Day Thirteen | Making connections: Gender-based violence and women’s workforce participation

Sumangala Damodaran

Cotton Textile millsPhoto reproduced from Fibre2Fashion

As early as 1818, a group of British women weavers, or ‘Lancashire girls’ were brought to India to train women workers or ‘introduce factory methods of work’ in the Bowreah mill in Hooghly in Bengal. In her captivating account of the presence of women in India’s industrial sector, historian Samita Sen quotes an account by Janet Harvey Kelman, who wrote one of the earliest and most remarkable accounts of Indian labour, and according to whom women were associated with the ‘tragedy’ that surrounded the ‘first efforts to introduce modern mill industry into India’. The British women were released from a prison on an island in the Atlantic into the custody of a certain McAllister, who was the manager of the mill. It is believed that all succumbed later to an epidemic in India.

The presence of women in the industrial labour force in India, particularly in the  and the jute mills of Bengal, has thus been acknowledged from the beginnings of factory labour in India. Not only were women part of the industrial workforce, they also were the subject of numerous debates and controversies around their presence, especially between the introduction of the Factories Act in 1881 that was to regulate the conditions of industrial employment and the First World War.

Expectedly, the debates centred around the supposed contradiction between women’s sexual and reproductive roles in their families and as workers. The anxieties expressed about women’s participation in industrial work and the fear at what this presence outside the home and the family meant was, in this case, mediated by the colonial discourse around the usefulness of the female colonized subject. The debates also encompassed genuine concerns for women’s working conditions and safety in the industrial sector.

More than a century and a quarter later, the Female Workforce Participation Rate (FWPR) in India fell to 26% in 2018 and is seen, alarmingly, to have declined continuously over almost three decades. If we consider the region of South Asia, the pattern is mixed; in some countries, such as Nepal, the figures are quite high, whereas in Pakistan and India, they are declining, in India’s case alarmingly. This is particularly so  when compared to the global level, where women’s global labour force participation rate of around 48 per cent in 2018.

If women are participating less and less in what is conventionally considered ‘work’ or what contributes to the output of the economy, both as paid and unpaid workers, could it have something to do with gender-based violence which is a major contributor to the resilience of patriarchy? As with the ‘tragedy’ of women’s employment from the example of the ‘Lancashire girls’ and their Indian counterparts in the mills of Bengal, how does patriarchy’s continuous reiteration of the contradiction between women’s reproductive and productive or ‘visibly productive’ roles relate to the threat of violence?

It is acknowledged in academic work as well as in policy initiatives that actual violence and the fear of it affects the extent to which women participate in political and social processes. How does the violence that women face within and outside households, in communities and in workplaces impact women’s participation in, access to and exit from work and the workplace?

These are questions that need to be examined from the actual experiences of women with work as well as of violence and it is necessary to develop analytical frames that look at both simultaneously as fundamentally underpinning women’s lives and existence. The literatures that exist around the two axes, of work on the one hand and violence on the other, tend to be mostly mutually exclusive. Violence as an active variable tends to figure only tangentially in analyses of work and the understandings of gender based violence tend to address the structural features of women’s lives as workers only in a limited way.

Gendered analyses of work point out how the complexities of women’s existence and the invisibility of their labour results in complex negotiations between reproductive labour and both paid and unpaid ‘productive’ labour. The threat of violence within the family and from social networks is often seen to keep women out of the labour market or confine them to sectors where their work is considered more acceptable, or remains invisible.

Economic and political conditions within countries, like slumps or political upheavals, are also seen to have social impacts that typically raise the risk and incidence of violence against women. Further, even if, as in many countries in South Asia, the FWPR is very low and also falling, at the same time, there are newer sectors – particularly in services – where women are being employed and seen to be ‘visible’, often having to transgress patriarchal restrictions within families and communities.

The insights provided from actual experiences of work and workplaces could be useful to understand the multifaceted dimensions of gender-based violence. Further, the lens of violence and the dispositions within individuals, families and communities towards women’s work thus could generate rich material that allows for a nuanced understanding of the gendered dimensions of work.

 

Sumangala Damodaran is a Professor of Economics, Development Studies and Popular Music Studies at Ambedkar University Delhi. As a development economist, her research and publications fall broadly within the rubric of industrial and labour studies. She is also a singer and composer.

 

Day Thirteen | Witch-branding in Eastern India

Mayur Suresh

witch-huntingImage reproduced from DW

Witchcraft-related beliefs result in violence against women in parts of India, as in other regions of the world. Allegations of witchcraft lead to violence against women, including social boycotts, public humiliation, banishment, torture and lynching. As noted by Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions, being accused of witchcraft “is tantamount to receiving a death sentence.” 

