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It is time to stop blaming women for sexual violence and abuse by men

We need to put an end to the shaming of women and place responsibility for abuse firmly at the feet of the perpetrators, says KELLIE O’DOWD

THIS year marks some global anniversaries of historic policies on women’s rights. 

From the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and the 20th anniversary of UN Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, 2020 has also thrown a spotlight on a parallel pandemic: escalated domestic and sexual violence.

This comes as no surprise to those of us active in the field of ending male violence against women and girls. 

In April this year, a report to MPs stated that calls to a national domestic-abuse helpline rose by 49 per cent and killings doubled weeks after lockdown. 

Researchers at the Counting Dead Women Project told MPs that 14 women and two children had been killed in the first three weeks of lockdown.

On April 27 the home affairs select committee published its report entitled Home Office Preparedness for Covid-19 (Coronavirus): Domestic Abuse and Risks of Harm Within the Home. 

The report was drawn from written and oral evidence from the violence against women and girls sector. 

They outlined that increased abuse is predicted and there is a duty to act to prevent it; that Covid-19 “landed” on top of widespread abuse, deep inequalities and victim-blaming and most poignantly that Covid-19 does not cause abuse, but creates a “conducive context” or perfect storm, and the diversion of public services removes vital safety nets, while voluntary-sector support services face overload after years of Tory cuts and austerity.

Their evidence also illuminated “where the experience and needs of disabled, BME, migrant, homeless, destitute women and girls are marginalised and made invisible; and where there is a persistent tendency to tell victims to modify their behaviour rather than looking at what drives perpetrators of abuse.” 

At the same time Dr Jessica Taylor published her book Why Women Are Blamed For Everything: Exploring Victim Blaming of Women Subjected to Violence and Trauma. 

The book is an exploration of every conceivable way we blame women for being abused by men; and how prevalent and normalised this is, from how we encourage women to change their behaviour through prevention and intervention programmes to the psychiatric diagnosis and treatment of women and girls who disclose violence, abuse and exploitation.

Through her research Dr Taylor gives voice and agency to women who have experienced trauma and violence. 

Women articulate how they have felt about their portrayal in the media, how the police treated them, the way the legal system retraumatised them, how their religion had them believe that the abuse was punishment by their God; the way their cultures and communities silenced and shamed them, the way rape-myth acceptance had them doubt what actually happened to them, and the way sexist ideals made them believe that their female bodies had caused sexual violence. 

Dr Taylor sets out a compelling case of how, through a mix of misogyny, rape myths, gender stereotypes, relationship norms, male entitlement to the female body and the rejection of women as independent sexual beings, our society reinforces the messages that violence and trauma inflicted upon women is all their own fault, with a cursory mention of men being the perpetrators of this violence and abuse. 

It is time to turn the tables on this blame culture and put it exactly where it belongs — at the feet of the perpetrators and the belief systems and myths that prop up victim blaming. 

Women and girls are never to blame for the violence and abuse they are subjected to. Never.

Kellie O’Dowd is a feminist and trade-union activist based in Belfast.

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