Why Law & Order Won't Stop Violence against Women

Article excerpt

Why Law & Order Won't Stop Violence Against Women

In this affluent and convivial fellowship, you might have convinced yourself that we have already established equality between the sexes. Most people know that a few Neanderthals still exist, but it's tempting to believe that we have established equality in matters of social policy.

And yet wife abuse, rape, child sexual abuse and sexual harassment have not declined appreciably. A husband, boyfriend or male family member has criminally assaulted one in five women in Canada.

In other words, the enemy is not five bad guys.

In 1974, when a group of us established the Women's Emergency Shelter in Woodstock, Ontario, we were part of a movement that realized, even then, that `the enemy' had many faces. It was not only the individual man who battered, but also the patriarchal society that allowed him the extra power and status to get away with it, and the underside of the hierarchy that kept women vulnerable, dependent, undervalued and unbelieved. Part of the problem was the legal system that refused to censure perpetrators and social service practices that treated the woman as damaged goods or as a temporarily injured accident victim, who, with professional care could go back to being "normal." Under those conditions, however, recovery means simply readjusting to unequal access to safety, employment, power, status and resources.

In the early '70s, we failed to reveal the extent of the problem: we increasingly talked in a public policy way about how sexism offended women, instead of how sexism enabled men to dominate women through violence.

Sexism still pays off for men. At birth they face a future of better wages, less domestic labour, more social and sexual freedom than they would have if they were women. Yes, there are men who would gladly relinquish their illegitimate privilege to free women, but to this day it remains voluntary. And there are too few men demanding the changes needed to actually dismantle patriarchal power.

The public now accepts that violence against women is unjust and that it is epidemic in proportion. Violence against women has even made it on to the agenda of national election platforms. However, the public still does not appear to grasp that violence against women is not a string of unconnected incidents committed by individual crazed men; but rather that each incident is supported by, and part of, the social order keeping all of us in our place. Most politicians do not necessarily see it as a problem that men are endowed with extra status and power that they can use to get away with assaulting and intimidating women, or that they use their status in their family and their professional status to do so.

It is much more politically expedient to promise to punish five bad guys than it is to talk about how women's poverty keeps them economically dependent, or see that economic discrimination puts women at risk of assault-by leaving them in darkened streets waiting for buses or cabs, making them rent inadequate housing in ground floor and basement suites with inadequate locks.

In those early days, it looked as though creating political will was simply a matter of addressing community ignorance. Transition houses and rape crisis centres sprung into existence almost overnight. In the five-year period between 1973-78, Canada, along with England, the US, Australia and New Zealand established the first emergency services for assaulted women. It is important to remember that these initiatives were the result of the yielding of government to extraordinary pressure from below-from us! And they were a small concession, since most wife abuse shelters have budgets of less than $500,000 a year and rape crisis centres operate on even less. To this day, governments refuse to fund shelters and centres adequately so that they can meet to cooperate nationally.

The '70s into the early '80s were heady days. We imagined not just improved employment and welfare policies but an end to poverty. …