In India, witchcraft-related violence against women is more ubiquitous than official statistics suggest. In November this year, an 81-year-old woman, who was accused of witchcraft by other residents of her village, had her face blackened, was garlanded with shoes and forced to walk through her village. In September of this year, a boy hacked his aunt to death, as he thought she was a witch. While men have also been the target of violence following witchcraft allegations, anecdotal evidence suggests that witchcraft accusations are made mostly against women.

The state of Jharkhand has recorded the highest number of witchcraft-related deaths in India. According to official statistics, in the year 2016-17, 19 women were killed on the allegation that they were witches, with 523 women being killed on witchcraft accusations between 2001 and 2016. These statistics reveal a fraction of the problem because they only represent those cases where ‘witchcraft’ is mentioned in the police records as a motive for murder, and they only record the murder of ‘witches’ – leaving the vast majority of violence that results from witchcraft allegations uncounted. 

Jharkhand has enacted a law that criminalises the identification of someone as a witch. Additionally, the law criminalises the rituals performed by an ojha or a witch doctor who the community believes can identify and ‘cure’ witches. However, both anecdotal and statistical evidence suggests that implementation is poor, even when a ‘witch’ has been murdered or assaulted. 

Earlier this year, I conducted preliminary fieldwork in Jharkhand where I met governmental and community-based organisations that engaged people on issues of witchcraft, as well as those who had personal experiences of being accused of witchcraft. A common story runs through many narratives that I came across during this fieldwork. An adversity befalls a family: an illness, an inability to bear children, crop failure or the death or illness of livestock. The family goes to an ojha (who is always a man) to deal with the problem. The ojha may tell the family ‘black magic’ has been performed on the family by a witch and they need to counter-act it. The family then performs a ritual in order to ward off the ‘black magic’. In the event the adversity persists, the ojha might tell the family how to identify the ‘witch’. Often this ‘witch’ will not be named, but rather the ojha will give clues to identify the ‘witch’ – for example, “Next to a pipal tree in your village there is a house with a door that points north. This witch lives around there.” 

After a person is identified, the public accusations begin. Threats are made against the ‘witches’ – warning of dire consequences if the witchcraft is not stopped. Rumours spread and soon other members of the community make similar accusations, claiming that their own illnesses or misfortunes are because of the ‘witch’. What follows is ever-increasing acts of humiliation and violence against the person by the rest of her village.

Witch-branding is therefore not a single act of naming, but is instead a process, where a person is gradually identified as a witch, with more and more people accusing them, accompanied by escalating forms of violence. The initial naming thus has devastating consequences. In addition, witchcraft allegations always take place within communities; often involving an entire village (both men and women) against a few (largely female) individuals. The victims and the perpetrators are usually of the same caste or tribal community, and are very often related – as one person told me, witch-branding is a type of domestic violence, where a family persecutes a few individuals within it. 

It became clear that the women who had personal experiences of being accused of witchcraft often did not know where the accusations originated from. As “everyone knew that [they] were witches,” the stories that were told about them took the form of communal accusations, and no one person could be identified as the accuser. Effectively, these were experienced as anonymous accusations that could neither be rebutted or rationalised. Whereas in other contexts, this form of communal knowledge might be celebrated, here it constitutes a direct threat to the lives and safety of women. 

Incidentally, the people who perpetrate violence against ‘witches’ think of themselves as the victims and the ‘witches’ as the perpetrators. According to a legal NGO in Jharkhand, the accused murderers often confessed to their crimes as they believed they were acting in self-defence. I was also told that people accused of killing ‘witches’ often expressed incredulity at being arrested and prosecuted for murder, “as witches had to be killed.”

Attempts have been made to identify socio-economic indicators of ‘witches’ that sets them apart from their communities. My ethnographic interlocutors, however, resisted attempts to draw such causal connections. They said that ‘witches’ are often as rich or as poor as their accusers, and they often have the same educational level as well. ‘Witches’ can be married, unmarried or widowed; they can have children or be childless. According to one community worker,

“if it is a poor woman who is called a witch, they will say she used black magic because she is jealous of the wealth of others […] if it is a rich woman, then she does it to keep others poor.” 

What remains constant is that ‘witches’ are mostly women. Witchcraft therefore shows us how gender can be experienced as a threat and how a discourse can be built around gender to justify that feeling of threat.

 

Mayur Suresh is a Future of Change India Research Fellow at the Faculty of Law, UNSW, Sydney and a Lecturer in Law at SOAS University of London. His research seeks to bring an anthropological perspective to the study of legal processes. He is currently finishing a book titled ‘Terrorists’ on Trial: Life and Law in Delhi’s Courts. This blog comes out of a new research project on witch-branding laws in Jharkhand.

