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LAST YEAR 1.2 million women were victims of domestic abuse in England and Wales. Approximately two women are killed by their male partner or ex-partner every single week.
The figures for rape and sexual harassment in schools and elsewhere are equally shocking. Almost all the perpetrators are male and most victims are female.
This presents a picture of breakdown of social order, of men and boys having almost total impunity to terrorise women and girls with the full sanction of the state.
So it’s good news that the government has proposed a Domestic Abuse Bill.
Claiming a commitment “to doing everything we can to end domestic abuse” and “to challenge and change the attitudes that can underpin it,” the government is now seeking views on the Bill.
This all sounds excellent, but the consultation questions are narrow and don’t address the wider issues that underpin this epidemic of male violence. Hidden in the instructions on how to respond is a note saying: “We cannot analyse responses not submitted in these provided formats.”
In other words, if you send a response addressing wider issues, it will probably be ignored.
The introduction states that “domestic abuse is disproportionately gendered,” but the proposed definition is gender-neutral and doesn’t recognise the power imbalance that is the context in which domestic abuse occurs.
In the vast majority of cases, that power imbalance reflects the inequality between the sexes. It is this that distinguishes domestic abuse from arguments, fights and upsets between more equally placed individuals and that makes it so very dangerous.
Within the personal relationship between a man and a woman, a man frequently uses violence and the threat of violence to get his own way, to force her submission, to maintain his power over her.
Our deeply misogynistic culture has led him to believe he is entitled to have his needs and desires prioritised over hers and that, if she doesn’t submit to him, she is violating him in some way.
Under the proposed definition, he could claim that she is psychologically or emotionally abusing him. And because men’s voices carry more weight than women’s, as we saw so clearly in the recent Ulster rape trial, the police may well believe him and treat the woman as the suspect.
It is for this reason that the United Nations recommends limiting the definition of domestic abuse to physical and sexual violence, the threat of such violence and coercive control.
Domestic homicide reviews show that, even after a woman’s death at the hands of her male partner, authorities often claim there were no equality issues between them.
It’s as if we are swimming in a sea of gross inequality between the sexes but can’t see it.
Philosopher Kate Manne explains this is partly due to what she calls “himpathy” — that we have been groomed by the culture to always sympathise with the male in any altercation between men and women.
Gender equality is not simply a matter of gender neutral provisions.
Women’s lives are different from men’s for a variety of reasons, including biological reproductive functions, the unique nature of the mother-child bond and the work associated with raising children, gender stereotyping, the pay gap, the long history of men’s systematic advantaging at women’s expense, the palpable misogyny that pervades our culture, the way porn eroticises violence against women, men’s greater propensity for violence — whatever that is caused by — and women’s smaller average body size and muscle mass.
Gender-neutral provisions invariably benefit men at the expense of women and therefore are likely to exacerbate the situation.
To achieve gender equality, provisions need to address the historic and structural nature of the inequality between the sexes and all of the complex realities.
But since 2010 the government has presided over the systematic withdrawal of economic resources from women, worsening their position relative to men.
There have been too many such policy and legislative changes to list them all here, but of particular significance are the withdrawal of funding from specialist organisations that provide support and refuges to women fleeing domestic abuse, and changes to the benefits system.
The new benefit, universal credit, is paid to a designated person in a two-parent family — almost always the man.
This entrenches the woman’s financial dependence, increases his power within the relationship and makes it harder for her to leave.
Another recent change means lone parents are now required to look for work when their youngest child reaches three, making them at risk of sanctions for minor infractions, which can tip many single mums into destitution.
This has made it hard, if not impossible, for many women, particularly mothers of children, to achieve economic independence.
As a result many women’s options are reduced to a choice between financial dependence on a male partner, dire poverty or prostitution as a last resort.
Some people reading this might say: “But what about the men? Women are violent too.” That is undoubtedly true.
But, when women are violent, they act alone. They do not have the whole culture behind them justifying and exonerating them.
And very few women have sufficient economic and physical power to use violence to demand a male partner’s submission. No doubt it happens, but it is rare and a well-drafted law would cover it.
So, while we welcome some of the measures in the Domestic Abuse Bill, it is too much like a sticking plaster on a cancerous tumour.
We need something bigger and bolder — for the government to also urgently address the worsening inequality between the sexes, the low pay and precarious nature of so much work, the lack of affordable housing and to implement a mandatory gender mainstreaming approach in all government departments.
Not only would this make sense from a human rights perspective, it would also make economic sense because, according to the consultation, male violence against women costs the UK approximately £26 billion annually.
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