Violence against women: Who's to blame?

October 23, 1996


By Philippa Stanford

According to Scientific American in 1994, between 20-50% of women in the world are physically abused. In the USA, a woman is beaten every 18 minutes and between 22-35% of visits to emergency rooms are for injuries caused by domestic violence.

These horrific figures are not unique to the US. Women in Australia have a one in three chance of being raped at some point. One in four girls will be sexually assaulted by the time they are 18 and 80% of them will know their attacker.

Even more tragically, wife-murder is on the rise. In 1991, 42% of all women murdered in Australia were killed by their spouse (compared to 6% of men). While NSW's homicide rate has remained constant since 1968, at about 100 per year, the number of women murdered by their husbands increased by 18% between 1968-1994.(NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, 1994).

One in three families in Australia have at least one incidence of domestic violence. According to police figures, the number of calls for help for domestic violence increased by 3000 to 14,000 per year between 1991-1992 in Victoria alone. Even this doesn't tell the whole story: a 1993 Saulwick Age poll found that only 23% of women victims of domestic violence had reported it to police.

The extent of violence against women across the globe is massive and increasing. Whether it is being used as a weapon of war and occupation of whole countries or, as in advanced industrialised and supposedly "egalitarian" countries like Australia, being inflicted behind closed doors in the suburbs, gender based violence is institutionalised.

Sexual divisions

Women in Australia have won formal legal equality with men, and laws have been enacted against sexual harassment, rape and domestic violence. These legislative gains and the widespread public recognition that women should not be discriminated against are the results of long, hard struggles by hundreds of thousands of women during the second wave of feminism in the 1960s and '70s.

One of the feminist movement's major successes was that it raised millions of women's expectations about how they should be viewed and treated, but that didn't automatically change the basic conditions of most women's lives.

Women still do the lowest paid, most boring jobs: Australia has the highest level of occupational gender segregation in the OECD and 82% of women workers today are employed in the same few occupations that 84% of their great grandmothers worked in during 1911. 1994 ABS figures show that the gap between men's and women's wages is widening for the first time since the equal pay cases of the 1970s.

Most women also still go home to a second shift of unpaid, mind-numbing domestic work: women in Australia still do two-thirds of all unpaid household chores (ABS, 1990).

Our society is organised into separate family units, each of which raises the children and looks out for its own interests in competition with other families. The work involved is divided between the adults in each family — feeding, cleaning and child-care is assigned mainly to women while men are the main "breadwinners" and, being economically independent, the "head of the households".

Out of this sexual division of roles, a whole lot of myths about women's "nature" have arisen: that her only creative capacity is to have children; that she is "emotional"; that she is the "helper" while men are the doers; and that women are either good workers or good mothers, but not both at once.

In the process, women are psychologically damaged. They are raised to believe that their subordinate function in the home is natural (determined by biology or God). To varying extents, women are rendered psychologically and/or physically dependent on "their man", who in turn has been indoctrinated to regard women as submissive helpers and sex objects who should be, even like to be, dominated and bullied. In a profoundly unjust society which spawns general violence and alienation, violence against women is an inevitable result of such a family system.

The notion that a woman's "natural place" is in the home is essential to maintaining the whole economic system based on the accumulation of private profits. It provides justification for paying women less than men, giving them less education, denying them promotions, or relegating them to unemployment. The economic inequality between men and women that is institutionalised in this family system and the pervasiveness of the ideas that support it means that, even in the increasingly common sole-parent family, or in the current situation where more than 50% of women are waged workers, the majority of women still pay the price in terms of poverty and economic dependence.

Along the way, huge profits are also made from women's insecurities. Every year, for example, the US cosmetics industry sells women US$300 million worth of "remedies" for their "ugliness".

Escalating attacks

In their pursuit of increasing profits, capitalists and their mates in government are trying to extract more from working people — to get more of the essential work in society done at less cost to themselves. Privatising child-care services; spending less on social services; expanding the user pays system in education, health and aged care; forcing wages and working conditions down; and maintaining unequal pay for women and men are all aimed at achieving this.

The result is that more and more of the burden of essential tasks is thrown back onto working class families and thus onto working class women.

An essential part of this assault is the ideological backlash, fostered to make women more willing to accept lower wages, fewer social services, inequality on the job, more expensive child-care, etc. The capitalists want women to blame themselves, or men in general, rather than the private profit system, for the economic and social problems they confront every day.

This ideological counter-attack on the advances that were made in women's status in the 1960s and '70s takes many forms — from denouncing young women who make use of the laws against sexual harassment, as Helen Garner did in her widely promoted book The First Stone; to glorification of the "super mum" in women's magazines; to making women feel guilty about "abandoning" their children in child-care centres.

While it is primarily men who control the wealth and decision-making in our society, not all men benefit from the oppression of women. The oppression of women and the sexist prejudices that are used to justify it are used by employers to pit male and female workers against each other and weaken the ability of working people as a whole to resist the attacks on their living standards.

Reclaim the Night marches give us a chance to say loudly and publicly that women have a right to be free from violence. But to make this right a reality for all women, we need to do more than march once a year. We need to build a broad, active, mass movement of feminists that goes beyond simply affirming our opposition to sexist violence and directs the outrage of women against all the forms of institutionalised sexism by demanding concrete measures from governments such as more funding for women's services, free child-care facilities, better and safer public transport, the repeal of anti-abortion laws, and affirmative action programs for women in education and work.

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