Day Twelve | From ‘Battered Wives’ to ‘Coercive Control’: Domestic Abuse in Late Twentieth Century Scotland

Anni Donaldson

Women's Aid

Image reproduced courtesy of Scottish Women’s Aid

Scotland’s response to male violence against their wives, partners or girlfriends has come a long way since the 1970s when wives’ were ‘battered’ and police didn’t get involved in ‘domestics’. Forty years since the publication of Violence against Wives – A Case against the Patriarchy, new legislationThe Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018 – criminalised coercive control, and reflects our long journey to a deeper understanding of this complex and enduring problem.  

Whatever it is called, men’s violence against women has been a reality in Scotland for centuries. I wondered if a close look at its history in Scotland could teach us anything new.  My oral history research into domestic abuse experienced by a group of women who grew up in the post-war period shed some light on how we got from ‘battered wives’ in the 1970s to ‘coercive control’ in 2019. Most, but not all, of the women grew up in working class families in towns, cities and villages across Scotland.

Girls growing up in changing times

The women I spoke to were dating, getting married or moving in with their boyfriends when Scotland was experiencing fairly dramatic and contrasting social and economic change. From the 1960s to the 1980s, the country’s traditional heavy industries declined, male unemployment rose and more women entered the workforce. In the 1960s and 1970s, progressive legislation was advancing women’s reproductive rights and equality in relation to abortion, pay, maternity leave and sex discrimination. Although marriage was still the norm, the so-called ‘sexual revolution’ of the 1960s had challenged the conventional patterns of young people’s sexual relationships.

‘All men were interested in in the sixties was sex, and at that point I was terrified you know, I’d never met anybody that liked just me so I was a bit confused’ (D. b. 1949)

In 1979, Margaret Thatcher became Britain’s first female Prime Minister when the new Conservative government was elected. However, Mrs. Thatcher did not express allegiance to feminism or support for women’s equality; the Conservative’s neoliberal politics were profoundly patriarchal and based on her party’s traditional family-centred values of individualism and traditional gender roles.  Freedom and citizens’ rights were reframed as consumption; as Thatcher said:

‘…who is society? There is no such thing! …There are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.’

Against this backdrop, the group of women who participated in my research experienced violence and abuse early in their relationships, often whilst dating.  Before their eyes, they watched boyfriends shape-shift from romantic suitors to budding patriarchal tyrants.  

‘I think that once we’d had sex he had some sort of ownership over me’ (S. b. 1963). 

Family life, work and violence

By the 1970s and 1980s, the women had become teachers, nurses, accountants, health professionals, civil servants and administrators. Settling into family life and having children, family incomes and standards of living gradually rose as home and car ownership, family holidays and home improvements were made possible through joint loans and mortgages.  However, these same women continued to experience domestic abuse – physical, emotional and sexual abuse – whilst juggling demanding jobs, childcare, housework, parenting, family debt and the need to ‘keep up appearances’. 

A new financial balance of power challenged the patriarchal family conventions which the women and their husbands had absorbed since childhood. Historically, men’s higher status in the family came from their role as the main breadwinner and for many, assaults on their wives was a common practice for enforcing the family pecking order. 

 By the 1980s and 1990s, with women’s earnings now essential to the family budget and to maintaining their living standards, the function and the way the men used violence began to change. Easier access to credit led to higher spending, and mounting family debt created ever more complex family finances which further entrapped the women.  Women lived their lives with the constant threat of severe physical and sexual violence and described wearing a ‘mask’ in public.

Men devised new ways to extend their control into women’s working and social lives.  Cars and telephones made surveillance easier: husbands telephoned women’s workplaces to check they had arrived, drove them to and from their work and social events.  Men decided if women could attend social events alone; refused to look after their own children; scrutinised their partner’s clothes; insulted their appearance; monitored when they returned home from nights out and punished them for being late.  Women were subjected to jealous outbursts and some were raped for speaking to other men in their husband’s presence, or because they were suspected of flirting.   

In these closely examined narratives, it is possible to see how being a ‘battered wife’ in the confines of the home evolved into being a victim of  ‘coercive control’ –  a constant, invisible presence in every area of the women’s lives.  

While advances in women’s equality, better jobs and higher wages broadened women’s horizons, the violence and abuse did not end.  Instead it adapted to the new context and persisted. The patriarchal legacy was alive and well and violence against women survived into the late twentieth century by adapting successfully to changing times.  

From private violence to public prevention 

The patriarchal system was tenacious and adaptable but so too were women. With no help from the police or other services, and with society still largely hostile to their situation, the women I spoke to finally separated from their partners by devising carefully planned, long-term exit plans, helped only by a small circle of trusted family and friends.

zero tolerance

Image used with the kind permission of Zero Tolerance

However, the first public Zero Tolerance campaign, which launched in Edinburgh in 1992, showed women that their private hell was becoming public business.  

