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Violence against women

Significant changes have taken place over the past couple of decades, impacting on the position of women in society. Some commentators even claim that these mean that gender equality has been achieved. However, as ELEANOR DONNE reports, domestic violence, which is usually targeted against women, remains prevalent, and is linked to the roles that women play in capitalist society.

THE HORRIFIC ATTACK on Abigail Witchall last year, knifed and left for dead by a stranger in a country lane, understandably captured media headlines for days, with journalists questioning how such a thing could happen in the ‘safest county in England’. In fact, the place where a woman is most at risk from violence, rape or even murder, whether in the leafy ‘home counties’ or the inner city, is in her own home. Her attacker is less likely to be a stranger then someone she knows, most often her husband/partner or ex-husband/partner.

Home Office statistics show that around two women a week are killed by their partner. Whilst more men overall are victims of murder, the vast majority of them are killed by other men, either strangers or acquaintances. Only 8% of male murder victims are killed by their partner and in most of these cases the woman has experienced violence and kills out of fear or in self-defence.

Domestic violence (abuse of a partner/ex-partner, sometimes called ‘interpersonal violence’) is not something which only happens with a few ‘dysfunctional’ couples or families. Recent surveys show that around one third of women in the UK experience abuse from a partner/ex-partner at some point in their life. It accounts for a quarter of all violent crime and, according to recent 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.

Domestic violence does not just happen in working-class families. Perpetrators and victims come from many different backgrounds. Men give lots of reasons for their violence: 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 their partner and control what they do. The feeling that such power is legitimate is rooted in ideas about man being at the head of the family, and is reinforced by evidence of women’s lower status in society.

Most of us think of our family in terms of personal relationships, our loved ones. However, the family developed as an economic and social institution to serve the interests of a system based on private property. It became a means to pass on and consolidate wealth (for example, through property) and as a unit of control, with built-in authority for the man as head of the household (sometimes called the patriarchal family).

There was nothing natural about such inequality nor is it the case that men were inherently violent in early societies which existed for thousands of years. This model of the family was to serve the interests of a rising wealthy class, which imposed its laws and ideology on the whole of society. Women and children became the property of their husbands and could be ‘chastised’ accordingly. Up until the turn of the 20th century it was legal to beat your wife and, incredibly, it was only in 1991 that the Law Lords ruled that rape within marriage was a crime.

Abuse also happens in same-sex relationships, as gay men are not immune from the conditioning of their childhood and society as a whole. Although less common, it does occur in lesbian couples because the use of violence is not a biological urge caused by too many male hormones, but a socially constructed means of exerting power and control within a relationship.

Social changes

THERE IS NO doubt that domestic violence is much more publicly acknowledged than in the past, with TV soaps falling over themselves to include story lines about the issue. This is because over the past 20-25 years there have been significant changes in the position of women in society. These have led to a growing awareness that issues such as domestic violence and rape should be seen not just as personal problems but as social problems for society to deal with. The most important of these changes has been the big increase in women working outside the home, including those with young children. Although women make up the majority of those in part-time, low-paid jobs, going out to work has allowed them some economic independence and confidence to challenge traditional ideas about their role in society.

This in turn has led to changes in the family. The traditional family with male ‘breadwinner’ and wife at home is now a minority. Divorce rates have increased as access to work or social security benefits mean that women face less pressure to stay in relationships that are abusive, or even simply unhappy. There is no longer the stigma attached to being a lone parent that there was in the 1970s.

This ‘feminisation’ of the workplace came about, not as a result of a conscious political movement or collective struggle (which had been important in getting the Equal Pay Act implemented, for example), but because of the ‘restructuring’ of British capitalism throughout the 1980s and 1990s from manufacturing to service industries and from full- to part-time work. However, facilities such as nurseries, care homes and the NHS fall far short of workers’ needs, and it is working-class women in the main who have to take up the slack.

These attacks were only possible after the defeat of trade union struggles in the 1980s and the labour and trade union leaders abandoning any idea of defending the interests of working-class people. So whilst social attitudes have become generally more progressive, this process has been uneven and contradictory as political consciousness has fallen back.

More young women, in particular, expect to have a good job and financial independence from men than 20 years ago and the gap between men and women’s pay and opportunities has narrowed for those under 30 without children. However, if they go on to have kids, that is when, statistically, inequality at work and in the home increases.

