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International Women’s Day: a time for action

By Janet Veitch

On Saturday, 8 March, we celebrate International Women’s Day. But is there really anything to celebrate?

Last year, the United Nations declared its theme for International Women’s Day to be: “A promise is a promise: Time for action to end violence against women.” But in the United Kingdom in 2012, the government’s own figures show that around 1.2 million women suffered domestic abuse, over 400,000 women were sexually assaulted, 70,000 women were raped, and thousands more were stalked.

So, why is there violence against women?

The United Nations talks about a context of deep-rooted patriarchal systems and structures that enable men to assert power and control over women.

In a nutshell, this means that men’s violence against women is simply the most extreme manifestation of a continuum of male privilege, starting with domination of public discourse and decision-making, taking the lion’s share of global income and assets, and finally, controlling women’s actions and agency by force if necessary.

Throughout history and in most cultures, violence against women has been an accepted way in which men maintain power. In this country, the traditional right of a husband to inflict moderate corporal punishment on his wife in order to keep her “within the bounds of duty” was only removed in 1891. Our lingering ambivalence over the rights and wrongs of intervening in the face of domestic violence (“It’s just a domestic” as the police used to say) continues more than a century later. An ICM poll in 2003 found more people would call the police if someone was mistreating their dog than if someone was mistreating their partner (78% versus 53%). Women recognise this culture of condoning and excusing violence against them in their reluctance even today to exert their legal rights and make an official complaint. The most recent figures from the Ministry of Justice show that only 15% of women who have been raped report it to the police. And when they do, they’re likely to be disbelieved: the ‘no-crime’ rate (where a victim reports a crime but the police decide that no crime took place) for overall police recorded crime is 3.4%; for rape it’s 10.8%. All this adds up to a culture of impunity in which violence can continue.

And it’s exacerbated by our media. When the End Violence against Women Coalition, along with some of our members, were invited to give evidence to the Leveson Inquiry, we argued that:

“reporting on violence against women which misrepresents crimes, which is intrusive, which sensationalises and which uncritically blames ‘culture’, is not simply uninformed, trivial or in bad taste. It has real and lasting impact – it reinforces attitudes which blame women and girls for the violence that is done to them, and it allows some perpetrators to believe they will get away with committing violence. Because such news reporting are critical to establishing what behaviour is acceptable and what is regarded as ‘real’ crime, in the long term and cumulatively, this reporting affects what is perceived as crime, which victims come forward, how some perpetrators behave, and ultimately who is and is not convicted of crime.”

When do states become responsible for private Call for helpacts of violence against women?

The UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) says in its General Recommendation No. 19 that states may be responsible for private acts “if they fail to act with due diligence to prevent violations of rights or to investigate and punish acts of violence.”

Due diligence means that states must show the same level of commitment to preventing, investigating, punishing and providing remedies for violence against women as they do other crimes of violence. Arguably, our poor rates of reporting and prosecution suggest that the UK is not fulfilling this obligation.

What are some possible policy solutions to eliminate violence against women?

The last Government developed a national strategy to tackle this problem and the current Government has followed suit, adopting a national action plan that aims to coordinate action at the highest level. This has had the single-minded backing of the Home Secretary, Theresa May — who of course happens to be a woman. Under this umbrella, steps have been taken to focus on what works — although much more needs to be done, for example on the key issue of prevention –changing the attitudes that create a conducive environment for violence. Research by the UN in a number of countries recently showed that 70-80% of men who raped said did so because they felt entitled to; they thought they had a right to sex. Research with young people by the Children’s Commissioner has highlighted the sexual double standard that rewards young men for having sex while passing negative judgment on young women who do so. We need to rethink constructions of gender, particularly of masculinity.

What will the End Violence Against Women Campaign focus on this year?

End Violence Against Women welcomes the fact that the main political parties now recognize that this is a key public policy issue, and we’ll be using the upcoming local and national elections in 2014 and 2015 to question candidates on their practical proposals for ending violence against women and girls. We need to make sure that women’s support services are available in every area. And we’ll be working on our long-term aim of changing the way people talk and think about violence against women and girls — starting in schools, where children learn about gender roles and stereotypes — much earlier than we think. We hope Michael Gove will back our Schools Safe 4 Girls campaign. We also look forward to a historic milestone in April, when the UN special rapporteur on violence against women makes a visit to the UK to assess progress.

On International Women’s Day this year, what is the most urgent issue for the world to focus on?

As Nelson Mandela said: “For every woman and girl violently attacked, we reduce our humanity. Every woman who has to sell her life for sex we condemn to a lifetime in prison. For every moment we remain silent, we conspire against our women.” While women across the world are raped and murdered, systematically beaten, trafficked, bought and sold, ending this “undeclared war on women” has to be our top priority.

Janet Veitch is a member of the board of the End Violence against Women Coalition, a coalition of activists, women’s rights and human rights organisations, survivors of violence, academics and front line service providers calling for concerted action to end violence against women. She is immediate past Chair of the UK Women’s Budget Group. She was awarded an OBE for services to women’s rights in 2011.

On 22 March 2014, the University of Nottingham Human Rights Law Centre will be hosting the 15th Annual Student Human Rights Conference ‘Mind the Gender Gap: The Rights of Women,’ and Janet Veitch will be among the experts on the rights of women who will be speaking. Full details are available on the Human Rights Law Centre webpage.

Human Rights Law Review publishes critical articles that consider human rights in their various contexts, from global to national levels, book reviews, and a section dedicated to analysis of recent jurisprudence and practice of the UN and regional human rights systems.

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Image credit: Crying woman sitting in the corner of the room, with phone in front of her to call for help. © legenda via iStockphoto.

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