‘I remember seeing big Z-Z-Zs… how empowering that would have felt to me in 1986 to have seen that, that would have just made such a difference.’ (M. b. 1955) 

The state’s efforts to advance women’s equality have yet to lead to an end to domestic abuse.  Here’s hoping Scotland’s commitment to prevention and its new Domestic Abuse Act create a truly hostile environment for violent men. 

 

Anni Donaldson is a Knowledge Exchange Fellow at the University of Strathclyde., follow her on Twitter @AnniDonaldson, and read her blog here.

 

Day Eleven | A calling to account: Suing perpetrators of domestic violence in Australia

Anni Gethin

anni gethin day 11Image of King Street Court House Sydney by Kgbo, used under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license

The costs of being a victim of domestic violence (DV) are huge. Prolonged abuse by a partner results in psychological, physical, and financial devastation. Leaving the abuser brings a set of formidable challenges, including staying safe, impaired capacity to work, sole parenthood, and high risk of poverty and homelessness. DV costs victims and the Australian economy AU$22 billion a year, yet the people responsible – DV perpetrators – are almost never required to pay for the damage they have caused. 

Suing DV perpetrators in civil actions is one way to put accountability back where it belongs, and to bring some measure of just compensation to victims. In Australia, Domestic Violence Redress, a  joint venture between survivor charity, The Brigid Project, and law firm, The People’s Solicitors, aims to make these actions widely available to DV survivors. 

Most people don’t know that suing an abusive ex-partner is even possible, but it certainly is; in 2018, I took legal action against my former partner and obtained an AU$100,000 settlement in DV-related damages. That my case was unusual was obvious from the reaction of the judges during the five interlocutory hearings – they had clearly never seen a similar case. 

Researching the topic, I found there had only been 9 heard cases in Australia where DV survivors had sued the perpetrator (these cases are Jackson v Jackson (NSWSC, 26 March 1999, unreported); Ainsworth v Ainsworth [2002] NSWCA 130; Penn v Caprioglio [2002] VCC 37; Grosse v Purvis [2003] QDC 151; Varmedja v Varmedja [2008] NSWCA 177 Giller v Procopets [2004] VSC 113; [2008] VSCA 236; Elliott v Kotsopoulos  [2009] NSWDC 164; Morris v Karunaratne [2009] NSWDC 346; Cooper v Mulcahy Mulcahy v Cooper [2013] NSWCA 160). Similarly, an international search only found a very small numbers of cases in other common law countries.

I got the idea for suing my ex-partner from the litigious United States, specifically the OJ Simpson civil case – this case suggested that if the criminal system fails you, then you can bring a civil suit. The criminal system had failed me: it was traumatising and disempowering and did nothing to compensate for the debilitating post-traumatic stress disorder that resulted from the abusive and violent behaviour of my former partner, nor the associated loss of income from being unable to work for two years. The criminal process also delivers little to nothing in terms of perpetrator accountability.

Tort law, by contrast, can compel a person or company pay money for the harm they have caused, whether by negligence or on purpose. Tortious harms can occur from events such as a street assault, being defamed, or trespass on your property; tort also applies to some domestic violence behaviour. In Australia, there are around 25 intentional torts. DV victims can potentially use a number of these torts to sue perpetrators, although tort law does not by any means cover the full scope of domestic violence. 

Where there has been physical violence, then the tort of battery is relatively easy to establish as it makes actionable any touching without consent. Battery includes slapping, pushing, punching, hair pulling, sexual assaults, and attacks causing serious injury or disability. It also includes physical contact that is primarily degrading, such as urinating on the victim (see Morris v Karunaratne [2009] NSWDC 346, 3), or pouring beer on her (see Cooper v Mulcahy [2012] NSWSC 373, 204). 

DV perpetrators commonly stop their partners from leaving the house, even tying them up or locking them in the home; these behaviours could result in an action for wrongful imprisonment. Intentional infliction of emotional harm is a tort that potentially makes the more shocking emotional abuseby perpetrators actionable, such as sexually abusing children or slaughtering pets. The tort of deceit brings into scope fraud and financially abusive behaviours, such as forcing a victim to sign loan documents.

There are also torts which I call the ‘stalker torts’, because they enable actions against this common form of DV. Stalking is typically used by perpetrators to control a partner, and to terrorise a victim if the victim attempts to leave. Trespass to land, nuisance, and breach of privacy torts were all used in a landmark Queensland case where the survivor successfully sued an ex-lover who stalked and harassed her for many years (Grosse v Purvis [2003] QDC 151).

