Violence against women – A huge problem which demands concrete solutions

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Victims no more! Movie heroines, Thelma and Louise, inspired women everywhere to resist sexist violence.

For anyone who believes that women have equality, here’s a statistic. Domestic violence is the biggest cause of death or disability for Australian women aged between 15 and 44. This data comes from a study released by Access Economics in March this year.

Just months before this revelation, in November 2004, a Victorian court found a wealthy Melbourne businessman, James Ramage, guilty of the manslaughter — not murder — of his wife Julie, based on the legal defence of provocation. Ramage argued that Julie had provoked him by telling him that she found him repulsive and was leaving him. The court didn’t allow testimonies of those close to Julie about the years of violence that she had endured and the number of times she had tried to escape. The verdict exposed this State-approved femicide. It rightly ignited public outrage.

In 1996, Heather Osland had been sentenced to fourteen-and-a-half years for the murder of her husband. Her son, David — who struck the fatal blow — was acquitted on the basis of defending himself and his mother. But for Heather, the law didn’t consider her 13 years of terror or her fear for her son’s and her own life at the time of the killing.  A lengthy legal campaign to quash the conviction went to the High Court, but failed — as did a last-ditch Petition for Mercy to the Victorian Attorney-General. Osland is due for release from prison in August this year.

Not a woman’s world. The 1991 U.S. film Thelma and Louise inspired heated debate across the world. The waitress and housebound wife from Arkansas set out for a weekend of fun and freedom. Instead, they ended up being pursued by legions of police and FBI agents after Louise killed a guy attempting to rape Thelma. Once cornered, the two fugitives made a deliberate choice to drive over a cliff rather than do life in the penitentiary. In societies where women get life, or death, sentences for defending themselves, the message was chilling: there’s zero tolerance for uppity women.

Worldwide, more than 20% of women face domestic violence in marriage. Various sample surveys have revealed that: 77% of Japanese women respondents have experienced domestic battery; one in four South African women are beaten by male partners; in the U.S. a woman is bashed every 15 seconds. Domestic violence is the second most common violent crime in Britain, and in Rwanda, at least 250,000 women and girls were raped between April 1994 and April 1995.

In 1996, the Australian Bureau of Statistics issued a report that in that year alone, nearly one-fifth of women aged 18 to 24 had been physically or sexually assaulted. One in three were over 45. Of all the women surveyed, almost half of those physically attacked and 22% of women sexually assaulted sustained injury. Over one million, or 23% of women in marriage or defacto relationships, experienced violence by their partners.  A 1998 study by the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) found that domestic violence accounted for 27% of all homicides in Australia between 1989 and 1996. A follow-up AIC study of 1989 to 2002 revealed that women were victims in 75% of partner homicides. One-quarter were committed after a separation or divorce.

Women with Disabilities Australia (WWDA) reports that on an international scale, women with disabilities are assaulted, raped and abused at least twice as much as non-disabled women. In Australia, disabled women are 20% of the population. While they face violence in situations similar to all women, many are at risk in institutions and housing managed by men, shut off from the rest of the community. Escape is harder, if not impossible.

Home holds up the profit system. Radical Women commemorated this year’s International Women’s Day with a forum, Revoke the Licence to Kill Women: Scrap the sexist defence of provocation. Jane Ashton, Julie Ramage’s sister and former women’s refuge worker, was the featured guest speaker. Ashton spoke of how Julie kept the violence private and James controlled his family with impunity. This was the traditional male-headed family which John Howard wants to restore.

Seventy percent of the world’s poor are women. In Australia, women on average earn 66% of men’s wages. Howard’s changes to industrial relations laws will widen this gap, driving everyone’s wages to the bottom, and removing workers’ right to organise.

The Howard Government is doing its damnedest to force women back home. By resisting a national paid maternity leave scheme and putting childcare beyond the reach of working families, it leaves women with no choice but to give up their jobs, stay home and rely on a male breadwinner. The number of female-headed sole parent families has grown 150% since the early 1990s, and two-thirds of these households rely on a government parenting payment. Howard’s “welfare reform” will force people on disability support pensions and parenting payments into a much harsher “mutual obligation” regime. Forty-two thousand sole parents and 54,000 people on the disability pension will lose between $20 and $40 a week. Once their oldest child turns six, single mothers will have to seek at least 15 hours’ work per week. Already, they are being hounded by Centrelink to prove they’re not in a relationship in order to keep their payments. Women wanting to leave a marriage will soon find divorce harder: changes to family law will make relationship counselling compulsory. After separation, women with custody of their children will have to continue contact with their former partners.

Howard is putting women where capitalism wants them: underpaid on the job and working for free at home. This is the labour that the profit economy relies on most. Poverty and servitude are the hallmarks of this system which treats certain people as less than human — in this case, half of humanity! Such a system that pits people against each other will subject women to violence and exploitation in the home, on the street and in the workplace.

“Solutions” on offer.  Last year, the Howard Government spent $73.2 million on its Violence Against Women, Australia Says No campaign. It was a PR stunt which put enormous pressure onto under-resourced community organisations, such as Melbourne’s Domestic Violence and Incest Resource Centre (DVIRC) and Centres Against Sexual Assault. Desperate women calling in were told by stressed-out workers that the waiting lists for appointments were weeks or months long.

The Victorian Government is planning to revoke the defence of provocation later this year. Feminist campaigners describe the step as positive, but not enough. Says Jane Ashton, “Abolition of the provocation defence is important because it will stop women being viewed as contributing to their own demise. But it won’t bring them back. We have to stop women being killed in the first place.” DVIRC argues that women must have the legal right to self-defence, which currently applies only to an immediate threat. Because Osland planned her killing (as women must, under the circumstances), she could not plead self-defence.

Amnesty International launched a six-year global campaign to stop violence against women. Its focus is on lobbying governments to meet their human rights obligations. The Australian Greens advocate the creation of “an environment of non-violence” through a review of existing laws, a comprehensive housing policy and education starting in primary school. Some non-government organisations, such as WWDA, similarly push for education and increased crisis services and refuges.

Learn from Thelma and Louise. Our Arkansas heroines knew that the State wouldn’t save them. Thelma was a low-paid, fast-food waitress. Louise was stuck at home with her boring, controlling husband. “Freedom” on the road was living by their wits to pay for the petrol, meals and motels. They were robbed by a sleaze and couldn’t go into a bar without “asking for it.” Once they stood up to “it,” their “freedom” was taken by the State which marshalled all its forces against them.

Revoking the defence of provocation and enshrining the legal right to self-defence against all forms of violence must be supported. But more is needed. Equally urgent are: state-funded accommodation for women escaping domestic violence, job training and employment for battered women, compensation of rape and violence survivors for lost income, counselling, medical care and other expenses, prosecution of rapists, bashers and killers with the full burden of proof on the perpetrators, not the victims. Women must also have the unconditional right to leave a relationship. A community-based authority must be established with the full legal powers to immediately intervene and remove the abuser when a woman or her children are threatened.

These are demands we need to make now, aware that our “pro family,” corporate-directed government will not concede to any of them without a fight. Taking on this battle would lead to a greater goal — a world that respects women and all who have been brutalised by this profiteering, divisive and controlling system. Thelmas and Louises en masse can accomplish this change. Bound by our gender and the experience of violence because of who we are, women must stand up for each other. And we expect men who oppose the violence to stand with us. Clara Fraser, U.S. socialist feminist, put it this way: “Don’t beg the cops for help, ladies. Stand and deliver. Be the master-mistress of your own fate — for self-defense is revolutionary empowerment.”

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