty International survey finding 26 per cent of interviewees thought a woman was partially or totally responsible for being raped if she was wearing sexy or revealing clothing, and 22 per cent holding the same view if the woman had many sexual partners.[9]

Rape convictions today are at an all-time low with approximately six per cent of reported rape offences resulting in a conviction (this compares with conviction rates of up to 32 per cent in the 1970s).[10] “Rapists who end up being convicted in a court of law must regard themselves as exceptionally unlucky“, Joanna Bourke wryly notes in her new book Rape: a history from 1860 to the present.[11] Furthermore services for victims of violence remain underfunded and inadequate, with just 32 rape crisis centres in England and Wales (compared to 84 in 1985).[12] Just how mixed up society’s priorities are is highlighted by Liz Kelly, Professor of Sexualised Violence at London Metropolitan University, who points out there are now three times as many pole dancing clubs than rape crisis centres in the UK.[13]

Depressing though all this is, it is important to remember significant progress has been made already, specifically because the second wave feminism of the late 1960s and early 1970s successfully campaigned for services, legal protection and to get domestic violence seen as a crime. Prior to this the plight of women who were abused was largely ignored by healthcare practitioners, and a man was within his legal right to rape his wife and beat her as long as he used a reasonable degree of chastisement.[14]

Feminist scholars have also focussed attention on the perpetrators of the majority of violence directed at women – men – insisting they take responsibility for their actions. Indeed, with its elevation of toughness, aggression, control, power, dominance and humiliation of much that’s considered female, for the violence to end surely the popular form of masculinity needs to be challenged and, eventually, phased out? It is this line of thinking that lead Michael Kimmel and Michael Messner, authors of the influential reader Men’s Lives, to suggest that, “The man who batters women and/or children should not be viewed as a ‘deviant’ from some healthy ‘norm’, but rather as an ‘over conformist’ to mainstream male norms.”[15]

In conclusion, while there continues to be wide ranging debate among feminists and researchers regarding the causes of violence against women, most agree it arises out of the continuing unequal position of women in society. This damaging status quo will only be changed by women (and concerned men) coming together and pressuring those who hold the reigns of power. In short, we need a new wave of feminist activism. Those who deny this and insist feminism is a historical dinosaur would do well to ponder author and activist David Edwards thought provoking truism that “there is often no greater obstacle to freedom than the assumption that it has already been attained.”[16]

* An edited version of this article was recently published in the Morning Star. ian_js@hotmail.com.

[1] Lucy Ward, ‘Pregnancy bias costs 30,000 jobs’, Guardian, 2 February 2005, http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2005/feb/02/equality.discriminationatwork
[2] Mark Gould, ‘Market Forces’, Guardian (Society), 22 August 2007, http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2007/aug/22/guardiansocietysupplement.crime1
[3] Prison Reform Trust, ‘September 2004 – thousands of women needlessly imprisoned’, http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/subsection.asp?id=332. Polly Curtis, ‘Six thousand women missing from boardrooms, politics and courts’, Guardian, 5 January 2007, http://business.guardian.co.uk/story/0,,1983369,00.html.
[4] Amnesty International UK, ‘Stop violence against women’, http://www.amnesty.org.uk/content.asp?CategoryID=10220
[5] Amnesty International UK, ‘Statistics’, http://www.amnesty.org.uk/content.asp?CategoryID=10309
[6] Gill Hague and Ellen Malos, Domestic violence. Action for change (New Clarion Press, Cheltenham, 2005), p. 6.
[7] Peter Gould, ‘Scale of domestic violence uncovered’, BBC News, 18 February 2003, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/low/uk/2752567.stm
[8] John Carvel and Steven Morris, ‘Alarm at acceptance of abuse by teenage girls’, Guardian, 21 March 2005, http://www.guardian.co.uk/child/story/0,7369,1442371,00.html
[9] Amnesty International, ‘New poll finds a third of people believe women who flirt partially responsible for being raped’, 21 November 2005, http://www.amnesty.org.uk/news_details.asp?NewsID=16618
[10] Sandra Laville, ‘Efforts fail to improve rape conviction rates’, Guardian, 21 July 2007, http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,,2131481,00.html
[11] Joanna Bourke, Rape: a history from 1860 to present (Virago Press Ltd, London, 2007).
[12] Lucy Ward, ‘Half rape crisis centres face closure threat’, Guardian, 3 July 2007, http://www.guardian.co.uk/crime/article/0,,2117407,00.html
[13] Liz Kelly, ‘End violence against women blog’, End violence against women, http://endviolenceagainstwomen.blogspot.com/2007/03/three-times-number-of-lap-dancing-clubs.html
[14] Lyn Shipway, Domestic violence. A handbook for health professionals (Routledge, London, 2004), p. 5.
[15] Michael Kimmel and Michael Messner, Men’s Lives (Macmillan Publishing Co., New York, 1989), p. 357.
[16] David Edwards, Free to be human: Intellectual self-defines in an age of illusions (Green Books, Devon, 2000).

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