There are benefits to bringing an action in torts. Damages payouts can be substantial. The largest payout in the DV cases was $800,000 (in Penn v Caprioglio [2002] VCC 37), with damages in six of the nine DV cases exceeding $150,000. These sums should be compared to the tiny amounts available through victims’ compensation schemes. Civil litigation also puts the survivor in control: it is their case, and they instruct their lawyers. This contrasts with criminal cases in Australia where the victim has no role, and the prosecutor and defence can make deals that effectively erase offences. Importantly too, that of the nine DV cases, the women were from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds. This is not just an action for middle class victims.

Despite the potential benefits, suing the perpetrator is definitely not for every DV survivor. Perpetrators regularly kill and seriously assault their former partners, and civil courts have none of the protections of family and criminal courts. If a defendant has no money, there is no point pursuing damages. The survivor will also have to relive the trauma to make out their claim, and will need to prove injury or loss. Larger damages payouts can only be expected where the victim has experienced substantial physical or psychiatric injury, and/or a large loss of income connected to the DV. 

Even given these limitations, 1 in 4 Australian women are subjected to DV, so there are thousands of viable cases. Domestic Violence Redress aims to start running actions in 2020, with an initial target of 25 cases. These will run on a no-win no-fee basis, and we will establish a fund to cover the initial costs of litigation and any adverse costs orders. Opening up this legal avenue for redress will make an important contribution to compensating DV survivors. It will also profoundly challenge current social expectations of perpetrator accountability.

Dr. Anni Gethin is a health social scientist with an interest in domestic violence law reform. She coordinates The Brigid Project, a peer support charity for survivors of domestic violence, runs a research consulting business, and lectures in public health and criminology at Western Sydney University. Anni holds a doctorate in population health and, to further her interests in law reform, is completing a Juris Doctor at UNSW. Her current research focuses on legal remedies for victims of domestic violence, and perpetrator accountability.

 

Day Ten | Violence Against Girls in the Pacific and Timor-Leste

Kavitha Suthanthiraraj and Caitlin Hamilton

Day 11 Pacific and Timor-Leste
Image reproduced with the permission of Save the Children Australia/Robert McKechnie

In 2019, Save the Children, ChildFund, Plan Australia, and World Vision co-authored a report – Unseen, Unsafe – which looked at the physical, emotional and sexual violence, as well as neglect faced by children living in the Pacific and Timor-Leste. 

The report found that over 70 per cent – or 4 million – children across eight countries experience violent discipline at home. This includes 2.8 million children (or 75 percent of the child population) in Papua New Guinea. It isn’t just the scale of violent discipline that is troubling, but also the extreme levels of violence. Data obtained from Save the Children’s child protection program in Papua New Guinea, for example, reported that 27 per cent of parents or carers acknowledged beating their children “over and over as hard as they could”. 

Girls are especially vulnerable in this region; the Unseen, Unsafe report indicates that 1 in 4 adolescent girls experienced physical violence, while 1 in 10 had experienced sexual violence. The Ending Violence in Childhood report (2017) found, for example, that in Vanuatu, over 35% of adolescent girls aged between 15 and 19 reported being the victim of physical violence, and around 14% indicated that they had experienced sexual violence, while in Kiribati, the figures were approximately 30% and 15% respectively. 

 

What causes violence against girls?

There are a number of drivers of violence against girls in the Pacific and Timor-Leste (just as there are globally). In this region, the Unseen, Unsafe report found that violence tends to be widely accepted as a form of legitimate discipline and children do not enjoy a high status. If a young girl experiences an unwanted pregnancy or contracts a sexually transmitted disease, access to health and support services are often limited, while pronounced levels of gender inequality, poverty and economic stress, and weak child protection systems only compound the issue.

There are particularly strong prevailing gender norms in the Pacific and Timor-Leste, with unequal gender power relations and discrimination driving high levels of violence against women and children. Many communities are deeply patriarchal, and this is sustained through traditional ideologies, customary practices and powerful religious influences. These gender hierarchies are reproduced from generation to generation; as one young girl from Morobe, in Papua New Guinea, said: “Witnessing violence in the home or in the community will have some effect on the child. When these young boys witness it every time they will grow up to be violent – because they will think it is normal”.

Economic factors and weak protection systems exacerbate violence against children, and girls in particular. In the Solomon Islands, for example, the rapid growth of extractive industries such as logging and fishing has been associated with an increase in the commercial and sexual exploitation of children, including a rise in ‘Solair’ activity. Solairs are intermediaries who arrange local girls for sex for foreign logging or fishing workers. These arrangements might arise from personal requests from individual foreign workers or a request from local managers or supervisors at the company. Despite this being well-known, few safeguards have been put in place to monitor and prevent the exploitation of young girls near the logging sites. National legislation – such as the Child and Family Welfare Act 2017 and the Family Protection Act 2014 – purportedly offer protection, but a lack resources means that these laws are rarely implemented. As a result, informal village-level mechanisms are frequently invoked, though these are often woefully inadequate; fines of only SBD$50 (approximately USD $6) are imposed for the offence of “selling of female members of the community for sex for personal monetary gain or beer”.

