Argus title : Sexism is the canker of society
Last Sunday’s “Panorama” was an examination of our society’s failure to deal effectively with rape. Its deeply depressing conclusion was that for the foreseeable future rapists will continue to “get away with it”.
On the same Sunday the Observer newspaper published an article about recent educational research which had concluded that there was no benefit to girls from single sex education.
As parents of a daughter my husband and I were deeply irritated by the article, not least because it failed to mention even the possibility that girls might be subject to sexism or sexist harassment in a mixed environment.
My husband remarked with frustration on the number of reports on gender and sexual relations which fail to deal with sexism.
“They’re based on a lie” my husband said. And he was right.
It is a comfortable, smooth, fatuous, ugly lie which dominates the lives of women and children in this country, promulgated by self-serving governments, promoted by the media and echoed slavishly within local authorities, where it permeates almost every layer of service delivery.
It suggests that the human rights of women are well protected in this country, that there is no problem of institutionalised misogyny, little unfair discrimination to speak of and that what remains of inequality is steadily being eradicated. So it need not even be mentioned.
In fact, we are told that there is a ‘crisis of manhood’, that men no longer understand their role. There is national panic because of boys’ educational underachievement, but little recognition that the simple fact of being male ensures that their income in adulthood will almost certainly outstrip that of their female contemporaries. Girls work hard because they have to. If some boys don’t, it’s because they believe they don’t need to.
The government acknowledges that women are more likely than men to live in poverty, because they carry out unpaid labour or in the home, are disadvantaged by low-paid part-time employment, fulfil obligations to care for children and elderly relations and have poor pension provision in old age. However, it fails to link these issues, and as a consequence strips them of political significance.
It refuses either to confront the underlying problem of prejudice and discrimination against women, or to challenge the continuing relative privileges of men. Still less does it acknowledge that women’s sexual servitude and unpaid labour in families are all too often secured by violence.
Despite the fact that male violence against women is widespread and increasing, none of the major parties have effective strategies to deal with it. It is known that the steep rise in violent crime reported in recent years, springs from increased reporting by women of incidents of domestic and sexual violence. But we have yet to see a Prime Minister or Home Secretary prepared to make the fight against violence against women a real political priority.
The government does acknowledge (usually through junior ministers) that rape is widespread and expresses alarm about the low level of convictions. It expresses concern (at a similarly junior level) about domestic violence and concedes that there too conviction rates are too low. However, once again it fails to link the two issues.
The Home Office accepts that the overwhelmingly majority of victims of rape and domestic violence are female. However, according to its press office, though it collects statistics about all violent crime, it fails to do so specifically for violent crime against women. So while the Home Office appears to have statistical information to support its claim that young men are most at risk of assault in a public place, it claims not to know how many victims of sexual assault are female – or whether they were assaulted by men.
It does not know – or will not say – how many women in total die at the hands of male perpetrators, whether sex offenders or other assailants. It does concede that 2 women die each week at the hands of partners or former partners in incidents of domestic violence, but even in this regard, its figures are outdated and probably inaccurate.
The annual death rate is comparable to that of Northern Ireland during the Troubles, but the day by day and week by week carnage of women is rarely if ever presented as the political scandal that it is.
The Home Office’s policies and publications properly and regularly makes use of terms such as ‘racist violence’ and ‘homophobia’, but I could not find the words ‘sexism’ and ‘sexist violence’ anywhere at all. Though the Home Office’s website acknowledges in one line that hate crime on the basis of gender does exist, its overriding focus is on racist and homophobic violence.
The government appears not to accept that women are subject to male violence simply by virtue of being female. And when it does deal with the issue of domestic and sexual violence it obscures the scale and extent of male violence against women by suggesting it is almost as likely to happen to men, manipulating statistics and failing to collect others.
The Home Office makes a virtue of producing policy and publications which are ‘non-gender specific’. However, in respect of sexist violence, this has simply served to minimise the seriousness of male violence against women and to ‘talk up’ violence against men.
This approach strips sexist violence of its social context by presenting domestic and sexual assaults as terrible, but private crimes, each one the result of individual criminality, conflict or pathology.
Perhaps significantly, there has been a marked reluctance to collate and publish information about the gender of perpetrators. This has made it possible to obscure the fact that most attackers are male and that where domestic or sexual assaults are experienced by males, they tend to be perpetrated by other males – whether fathers, brothers, teachers, priests or gay partners.
When I contacted the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to ask for information about any work it does to combat hate crime against women, a spokesperson said “We do nothing about violence against women as such. We do produce some materials on domestic violence and some on rape, but they’re not just about women.” She added weakly “You know it can happen to men as well”.
I can’t imagine that anyone telephoning the CPS to ask what it publishes about hate crime towards Black and minority ethnic people is ever told that publicity materials are not just about minority ethnic groups because “it can happen to White people as well.”
Of course, violence against white people does take place and sometimes the perpetrators are Black or from a minority ethnic group. Such incidents – in common with attacks by women upon men – can be devastating for victims. However, in any discussion of hate crime it would rightly be considered ludicrous to focus upon such crimes. No government official would dare bend statistics or language to suggest that there was any degree of parity between the two.
The primary reason for this is that the government acknowledges that crimes against Black and minority ethnic people take place in the context of a society which historically has unfairly discriminated against them. The government admits that there is a problem of deep-rooted racism in this society which finds expression in continued institutional discrimination and in racist violence which sometimes results in murder.
For reasons best known to itself, the government chooses not to recognise that centuries of brutal discrimination and exploitation of women have created a problem of deep-rooted sexism in this society which finds expression in institutional unfair discrimination and in endemic sexist violence which often results in rape and murder.
The government, obsessed by its ‘respect’ agenda, fails to recognise the devastating effect that sexism and sexist violence has upon our society and the terrible damage that is done to girl and boy children brought up in its shadow. It chooses not to see that the troubled youths causing chaos on estates have been weaned on domestic violence and schooled in a context of machismo and bullying. Imposing ASBOs does not begin to touch the problem.
Sexism is a canker at the heart of our families, a disease which has spread throughout our schools, workplaces and institutions. It infects every part of the body politic with its sour pollution.
Those of us who are parents of daughters fear for their future. The parents of sons fear for them in a culture of violence and machismo.
Any government which has the courage and the will to effectively address these issues will earn the gratitude of millions – and will have achieved true greatness.
We can but dream.