Gender-based violence: build a movement to challenge sexism
The tragic murder of Sarah Everard sparked outrage across the UK and worldwide in March this year. Her murder served as a reminder for women and gender non-conforming people that we are inherently not safe in this society. It sparked a social media uproar similar to the #metoo campaign which gained traction in 2017. A statistic was shared widely showing that 97% of women in the UK have experienced sexual harassment. The Instagram page ‘Everyone’s Invited’ named almost 3,000 UK schools as having widespread problems of rape culture. The fact is that 80 women have been murdered in the UK since Sarah’s killing, including the school teacher Sabina Nessa who was also simply walking through a park, for example. This drives home that we are not safe in our homes, schools, workplaces or streets.
What stood out for many about Sarah’s murder was that a policeman, part of an institution the capitalist establishment would have us believe is there to protect all in society, used his position of power to abduct Sarah, to sexually assault her and to take her life. This illustrated what many workers and oppressed groups in society unfortunately already know too well, that the police under capitalism aren’t primarily there to protect ordinary people, but instead to protect the wealth and private property of the rich and uphold the system which oppresses us.
Role of the police
Sarah’s murderer Wayne Couzens was accused three times of indecent exposure, was known to sexually harass his female colleagues and yet was not deemed unsafe to be a police officer! In fact, studies have shown up to 17 out of 18 male police officers have been accused of harassments or abuse at some point.
Despite all this, as we see in the media and in courtrooms, the capitalist system likes to blame victims of gender violence for what has happened to them. We’ve seen it in the 1980s when feminists in Yorkshire protested against police instructions for women to stay at home because of Peter Suttcliffe’s murders. We saw it during Wayne Couzens’ murder trial when it was suggested that Sarah’s walking alone at night had led to her murder – not to mention the Met police’s crass advice to women to ‘flag down a bus’ if stopped by a lone male officer. We’ve also seen this victim blaming recently following the rise of spiking in nightclubs, with women given patronising ‘advice’ about the dangers of holding their drinks wrong or wearing the wrong clothes. Working class and poor women generally suffer the worst of this approach.
Victim blaming is a useful tool for capitalism, partly because it turns the attention away from a system which deprioritises the safety of women and gender non-conforming people, and excuses their prolific underfunding of domestic and sexual violence services, as well as healthcare for women, transgender and non-binary people. The same goes for painting perpetrators of gender violence as “bad apples”, or deranged in some way. This allows us to forget about the lack of proper sex education which tackles consent and abuse properly. It leaves unchallenged the misogynistic idea that men are entitled to women and sex. Since the increase of women in the workplace and the role played by many women in workers’ struggle, many of these attitudes have been pushed back within society. But reactionary right-wing politicians in many different countries are currently fighting to turn the clock back.
Texas abortion ban
No more is this apparent at the moment than in Texas, where in September this year, abortion became effectively illegal. This is an attack on the health and welfare of all women and those assigned female at birth, potentially forcing them to carry unplanned or unsafe pregnancies to term, with the alternative being an expensive trip to a neighboring state or obtaining abortion pills illegally. Inevitably, this will have a disproportionate effect on working class women. And whilst again this has sparked outrage in Texas and across the globe, the well-organised mass opposition that trade unions and women’s groups should be leading has not been mobilised.
Democratic Party leaders including Joe Biden, despite speaking against the overruling of Roe vs Wade, have not carried out any action against it. This sets a precedent for the right, that they are able to attack reproductive rights. A supreme court hearing in December this year could see abortions banned after 15 weeks in 22 states. Meanwhile in the UK, some of the most reactionary wing of the Conservative Party, which is an important part of Johnson’s base, call for a similar decrease the number of weeks during pregnancy in which abortions are legal.
The system wants us to be silent, it wants us to feel insecure in our jobs so that we stay quiet in the face of harassment and abuse – in fear of losing our income and our dignity and respect. It wants us to distrust those who do speak out, to blame them or paint them as liars, and failing that, paint the perpetrator as a rogue, not like the rest of us. Capitalism is a breeding ground for gender violence, and fails to properly address it. Capitalism thrives on all forms of oppression and ruthlessly creates and exacerbates divisions among working-class people.
And just last month in October 2021, we saw the evidence of our systemic lack of safety in society boil to the surface again, as reports surfaced across mainstream and social media of an increase of spiking in bars and nightclubs, now not just in our drinks but injected into our backs without our knowledge. Women and gender non-conforming people are at this point tragically used to taking into account potential unsafety in bars and nightclubs. We are used to being conscious of how we hold and where we place our drinks, and used to considering that how we are dressed might be twisted if we needed to report a crime on a night out.
The news about spiking sparked protests, as well as boycotts of nightclubs across the UK, in most major cities especially by students, including women. These actions have already won small improvements, with stricter bag searching and more protection of drinks in many popular nightclubs and bars. They have also raised awareness of the need for stronger measures to protect anyone vulnerable in such a space, rejecting victim-blaming or any attempt to put the onus on women to protect ourselves in an inherently unsafe space. However, we know that these measures are not enough to give us the security we need. The risk of being spiked and sexually assaulted is still very real and will continue as long as we live under a system that commodifies women’s bodies for profit.
As socialists we demand proper, comprehensive funding into health and social care, including properly funded domestic and sexual violence services, so no one is turned away and all survivors get their needs met in the short and long term. This must include universal trans healthcare which meets the needs of trans and non-binary people, as well as a healthcare system which is fit for purpose for women and upholds reproductive rights. We demand an education system which addresses misogyny and all kinds of oppression, and which provides comprehensive sex education which covers consent and abuse, is LGBTQ inclusive and challenges notions of male ‘entitlement’ to sex.
We fight to end harassment and abuse in the workplace, and say that trade unions must develop a fighting programme to campaign against all forms of sexism at work. This should include fighting to ensure that accusations of harrasment and abuse are taken seriously in all cases. For accusations involving individuals in significant positions of power, including police officers, its vital that investigations into accusations are carried out independently of the capitalist institutions with which the individuals are associated, and under the leadership and oversight of trade unions, women’s, BAME, LGBT+ and disabled people’s groups.
As socialists we recognise that gender violence, like so many other forms of oppression, is an endemic part of the capitalist system and can never be fully overcome within it. That’s why it’s vital to link all these struggles to the need to transform society along socialist lines – taking the big monopolies out of private hands and allowing the democratic planning of the economy by working-class people. Such a society would be able to dedicate all necessary resources to ending the gender pay gap and removing the ‘double burden’ of domestic labour faced by millions of workers. This could be done through for example, free fully funded care for children and elderly or vulnerable adults. It would also create the space necessary to challenge the deeply embedded sexist attitudes which permeate our society, and ultimately put an end to all forms of oppression.