Young women are also generally more confident to express their sexuality and have higher expectations from relationships. Yet it is women under 25 who experience the highest levels of domestic violence. There may be a number of reasons for this, such as changing partners more often than older women. However, it is possible that there is a gap between expectation and reality in terms of relationships as well as career. In a recent Body Shop survey, a majority of women said that if their partner hit them they would leave straight away. However, repeat violence is common and the police estimate that on average a woman is assaulted on 35 occasions before reporting it to them.

Also, sadly, half of the women who had experienced violence and a quarter of those who have been raped had not told anyone about this. Although the old stigma about divorce has receded, there may be different pressures on women not to be a ‘victim’ or admit failure. As the concept of collective struggle for social change has been off the agenda for so long, many people have the attitude that it is up to the individual to ‘sort themselves out’.

Deep prejudice

LEGAL AND SOCIAL changes have been talked up by some pundits as a ‘genderquake’, where women have gained rights at the expense of men, and it is not possible to argue that women are oppressed anymore. Some organisations claiming to represent fathers’ rights have even argued that domestic violence is not a ‘gender-based’ crime and that men are 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. Furthermore, rape and sexual assault are overwhelmingly gender-based crimes and more than half of rapes are carried out by the woman’s partner or ex-partner.

Although numbers of women reporting rape to the police have increased, it is still the most under-reported crime in Britain. The British Crime Survey (BCS) of 2001 estimated that 47,000 women had been raped in the year 2000 yet fewer than 15% reported their rape to the police. Eighty percent of reported rapes never get to court, and of those that do only 5.6% result in a prosecution. In other words, only a tiny minority of rapists are ever held to account and rape is regarded as a low risk crime for this reason.

Amnesty International conducted a poll on rape recently which found that one third of people in Britain think women who behave ‘flirtatiously’ or are drunk are partly to blame if they are raped. A quarter feel the same if the woman is wearing ‘sexy’ or revealing clothes and 20% if she has had a lot of sexual partners. Although this poll is only a snapshot and may depend on what has been in the media recently, jury decisions in rape trials seem to indicate the extent of prejudice and double standards which still exist where men and women’s sexuality are concerned. Significant numbers of the men and women polled are, in effect, accepting the reactionary idea that men cannot control themselves and it is for women to police what they wear and how they act – otherwise they are ‘asking for it’.

The government removed some anomalies in the law on rape in 2003 (Sexual Offences Act) to clarify that you cannot be taken as giving consent to sex if you are asleep or unconscious (!) or did not have the ‘freedom and capacity’ to consent, and to put the onus on the accused rapist to prove that you consented. Defence lawyers are also no longer supposed to question the woman about her sexual history without asking the judge first. However, lawyers, judges and juries are not immune from the prejudices in wider society. This, combined with a Crown Prosecution Service that has not got the resources to prepare every case fully, means that women are rightly fearful that they still will not get a fair hearing.

Campaign against domestic violence

AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL, the TUC and Refuge have launched a ‘Stop Violence against Women’ campaign aiming to highlight sexual violence in particular. This is a welcome initiative as rape/sexual violence and sexual harassment are widespread social problems and the trade unions in particular could play a vital role in campaigning for resources for rape crisis services, raising awareness, challenging stereotypes about rapists and rape victims, and combating sexual harassment particularly at work. When members of the Socialist Party (then called Militant Labour) initiated the Campaign Against Domestic Violence in 1991 and took the campaign into the trade unions, very few had a policy on domestic violence. Our members, especially in public-sector unions, played a key role in getting domestic violence discussed in the trade unions, raising concrete demands for workers and users of public services but, just as vitally, raising the political perspective of changing society to end inequality and oppression.

When New Labour was first elected in 1997 many working in domestic violence support services had expectations that it would be better then the Tories - with all those women MPs, surely it would take this issue more seriously. However, after nearly nine years in office it has failed to provide even the basic protection of a refuge or safe house for all women and children who need it. In 2000, a survey, A Day to Count, found that nearly 300 women in the UK on one day who needed a refuge place, could not get one. There are currently around 400 refuges in Britain, less than half the number needed. These are facing further financial difficulty as under new funding arrangements they will have to compete with support services for the elderly and vulnerable. Women are spending longer in cramped refuges and temporary accommodation because of the government’s continuing privatisation of council housing stock and failure to build affordable social housing.

In 2004, the government passed the Domestic Violence Crimes and Victims Act (see box). The spin on the act was that it was ‘getting tough on abusers’ - increasing police powers of arrest, and criminalising those who breach court orders. This chimes with New Labour’s general ideology on crime and anti-social behaviour – and Liberty and the Law Society raised concerns that criminalising people in this way is unjustified and that the change would not be effective. They have argued that it could put victims off applying for orders and that magistrates’ courts are inadequately resourced and trained to deal with breaches of orders. Women’s Aid supported the changes, citing lack of enforcement of breached orders under the previous system, with one refuge worker saying that a civil order was at times no more use than an Asda till receipt.