What now?

There are, perhaps unsurprisingly, no easy answers to a problem that is so widespread and seemingly entrenched. The issue of violence against children and girls needs to be addressed on multiple levels, changing the dynamics in homes, families, communities and entire societies. The drivers of interpersonal violence are incredibly complex, and so must be the means of addressing the root causes. Changing harmful social and cultural norms and behaviours involves cooperation between multiple sectors and stakeholders, from national governments, civil society groups, religious and community organisations. It includes mobilisation programmes directed at changing norms, training programmes for parents and children, and the establishment and continued support of frontline response services. 

These programmes are working and making a difference in the lives of countless girls. But for this work to continue, governments and other major donors need to make a meaningful contribution to ending violence against children, plain and simple. The Unseen, Unsafe report is unequivocal in finding that more targeted aid expenditure on ending violence against children is needed to address the epidemic. 

We know that money alone isn’t the answer to ending violence in the region, but without funding, progress is impossible. This places the wellbeing of countless young girls in our region in danger and keeps girls unseen, and unsafe. 

Kavitha Suthanthiraraj is the Policy and Advocacy Advisor at Save the Children Australia and author of ’Unseen and Unsafe: Underinvestment in Ending Violence Against Children in the Pacific and Timor-Leste’

Caitlin Hamilton (@_CaitHamilton) is the Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Australian Human Rights Institute and editor of ’Unseen and Unsafe: Underinvestment in Ending Violence Against Children in the Pacific and Timor-Leste’.

Day Ten |Women’s right to physical security in the Pacific region

Nicole George

Pacific Islands violence The Pacific Islands may be well-known as an idyllic tourist destination, but gendered violence remains a chronic issue for Island women. AAP/Diana Plater via the Conversation

Since 2013, I have worked with women’s groups in the Pacific Islands countries of Fiji, Bougainville (in PNG), New Caledonia, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, to reflect on women’s right to physical security, and ask what that principle looks like in our Pacific region. My research has had two aims; first to understand how the right to safety is institutionalised and reforms are implemented in each country, and second, to examine how the right to safety is understood by women in an everyday sense.

To give some context, it is important to consider the global origins of women’s right to live in security from violence. In 1993, the United Nations General Assembly formally recognised violence against women to be a violation of women’s human rights. In doing so, the issue of women’s vulnerability was no longer considered a source of personal shame and stigma. Rather, it was given full recognition as a global challenge, and states were asked to do more to support their female populations who experienced this violence, as well as to work towards its elimination. 

Since 1993, Pacific Island countries, including the larger island countries of Australia and New Zealand have all responded to this shift in global policy making on violence against women. We have come a long way from the days of 1995 when one Pacific leader jested amongst his male peers at the Pacific Islands Forum meeting, that Pacific men used the idle hours of the “Sunday Sabbath” to kick “either a football or one’s wife around”. 

Nearly twenty years later, the Pacific Island Forum leaders meeting in 2012 was, by contrast are more sympathetic event. Here the regions leaders made a powerful commitment to tackle gender inequality in their countries and also to do more to challenge violence against women. In the years since, we have seen Pacific Island governments recognise their responsibilities towards women and establish reforms that aim to eliminate violence against women.

In PNG, Vanuatu and Solomon Islands we have seen new family law legislation and new domestic violence legislation with more protections for women and harsher penalties enacted for those who perpetrate violence. In Solomon Islands, additionally, the government has established a National Policy to Eliminate Violence Against Women and Girls in 2016 which integrates government and civil society programs to assist those exposed to violence. 

In Fiji, we have seen new policing policy which stipulates a “zero tolerance approach” and “no drop” directing all officers to investigate cases of violence against women brought to their attention, even if women later try to withdraw the complaint. In New Caledonia there have been state and civil society initiatives such as the establishment of shelters and women’s bureaus who offer assistance to women who have been exposed to violence. 

All of these reforms show state and civil society commitment to the objective of eliminating gender violence. But what is their concrete effectiveness? Do they mean women experience less violence in their daily lives? This is always a hard question to answer ask because we also know that when there is more public debate about violence against women, and more effort to improve state authorities’ responses to this issue, more women who might not have reported abuse decide to come forward to demand assistance. 

But given that we are now 16 years on from that landmark international policy shift of 1993, and 7 years on from the Pacific Islands Forum declaration recognising women’s insecurity as an issue of regional concern, we might also expect to see the beginning of a decline in numbers of women being exposed to this violence. Sadly, this is far from evident, and in many countries around the region we see violence against women perpetrated at significant rates consistent, or even higher than, those of 20 years ago.  

