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Gender-based Violence: A Second pandemic in the Shadow of Covid

The UN International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women is marked every year on 25 November to ‘combat and raise awareness of gender-based violence against women and girls’. Gender-based violence is defined as physical, sexual, or psychological harm and includes intimate partner violence, sexual violence and harassment, human trafficking, female genital mutilation (FGM) and child marriage. 

Prior to the global health pandemic, the UN’s own figures already painted an alarming picture. One in three women and girls experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, most frequently by an intimate partner. Worldwide, almost 750 million women and girls alive today were married before their 18th birthday, while 200 million women and girls have undergone FGM. Only two out of three countries have outlawed domestic violence, while 49 countries currently have no laws protecting women from domestic violence.

Violence in the wake of Covid

2020 has seen a significant increase in gender-based violence across the globe in the wake of Covid-19. For example, China reported a tripling of domestic abuse figures, in Australia there was a 75% increase in online searches for domestic abuse support, and in Italy, experts are classing the increases in domestic abuse as ‘an emergency in an emergency’ with the Women Against Violence network reporting a 74.5% increase in calls between March and April. 

In the UK, West Midlands police arrested almost 400 domestic abuse suspects in the first two weeks of the March lockdown. Avon and Somerset police recorded a 20% increase in domestic abuse incidents over the same period. In the first three weeks of lockdown, there were 16 suspected domestic abuse killings across the UK, which is the highest figure for the same period for 11 years (source Ingala Smith Counting Dead Women).

The lockdown caused an increase in economic insecurity and poverty related stress for many working-class families. Rising unemployment combined with high rents or mortgage repayments and utility bills places huge levels of stress on families, which can exacerbate underlying problems that trigger gender-based violence.

Additionally, lockdowns increase social isolation. For victims of gender-based violence, quarantine increases the amount of time spent with an abuser. For many women, being told to ‘Stay at Home’ means spending extended periods of time in stressful circumstances. In such situations, rates of violence against women soar. Whether working from home, unemployed, furloughed or taking care of children, there is little chance of escaping abusive situations.

Since 2010, successive Tory governments have carried out 25% spending cuts to women’s refuges leaving these vital services in crisis. During the first lockdown, the UK government gave an additional £2 million to domestic violence helplines in response to calls for increased resources to support women fleeing violent relationships. This paltry sum, compared to the £12 billion handed to SERCO for a failed Test, Track and Isolate system, reveals the priorities of the Johnson government. 

An unjust justice system

While the figures we are seeing around domestic abuse and rape are alarming, they are just the tip of the iceberg.  A UK survey of 491 rape survivors carried out earlier this year by Dame Vera, revealed, more than a quarter (29 per cent) of survivors did not make a police report and. Out of them, 95 per cent said fears about not being believed were the main reason for that decision. Police figures for the same period show an increase in the number of reported rapes but a decrease in the number of convictions. In England and Wales in 2019-2020, of the 55,130 cases of rape reported to police, only 2,102 resulted in prosecution with 1439 convictions. Rape prosecutions are at their lowest level for over a decade. 

It is no surprise that women have little confidence in the criminal justice system to bring perpetrators of rape and other forms of violence against women to justice. One woman who took part in Dame Vera Baird’s survey said ‘“The CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] don’t really communicate with the victim well. I emailed them and they never responded. It’s an unjust justice system. I’m left by the police to pick up the broken pieces of my life.”

It is clear that a ‘justice gap’ exists for victims of rape and other incidents of gender-based violence. In 2018, to tackle the low conviction rates for rape, the CPS advised prosecutors to take a proportion of ‘weak cases’ out of the system. Staff were told: “If we took 350 cases out of the system, our conviction rate goes up to 61%.”

Why does this ‘justice gap’ exist? The reasons are complex but can be traced to the way that discrimination against women works within capitalist society and its criminal justice system. For working-class women, there are significant barriers when navigating the police, CPS and courts. One of the first casualties of austerity cuts following the 2008 economic crisis, was the closure of many specialist Police Domestic Violence Units. These were replaced by combined Safeguarding Units operating a triage system which prioritised so called ‘serious’ domestic violence at the expense of chronic abuse. Women’s organisations recognise that victims are on average abused 35 times before reporting to the police. So the consequences of prioritisation is that much domestic violence goes undetected. 

For women who do report rape, there is a fear of not being believed or re-victimised. There is also a tendency for discrimination within criminal justice to operate indirectly, in favour of women who are confident in accessing and navigating the system and against those who may not conform to the stereotype of ‘ideal victim’. 

For cases that make it to Court, there are many prevailing myths around rape. One of the most insidious of these is that the actions of the victim are somehow responsible for causing the rape. The professional footballer Ched Evans, for example, had his conviction quashed at retrial based on evidence from the victim’s sexual history; an implication that she was promiscuous so must have consented. 

To end gender-based violence we must end capitalism

Some feminists argue that these injustices can be addressed through reforms such as juryless trials for rape and improved support facilities for rape victims. Improved access to the criminal justice system and support for victims of gender based violence may increase conviction rates and provide justice for some women, but it is unlikely to reduce the overall level of violence against women within society.

The UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women will no doubt highlight the global extent of gender-based violence, including rape. We support any reforms that increase access and support for women victims. We recognise, however, that women and girls will only be free from oppression when the economic system which perpetuates inequality and violence is replaced by a socialist society. 

Across the globe women are demonstrating their willingness to take action around issues such as reproductive rights. For example in Poland, hundreds of thousands have risen up against attacks on abortion rights. In different countries many are using the strike weapon and are linking up with the workers movement to demand an end to harassment and sexual violence. Socialist Alternative stands in solidarity with, and takes part in, these movements which, as history shows, are likely to be forerunners of a more generalised struggle of our class.  

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