By Sofie Buckland
Violence against women, in the form of rape, sexual assault, physical assault from partners and harrassment in the workplace, is a widespread and frightening problem. There are an estimated 47,000 rapes a year in Britain according to the 2001 British Crime Survey. The same source quotes 300,000 sexual assaults on women each year. Worldwide, domestic violence is the biggest cause of death in women aged 19-44. All these crimes are chronically under-reported, and the rape conviction rate stands at an all-time low of just 5.3%.
Why do these attacks on women occur? Some say that male violence is endemic because it is part of men’s genetic make up to be violent. That is the line of the organisers of the 25 November “Reclaim the Night” march through London’s Soho. We disagree.
Violence, including sexual violence, occurs across all of society, regardless of gender, race, sexuality and class. However, evidence suggests domestic violence and sexual assault are overwhelmingly problems of violence by men against women. Traditional gender roles interact with social pressures and conditions to create the spark for abuse by men against women. The divisions between men and women in society ensure that men, large numbers of men, behave abusively and oppressively to women in many situations - from sexually harrassing women workers, to expecting “service” from women in the home and acting out frustration and aggression upon partners and children.
Violence against women is based on women’s oppression, which is part of class society in general, and capitalism in particular. So male violence is not about men’s inherent genetic make-up or predilection to abusive behaviour. It is generated by the power structures in society, the inequality between men and women and expectations upon us, which have changed over history - violence against women has always existed, but it has not always taken the same form. We can do something about it! We can reorganise society to get rid of all inequality and exploitation.
The common perception is that women are not safe walking the streets, but young men are much more likely, statistically, to be assaulted. Despite this, young women are far more afraid to walk alone at night. The flipside to this, of course, is that women are far more likely to experience violence from people they know, within their families and their relationships. So when we march on 25 November to “reclaim the night” — it’s worth remembering that much of our fear to walk the streets alone is socially constructed, focusing attention on the archetypal violent stranger and away from the shockingly everyday profile of the typical attacker. He looks a little too similar to our own husbands, boyfriends and friends.
The politics behind the Reclaim the Night March may be wrong-headed. But many anti-violence groups who are involved in the march are doing absolutely essential work. Women’s Aid for instance, who help over 320,000 victims of domestic abuse each year.
But Women’s Aid is a charity, not a public service. Another example is Sexual Health Referral Centres (SARCs). Set up as specialist centres for women who have been sexually assaulted or raped, in response to criticism of police handling of such cases, there are just 13 SARCs across the UK, four of which are in London. Across Britain, rape crisis services, often the first port of call for women who’ve been raped, are funded through a mixture of charity donations and government grants. Coupled with the cutbacks to the NHS, services for women who have been raped or abused are constantly under attack, subject to a postcode lottery and, despite the now widespread awareness of violence against women, not integrated into the welfare state as properly publicly funded services.
We need a women’s movement that can demand real answers to violence against women. We need campaigning unity with the trade unions to defend the services we do have, and demand more widespread community support for victims of violence, and a movement that isn’t afraid to take on difficult questions about the root causes of male violence, even when the answers involve overhauling our entire society.