It seems that not a day passes where stories of domestic violence, rape, abuse, and grooming do not hit our headlines. Last week was no exception. The BBC ran with the story of 'Liz', the 16-year old who was gang raped in Kenya, her unconscious body thrown into a latrine pit, breaking her back and leaving her wheelchair bound. Her attackers were not prosecuted but ordered to cut grass by way of punishment. The front page of the Metro compared two men who were sentenced last week; Barry Rogerson received a 12-month jail sentence for punching a police horse, while Ryan Guntrip received only a 16-week sentence for punching his pregnant girlfriend in the stomach (she subsequently suffered a miscarriage).
While geographically distant the two stories reveal a theme of indifference towards justice for survivors of male violence against women. The idea of grass cutting as punishment for such a heinous crime, or a jail sentence being cut to one third of that for a horse when applied to the case of a pregnant woman, displays the concerted lack of political will around the world to implement real, transformative change to eradicate the pandemic of male violence against women.
Governments are quick with condemning rhetoric and pledges to tackle the issue, as male violence against women has been shown to be a global pandemic (with the World Health Organisation reporting that more than one in three women worldwide have experienced physical or sexual violence). Indeed legislative stock taking studies reveal that both international and state policy advances have been considerable over the past decade. On the basis of legislative commitment it should be baffling then that levels of violence against women refuse to abate. The fact is that policy in itself plays a diminutive role in affecting attitudes; that legislation is only as effective as those who interpret and enforce it. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime has noted that while legislation offers women protection and justice on paper, there are still policies, procedures and practises that prevent women from the full and equal enjoyment of these rights. Thus, the police and the courts hold the power to decide how legislative structures work in practise; bringing us full circle back to grass cutting and prioritising police horse safety over that of a pregnant young woman. The prevailing message seems to be that male violence against women will be met by menial, tokenistic measures.
If real and transformative change is the rhetoric of governments around the world, we must ask why change has not come to fruition. Why is it that those who hold the power to interpret and enforce the law refuse to do so in any transformative manner?
The answer is that we wrongly tend to think of the law as standardised, to be interpreted by objective, homogenous authorities. However, research shows that those working in positions of legal authority adhere to gender based myths, biases and stereotypes; and that law enforcement, prosecution and sentencing reflect those biases. Thus, to effect change would require a great deal of introspection to break down those biases. It would require a recognition of oppression within society and a deconstruction of the social factors that determine oppression; including ones own position of privilege in relation to gender, race, and class. In doing so, those in authority may recognise that their own privilege informs their biases, which in turn informs their decision making in their interpretation of the law, which sees the perpetuation of discriminatory enforcement practices.
The sentencing in these cases is reflective of perceived hierarchies of social worth based in the biases brought to the table by those enforcing the law. These hierarchies will not change, and various forms of oppression will remain intact, perpetuated and reconstituted, until those in positions of authority are willing to self-analyse and to challenge the status quo in their enforcement of the law. However, to deconstruct ones own source of privilege and to afford equality to those on the bottom socio-economic rung of the ladder poses a potential threat to ones own status. With only one of 12 Justices of the Supreme Court in the UK being female, and all 12 being white, can we expect to see transformative change in our societies?
What we desperately need is more women from a variety of backgrounds in decision making roles, and we must endorse positive action mechanisms to ensure that this happens. But very importantly, we need women to have a strong analysis of oppression so that they can navigate the decision making and law enforcement institutions that are inherently biased after being built by and run for decades by white, middle class men. A strong ethos for equality can be lost under the weight of such archaic establishments. Thus, we need to open a discussion about women's leadership and how women can gain power without aligning themselves with the existing biases which profit from the continuing oppression of women.
The American lawyer and activist, Mari Matsuda said once of Angela Davis;
'There are times to stand outside the courtroom and say "this procedure is a farce, the legal system is corrupt, justice will never prevail in this land as long as privilege rules in the courtroom." There are times to stand inside the courtroom and say "this is a nation of laws, laws recognising fundamental values of rights, equality and personhood." Sometimes, as Angela Davis did, there is a need to make both speeches in one day'
This sentiment is crucial to combating male violence against women, attaining justice for survivors, and changing attitudes. Protest and a strong critique of the system from the outside is essential, but it must be accompanied by strong women with a grounding in feminist analysis working on the inside to change the system itself. Where the two can communicate and collaborate; women in power and grassroots movements, is where we will see transformational change for more equal societies.