Socialist Worker

Zero tolerance of violence against women

Violence against women is rife — and attitudes towards it remain shockingly ignorant. Ann Henderson says it’s time we took action

Issue No. 1979

illustration by Tim Sanders

illustration by Tim Sanders

Women and men across the world joined together at events on Friday of last week to mark the International Day Against Violence Against Women. This provided a timely reminder that campaigning against violence against women is not specific to one country, but of global concern — violence against women is completely unacceptable, wherever it takes place.

In the 1980s, the International Day Against Violence Against Women was observed on 25 November each year across Latin America to honour the Mirabel sisters, three political activists who were assassinated. The UN joined the campaign in 1999.

From a recent publication, Women in an Insecure World: Violence Against Women, Facts, Figures and Analysis, we learn that at least one out of every three women has been beaten, coerced into sex, or abused in her lifetime.

At least 700,000 women a year are sold into prostitution. Violence against women ranks as the fourth leading cause of premature death in the world, ranking behind only disease, hunger and war.

Despite this worldwide recognition, there is a continuing gap between political commitment and adequate resources. A huge attitude shift is also still required — and the responsibility to address that lies with us all.

A recent poll commissioned by Amnesty International in the UK revealed shocking ignorance about the experience and extent of violence against women. The number of recorded rapes in the UK totalled over 12,000 in the year 2004?5 — and estimates suggest only 15 percent of rapes are even reported.

We are clearly not living in a society that respects women and girls. But we don’t talk about it — only 4 percent of those questioned by Amnesty thought that the number of rapes reported in the UK would be over 10,000.

In the same survey more than a quarter of people interviewed held the woman as at least partly responsible for being raped, if she was wearing “revealing clothing” or was drunk.

A 1998 survey carried out in Scotland by the Zero Tolerance Trust of over 2,000 young people found widespread acceptance of forced sex and violence against women. Half of men and a third of women considered that forcing a woman to have sex or hitting her would be acceptable in certain circumstances.

Changing attitudes? We seem to still have a long way to go. Let’s remind ourselves—violence against women is unacceptable. There are no circumstances where it is OK.

In the 1970s the women’s movement and significant sections of the labour movement campaigned long and hard for a recognition that pornography and the wider sex industry were not about choice, but an abuse of women.

Trade unions developed policies on sexual harassment and domestic violence, legitimising discussion and establishing that women had a right to go to their work free from fear and abuse.

Today we have a growing sex industry and an apparent acceptance of lap dancing clubs and pornographic images as “entertainment”. Now we are told that lap dancing clubs are harmless fun, pole dancing is a sport, and that prostitution is a way of paying the bills.

Harmless fun? Protest is long overdue. Millions demonstrate—quite rightly—against poverty and against war. It is time for demonstrations against violence against women to make governments listen and act.

Statistics recently released for England and Wales show the conviction rate for rape has now dropped to only 5.6 percent — and that is obviously only for rapes that are reported.

In Scotland there is a different legislative system. Since the Scottish parliament came into being six years ago, tackling violence against women has been higher on the agenda, with some welcome changes in policy.

Scottish Women’s Aid and others have been working with the Scottish Executive and produced a strategy on violence against women. Domestic abuse courts are now being piloted in Glasgow. Last month the Scottish Executive announced that legislation will be brought forward to criminalise kerb crawling.

But the scale of the problem remains huge across the whole of the UK. So when Tessa Jowell, the part time minister for women, sets off on yet another tour asking “what do women want?”, let there be no doubt over the answer we give.

The seventh demand of the Women’s Liberation Movement at the 1978 Birmingham conference was “freedom for all women from intimidation by the threat or use of male violence”.

That was nearly 30 years ago. Go back to look at those recently published statistics — every three days a woman is killed by her partner in the UK. We don’t need any more focus groups or consultations — we need resources and action.

Ann Henderson is a women’s rights and trade union activist in Scotland

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Sat 3 Dec 2005, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1979
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