The jury is still out on whether measures in the act will be effective. But the biggest problem was not necessarily the law itself but failure by police, courts and even family lawyers to use the legal powers they already had, due to ignorance, prejudice and lack of resources. Of the cases the police deal with, which tend to be the more serious assaults, only about one in five results in the perpetrator being charged with a crime. Of these, only 11% are convicted. Where police have been more pro-active, arresting and removing the perpetrator of the violence, gathering evidence, even just taking a photograph of the victim’s injuries, this has been effective in reducing repeat attacks and getting successful prosecutions under criminal law.

Another huge barrier to justice for those experiencing domestic violence is lack of access to legal aid. Liberty reports that the average cost of seeking a non-molestation order privately is £2,000. Yet the legal aid threshold is set so low that those working full time, even on low wages, are unlikely to qualify and changes to legal aid funding under New Labour have driven down the numbers of family solicitors taking on legal aid work.

Self defence/provocation

IT IS RARE for a woman to kill her partner, but of the small numbers who do, the majority have suffered longstanding and often extreme violence at the hands of that partner. Yet the laws on self-defence and provocation (to reduce a charge from murder to manslaughter) have been woefully inadequate for women in this position. At long last, the government has issued new sentencing guidelines for manslaughter, under which the experience of or fear of violence will be more of a defence than anger or sexual jealousy. These will only be effective if funding is made available to train judges, barristers and court staff, however, and have come too late for many women, like Kate Keaveney, currently serving life sentences. We are calling on the Home Secretary to carry out reviews of all cases of women in prison for manslaughter or murder where they experienced domestic violence.

New Labour has shown on this issue, as all others, that it is an advocate for capitalism above all else. Whilst formally in favour of gender equality and against violence in the family, it is pursuing economic policies which make it harder, especially for working-class women, to leave violent relationships. Domestic violence is not a class issue in the sense that perpetrators and victims come from all layers of society not just one class. But working-class women often face additional obstacles in trying to leave a violent partner because of lack of money, and having to rely on a dwindling stock of council accommodation. Tony Blair and some in the cabinet are self-confessed conservatives on ‘the family’ and even considered making divorce more difficult until their focus groups told them how universally unpopular this proposal would be. Even aside from their personal views, New Labour is committed to the bourgeois family because it is essential to capitalism. To drive down the ‘social wage’ and maximise profits, the government, on behalf of big business, needs to offload what were previously state responsibilities onto individual families and use ideology about ‘rights and responsibilities’ to justify this.

Women may have achieved formal equality in terms of legal rights but for the majority this has clearly not brought actual equality in the workplace, or the home. Even those women who have succeeded in economic terms, breaking into higher-paid, skilled, ‘male’ careers, are not immune from other aspects of women’s oppression: sexual harassment, pressure from the ‘beauty industry’ and advertising, and the greatly increased porn and sex industry which objectify and exploit women’s bodies. The prevalence of domestic violence and rape are an even clearer indictment of the present system. Ending oppression is about more than passing laws, it requires fundamental changes in the way society is structured. This in turn requires a conscious movement of the working class, women and men - drawing in layers of the middle class – to get rid of the current system based on exploitation, hierarchies and inequality. On issues such as domestic violence and rape, which affect women of all classes, there is potential for working-class and middle-class women to campaign together. However, if these campaigns are to be far-reaching and effective, they must link in to the wider struggle of workers’ organisations to change society.

The political landscape is changing, with sections of the working class prepared to take strike action on pay and conditions. Women are at the forefront of the current battles over public-sector pensions and Department of Work and Pensions job cuts. Historically, when women have moved into action on workplace issues they start to recognise and challenge discrimination which affects them as women as well as workers. Collective action in itself can raise consciousness, and give confidence to working-class women. It will give impetus to the call for a political party to represent the working class, and in particular working-class women, who need a party which will campaign for women’s refuges and to defend council housing, and speak out against discrimination.

Domestic Violence, Crimes and Victim Act 2004 – main points

Breach of a non-molestation order a criminal offence.

Extending non-molestation orders and occupation orders to same-sex couples and couples who have never lived together.

New powers to criminal courts to issue ‘stay away’ orders against alleged perpetrators pending trial or even if not convicted of a criminal offence.

Common assault to be an arrestable offence.

Domestic violence victims to have the option of giving evidence via video link or behind a screen and reporting restrictions in court.


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