A group of men outside a lap dancing club: ‘Pull up your top, love’.
A facebook status: ‘Haha, I just got away with sexual assault.’
A disbelieving policeman, on the ‘perfect’ rape victim; white middle-class, and Catholic: ‘Isn’t it shocking that something like this could happen to a lovely girl like her?’
Last Saturday’s ‘FEM 11’ conference brought to light a wealth of material; small stories like these, reminders of the the ways in which violence against women and girls (VAWG) is still normalised, trivialised, and eventually accepted as part of the day-to-day. Just a few weeks ago I heard a male acquaintance say, laughing, ‘I’ve never actually raped anyone, but my friend has.’
I was the only person in earshot who seemed to mind.
Mid-Saturday afternoon I’m sitting in a gigantic room packed with at least one thousand feminists, mostly women. One thousand feminists are clapping and cheering, and regularly disagreeing. One thousand feminists are thinking, speaking, laughing, listening. This UK Feminista conference has successfully brought together feminists of varying stripes; activists, politicians, campaigners, writers; young and old. Its purpose, ostensibly, is ‘for building coalitions and exploring routes forward’, but it is also designed to empower. We are here because we admit society’s endemic structural sexism and because we want to do something about it. We are also here because we know we can’t do it alone. This room of one thousand feminists acts as a welcome reminder that British feminism is flourishing, that we are in good company.
The statistics on violence against women and girls (VAWG) in the UK are damning. Two women a week are killed by their current or former male partners. One in four women will experience domestic violence during their lifetime . Twenty-three percent of women experience sexual assault as adults. One in three girls at school say that they experience unwanted sexual contact. That’s not even to mention “honour” related crimes, female genital mutilation, emotional abuse, financial abuse, trafficking, sexual harassment and stalking. This is by no means an exhaustive list.
Despite this government’s avowed aim to ‘end violence against women and girls’, feminist organisations that work against VAWG have seen their governmental support - the funding essential for their existence - decimated by the spending cuts. One workshop at the UK Feminista conference was led by End Violence Against Women (EVAW), a coalition of feminist organisations. Sarah Green, Campaigns Manager at EVAW, explained that women’s support services are now, more than ever, ‘facing the possibility of not having renewed funding, or not having any funding at all.’ Indeed, throughout the last year women’s charities have repeatedly warned that funding cuts will leave them unable to provide services.
At the same time, political rhetoric on the sexualisation of women is steadily co-opted by right-wing, christian, anti-sex voices. The move from the 2010 Home Office Review to the 2011 Bailey Review, non-coincidentally aligns with the change of government. In such a conservative climate, feminist approaches to representations of women appear to have no political traction. In EVAW’s packed consciousness-raising workshop, numerous women shared their anger and frustration at the seeming links between sexualisation and the normalisation of gendered violence today. Sexual violence is the logical conclusion of the constant media portrayals of polarised masculinities and femininities, representing men as testosterone-pumped violent aggressors and women as sex-object victims. As Sarah Green points out, in this context ‘women’s support services are not some kind of luxury add on, they are an essential support service which it is our right to have funded.’
From prevention to support
A workshop run by legal advice service Rights of Women conveyed in shocking fashion the gendered nature of the legal aid cuts; with less personal wealth than men, legal aid claimants are disproportionately women. The Legal Aid, Punishment and Sentencing of Offenders bill (LAPSO) - which strips £350 million from the government’s annual legal aid budget - adopts a restricted definition of abuse which could lead, in particular cases, to women being cross-examined by their abusers. The definition of abuse given in the bill is narrower than that used across the rest of government: meaning that cases of financial abuse, for example, would not be seen as eligible for legal aid.
Katherine Perks, Policy and Public Affairs Officer at Rights of Women, explains that the bill ‘doesn’t look at vulnerability issues...there’s no reference in the bill to the capacity of women who have experienced gender-based violence...domestic violence is only addressed in private family cases, but not adequately addressed.’ Women experiencing violence who fall outside of the limited cases covered by LAPSO will not be able to claim legal aid, leaving potentially vulnerable abused women at the mercy of an opaque and unfriendly system.
Some of the most marginalised women in the country, asylum seekers fleeing gender-based persecution, will also be hugely affected by governmental cuts to legal aid. Possibly the most serious, distressing workshop of the day was run jointly by Women for Refugee Women, and Women Asylum Seekers Together London, women-run organisations which support women seeking refuge in the UK. Natasha Walter, director of Women for Refugee Women, recently wrote movingly in this publication of the work her organisation does.
Stories of the UK Border Agency’s culture of disbelief towards refugee women already abound: persecutions mocked, scars labeled ‘self-inflicted’, the standard hearing confusing, belittling, and culturally insensitive. A refugee woman I know was treated as a liar, detained and put on fast-track to deportation in spite of her overwhelmingly convincing evidence. Having finally accessed legal aid, she is now in limbo, unable to work. Her only option is to wait for the courts to process her case.
The women asylum seekers who shared their histories at the Women for Refugee Women workshop communicated a devastating reality in which women seeking asylum in the UK are held to be guilty until proven innocent, in a system that makes it almost impossible to prove innocence. Access to good legal aid is already difficult enough for asylum seekers, but the LAPSO bill is a clear example of a government cutting support for those who need it most to bolster the savings of those who need them least.
The Women for Refugee Women workshop was absolutely central to the the anti-VAWG message of the UK Feminista Conference: British feminists today need to continue to trouble the popular (mis)conception of feminism’s subject as white, wealthy and middle-class.
Where one thousand feminists can sit together in a room to address, together, the continual oppressions that different kinds of women face, then we’re doing something right. But the women who face violence and abuse simply because they are women need feminist understandings of VAWG to spread beyond the walls of the conference room. Anti-women violence will continue, and increase, until there is proper government funding for both prevention and support services.
Next year, FEM 12 must bring on changes in political strategy. Women have a right to a new politics that backs its rhetoric about stopping violence against women and girls with hard cash.
To read more articles in openDemocracy 50.50's new dialogue Centrestage - voices for change click here
Get our weekly email