So my research has really sought to understand why. My findings indicate to me that while state reform is important, implementation remains a challenge.  

Part of the problem lies in the difficulties that women continue to face in trying to progress charges against violent family members through the criminal justice system. In Solomon Islands, for example, between the establishment of the Family Safety bill in 2014 and 2018, there were only 18 people convicted of family violence offences and only one person had received a custodial sentence. 

There are many dedicated police officers that are sympathetic towards women who bring complaints of violence to their attention. But there are also many others who continue to treat this issue as of minimal importance in general law and order work. Through my research in the Pacific Islands region, I have amassed too many stories which show that even when official policing policy states that women’s complaints of violence must be investigated, individual police officers frequently dissuade women from pressing charges against family members and instead encourage them to return home and reconcile with their husbands.

The scope of policing authority in many Pacific Island countries is also usually quite limited too and this can have an impact on women’s safety. For example, when I began research on violence against women in Fiji in 2013, as the government was implementing the aforementioned “Zero Tolerance” policy on violence against women. This involved a community policing approach and cooperation from local community leaders. Many people around the country praised this program and urged me to study it. The fact that it sought to complement policing responses with the input and authority of community leaders seemed promising. 

Yet, when I went to rural villages, or squatter settlements around the main cities in Fiji to find out more, I encountered less enthusiasm. Women in these places made statements such as “men have no idea what we go through” or “our experiences are just our own”. This suggested that even this program with its zero tolerance message, and degree of community-level cooperation was struggling to make an impact. The testimonies of the women I spoke to in this context, suggested to me that that government programs must do more than show success in a few well-publicised locations if women’s rights to security are to be upheld generally.   

The question of what women might want in terms of state support when they are exposed to violence is interesting too, and suggests the ‘punish and protect’ model of policing may itself not be a solution that those exposed to violence always seek.  My work in Vanuatu with Melissa Bull has yielded particularly interesting results on this question. It has shown that where police do have the capacity to intervene, women simply want officers to bring about a halt in household or family violence so that order is re-established and do not expect or want their partners subjected to punishment. Women here also explained that police can play an important role in educating perpetrators that their violent actions are against law and human rights. 

So what can we take away from all of this? Certainly, we have come a long way in the Pacific region from the days when it was thought appropriate for Pacific leaders to make jokes about women’s vulnerability to violence and show little regard to questions of women’s safety. Today, many Pacific Island states take this challenge seriously and have enacted legal, policing and welfare reforms to uphold women’s rights to security, and make that an issue of state responsibility. But more work needs to be done to ensure that these commitments are more than just words. The design of reform is the first step.

Meaningful implementation in ways that provide women with valuable aid, support and protection from violence, is a second but far more challenging part of the process. This will be vital if we are committed to challenging the scenario where women’s rights to security are respected and we find it unacceptable that women’s stories of violence should remain “simply their own”. 

Nicole George is Associate Professor at the University of Queensland. Her research focuses on the gendered politics of conflict and peacebuilding, violence, security and participation. Since the early 2000s, she has conducted research in the Pacific Islands region focusing on gender politics, gendered security and post conflict transition in Fiji, New Caledonia, Bougainville and Solomon Islands, working in collaboration with women’s organisations, women decision-makers and women policymakers in these settings. 

Day Nine | Fighting against Disablist Gender Based Violence: A Double Dose of Discrimination

Caroline Bradbury-Jones and Sonali Shah 

Disability, Gender

Disability and violence are global human rights issues that cut across gender, race, age, sexuality, geographical, religious, socio-economic and cultural boundaries. They are socially produced and culturally constructed, and can manifest at different or multiple, generational locations over a person’s life-course (childhood, youth, adulthood and older age). Disability and violence have a bi-directional relationship in that the onset of impairment can be caused by being exposed to violence, or violent actions by a perpetrator can be stimulated by a victim’s impairment.

While both were once considered to be private problems hidden from public view, increasingly they are recognised as issues that call for public attention and intervention. Moreover, both are gendered, and both begin early in life. Here, we focus on what we term ‘disablist gender-based violence’, that is, violence that is specific to being disabled and that is targeted at women and girls because they are women and girls. It is, in effect, a double dose of discrimination.

Across the globe, the risk of violence for children with impairments is up to four times greater than their non-disabled contemporaries. Violence against disabled children tends to be more severe than for non-disabled children, while severity is correlated with the impairment type. They are likely to experience more than one type of violence across their lifetime starting from an early age.

