What does a perpetrator of violence against women look like? For many, the question still evokes images of shadowy strangers pouncing in the dark or thuggish drunken husbands stumbling home from football matches – stereotypes challenged tirelessly by women’s organisations and campaigners, especially throughout the current 16 days of action against gender-based violence.
In reality, women are statistically most likely to be assaulted by someone known to them, and domestic abuse can be, and is, also perpetrated by handsome middle-class professionals. Busting myths is therefore a crucial tool in the fight against a culture which relies on them. But for all these vital and urgent conversations about the true face of perpetrators, there is one that remains largely invisible in spite of both ubiquity and power: the state itself.
Violence does not exist solely in the instant that blow meets body, but in the circumstances that facilitate it and the systems which excuse it. One needs only glance at violent crime statistics since 2009 to spot a sharp increase in violence affecting women, correlating neatly with the introduction of austerity measures in the same year which have since seen 34 women’s refuges close and 95% of women’s organisations facing a funding crisis. The subsequent diversion of the tampon tax into women’s charities, while widely hailed as a feminist victory, in fact achieved little more than imposing the financial burden of their own health and support services on to women, while men continue to enjoy state-funded “mainstream” care.
Changes to the welfare system, too, illustrate at best a naivety around violence against women and at worst a complicity; for all the widely acknowledged flaws of universal credit, for example, little has been made of the stipulation to pay it only to one “head of household”, limiting the financial autonomy of women and gifting abusive partners ammunition by which to keep their victims hostage.
If economic policy too accurately embodies its violent language of slashing and cutting, legislation around crime and justice delivers an almost laughable irony. In some cases, the very laws purportedly designed to protect women from violence can, in practice, enable it: the criminalisation of various activities relating to the sale of sex, for example, is universally opposed by sex worker-organising collectives, on the grounds that it limits their ability to work safely – for instance, in groups or designated zones – and without fear of violence from both clients and state agencies.
When women do experience violence at the hands of a male perpetrator, as 1 in 4 UK women will in their lifetimes, a tangle of state systems and institutions make the path to justice anything but easy, despite the criminalisation of such violence in law. Cuts to legal aid, for instance, disproportionately affect women bringing claims of sexual violence and domestic abuse, and that’s if they haven’t already been put off by the degrading and painful experiences that women before them have legally faced in the UK justice system, or the country’s unrealistically low prosecution rate for gender-based violence.
Women’s experience of such state-sanctioned violence does, of course, differ based on individual identities, and predictably those also marginalised elsewhere are both hardest hit and affected in unique ways: a lack of affordable housing trapping women in poverty in abusive relationships; black women living in fear of police brutality; trans women routinely placed into male prisons with little regard for their increased vulnerability to sexual violence and suicide there.
In particular, refugee and migrant women remain especially at risk of state violence, in large part through their interactions with detention centres like Yarl’s Wood, where a protest tomorrow aims to oppose the inhumane treatment of detainees including the prevalence of sexual violence against women held in the facility. These are the findings that Theresa May, then home secretary, last year refused to disclose details of for fear of “prejudicing commercial interests” – a stark assertion of exactly where this government’s priorities lie when it comes to the safety of vulnerable women.
Taken as a whole, then, the picture in the UK is one where women still face epidemic levels of violence, but lack the support of a state which at best enables and at worst perpetrates it. It’s time to move beyond an understanding of violence against women as a personal issue between individuals, and see it as a strategy built into our institutions and society in order to maintain a status quo where women – particularly the most marginalised – are subordinated.
Politicians are good at talking the talk: “No woman should live in fear of violence and every girl should grow up knowing she is safe,” reads May’s foreword in the government’s Ending Violence Against Women and Girls strategy. But until her own actions and that of her government say otherwise, this noble vision remains far from realised.