Who pays the price?

I went along to an interesting debate on violence against women and girls last night, hosted by Rise as part of their 20th anniversary celebrations.

Both panel and audience were impressively focused and knowledgeable. Some particularly enlightening moments for me were:

  • Hearing from a woman in the audience about her unbelievably bad (but apparently unsurprising) experience with the courts. After excellent support from both Rise and the police, she ended up having to attend court in another town 9 times (6 of which were adjourned), only to see her abuser convicted and sentenced to a laughable 100 hours community service. He walked away smiling, while she had lost her home and custody of her child. As Purna Sen commented, it is difficult to recommend that women pursue court cases, if this is what they can expect.

  • Reminders from all the panellists of the shocking statistics regarding the extent of violence against women and girls. In Brighton & Hove, we were told, 11,000 women each year experience some form of violence or coercive control within their relationships. According to the local strategy document (PDF) on violence against women and girls, “nearly 55,000 women locally will suffer one of these forms of violence (domestic violence, rape, sexual assault, forced marriage, stalking, sexual harassment, female genital mutilation, trafficking, sexual exploitation) in their lifetime.” (page 13)

  • Several mentions by Caroline Lucas of the impact of the coalition government’s cuts on people trying to escape violent situations or get justice from the legal system. Cuts to benefits, to funding for vital services and to legal aid are combining to trap women and children in abusive circumstances.

  • Welcome discussion of the need to see violence against women as part of a wider structure of oppression and inequality, which also includes things like the commonplace objectification of women in newspapers, advertising and magazines; street harassment and sexist bullying in schools and workplaces; gender stereotyping of children from a very young age; and the social construction of both femininity and (crucially) masculinity in a way which leads people to expect, tolerate and accept violence against women and girls.

The frustration of the panellists was plain to see, after so many years between them working on these issues. How can it be that more than two women a week are still being killed by men in the UK?

There was an aspect of the issue that I felt was missing from the discussion, however. The structures which oppress women are economic and financial, as well as cultural and physical. More fundamental than cuts to legal aid and benefits, the whole way relationships and households are organised works to render women financially dependent on men.

If two people are in a relationship and they decide to live together, all the legal and financial systems of the state assume – and indeed require – that they pool their income and arrange their finances as a joint household. Regardless of the individuals’ wishes, this is how they will be considered by the tax and benefits systems and by the courts if there is some kind of dispute between them. It doesn’t matter hugely whether people are married or not – the benefits system at least treats people “living together as if they are married” in exactly the same way as married people.

If a couple has children, it will usually be only the woman who takes time off work or reduces her working hours to care for them when they are little. The reasons for this are complex, and involve cultural expectations as well as factors such as pay inequality between men and women and legal inequality in the length of maternity and paternity leave. For most families, who need to maximise their combined earning potential in order to get by, there is little real choice about it.

However, as with many things in life, once that die is cast it is very difficult to change direction. Women become dependent on their partners for the basic necessities of life – food, shelter and clothing. This inbuilt imbalance of power can be very dangerous if the relationship becomes coercive or violent.

As James Rowlands pointed out at the debate, behind the most extreme cases there lies an epidemic of ‘low level’ abuse. Thousands of women are putting up with situations that should be seen by everyone as intolerable – often because they are calculating that it’s better to live with a controlling partner than to be without a home for themselves and their children.

Alongside the vital political educational and cultural work being done by groups like the End Violence against Women coalition and the Miss Represented project locally, I think it’s also important to talk about ideas like equal pay, shared parenting and citizens’ income as part of a process of breaking down the gendered building blocks of our whole economic system.

An aside

Watching Purna Sen and Caroline Lucas side by side, sharing their knowledge and passion with the audience last night, I felt frustrated and angry about a party political system that has pitted these two impressive and inspiring feminists against each other in the 2015 general election. What a waste of talent and energy!

Meanwhile, in Hove, we have an all-male contest, featuring the vile Mike Weatherley, whose law against squatting has led directly to at least one death and the highly dubious Peter Kyle, who participated in a joint complaint against a labour Secretary of State for Health in 2010, in support of the right of private companies to bid for NHS contracts.

In both contests, since we are stuck with the worst possible voting system, large numbers of voters will end up voting for someone they don’t like, or against someone they do like, and will make their choices based on who they think will win, rather than which policies they support. Imagine how different things could be if we had a reasonable system like STV!

No wonder people are turning away from party politics in their droves!

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