From infanthood, disabled people are continuously reminded of their ‘difference’ and ‘otherness’ in society. There is now indubitable evidence that there are considerable gendered risks that lead to disablist gender-based violence. Accounting for gender, significantly more disabled girls than disabled boys are likely to experience sexual abuse, while the opposite is true for physical abuse. 

The high proportion of disabled women and girls exposed to and experiencing violence during their lives is associated with a number of factors, starting with the societal contention that the life of a disabled child is a wrongful life and an economic burden to the family and society. The objectification and manipulation of the disabled female body have been suggested to create opportunities for violence.

Disablist gender-based violence includes actions that simultaneously increase the powerfulness of the perpetrators and the powerlessness of the disabled women and girls. Although disabled women and girls can experience the same types of abuse as their non-disabled contemporaries – physical, sexual and emotional – they are likely to be subjected to additional abuse triggered by the objectification and manipulation we mentioned earlier. Moreover, abuse may be perpetrated by people who are supposed to ‘care’ for them, such as personal assistants or carers in institutions, parents and health care workers.

Into adulthood, over half of all disabled women have experienced physical abuse, compared with one third of non-disabled women. Nearly 80% of disabled women have been victims of psychological and physical violence, and are at a greater risk of sexual abuse than non-disabled women. Traditionally, as a group, disabled women and girls have been exposed to disempowering messages about their reproductive choices from early childhood, for example having limited exposure to sexual knowledge and opportunities while growing up. 

This arises from them being excluded from the cultural spaces where such exchanges take place or being constrained by high levels of surveillance. Disabled women have been discouraged and sometimes physically prevented from exercising their reproductive capacities and becoming parents. They are subject to social infantilisation, being conceptualised as weak, passive and dependent. The disabled female body has not been seen as beautiful or sexual, but as fragile, weak and asexual. Moreover, the disabled female has historically been objectified asexually by media, medical and legal discourses; conceptualised as undesirable sexual partners or mothers. 

The fact that disabled women and girls may have to depend on others for basic personal and social needs, not only places them at greater risk of abuse compared to non-disabled females, but also reduces opportunities to disclose. Professionals may not necessarily recognise scars of disabled child abuse and misdiagnose them as being related to the child’s impairment. Such diagnostic overshadowing can thwart opportunities for child protection and support and exacerbate marginalisation and risk to disabled women and girls. Moreover, limited violence prevention support and intervention for disabled females at different points of their life can leave them feeling disempowered and doubting their rights to protection and support. 

In conclusion, gender-based violence perpetrated against women and girls is a major human rights issue that blights the lives of millions worldwide. This risk is greater for disabled women and girls and is less likely to be recognised among policy makers and health service providers. Disabled women and girls are more likely to encounter barriers to support and protection for a number of reasons, connected to the overall pattern of disablism in society.

The evidence suggests that indicators of violence can be overlooked by practitioners who see the disability first, rather than the woman or girl as a person. The reality is that many disabled women have intersectional identities – they may identify as homosexual, identify as transgender, are of minority ethnic or religious background, and are of different ages – which contributes to unique experiences of oppression and disadvantage.

Across the globe, there is a dearth of voices and experiences of disabled women and girls in mainstream research, policy and practice in relation to violence, victimisation, protection and prevention. The inclusion of these hidden voices will not only help achieve the goal “nothing about us without us”. It will also raise an awareness of the need to include disablist violence in official definitions of gender-based violence and child abuse. 

The issues covered in this blog are addressed more fully in our book: Disability, Gender and Violence over the Life Course: Global Perspectives and Human Rights Approaches. Shah, S. & Bradbury-Jones, C. (2018), Routledge, London. 

 

Caroline Bradbury-Jones is a registered nurse, midwife and health visitor. Her research interests lie broadly within the scope of addressing inequalities and more specifically are focused on issues of family violence and child abuse and neglect. She has led or been actively involved in securing funding for a number of research projects relevant to these areas. She has undertaken research or engaged in scholarly activities with a number of countries including Japan, New Zealand, Denmark, Germany and Finland. Caroline leads the Risk, Abuse and Violence research programme at the University of Birmingham. 

Sonali Shah is a Research Fellow in the School of Nursing at the University of Birmingham. She is funded by a Burdett Trust award to undertake a qualitative study ‘Eternal: UK healthcare of women with Cerebral Palsy across the female life cycle’. The purpose is to address the gap in existing understandings about growing older with Cerebral Palsy, and women’s health, and to highlight the health and healthcare experiences of disabled women in general, and women with CP in particular. The proposed outcome is to develop an educational tool for nurses, midwives and allied healthcare practitioners to understand the embodied changes experienced by girls and women with Cerebral Palsy across the life course (from menarche to menopause), and how to overcome structural and cultural barriers to healthcare services, environments and treatments, particularly in relation to reproductive and sexual health.