As 2021 begins, there are mounting reports noting a rise of domestic violence in Australia. The same trend is unfolding across the world. In places as far from each other as Mexico and the UK, the US and South Africa, rates of domestic violence have risen as people have gone into lockdown. There are concerns for an even greater spike over the Christmas and New Year period.
Lockdowns from the pandemic have trapped people with abusive partners and this is part of why the increase in cases has been global, but the underlying sexism fueling violence towards women is also global. It crosses divides of culture and language, and is a basic part of class society.
Sharp rise in domestic abuse
In July, an Australian Institute of Criminology survey found that 10% of women in relationships had experienced domestic violence during the pandemic. Across Australia this year, help lines have seen a rise in cases of domestic violence, and a rise in how severe these cases are. 50% of those reporting domestic violence said it had become worse in 2020.
There have been sharp increases in calls to help lines, and longer waiting lists for counselling as well as for crisis support and housing. Support services, which were already underfunded, have been unable to meet the demand. Tech-based abuse has also been on the rise, and SBS’s The Feed has recently reported on thousands of explicit images of women being shared without their consent in online forums, including images of underage girls, with a sharp increase during 2020. This image-based sexual abuse also reflects a global problem.
The lockdowns have exposed issues that already existed in society. They have meant targets of abuse have no opportunities to have time apart from their abusers. Even outside of lockdown, there have been cases of abusers using quarantine rules to block victims from leaving their house, by claiming they have tested positive for covid-19. At the same time, rising unemployment, insecurity and financial pressure makes it more difficult to see leaving as an option.
Women accounted for 55% of the initial job losses in April, with younger women more likely to lose work. Before the pandemic, job security was already lower for women on average. Women often work part time, in low paid jobs and take time off work to have children, which also means they’re retiring with far less superannuation. After the government made it possible for workers to access their super to cover hardship related to the pandemic, a study by AMP for Nine News found that women were accessing on average 21% of their super, versus 17% for men, with women more likely to withdraw their entire balance.
These social and economic barriers that prevent women leaving abusive relationships will linger long after any vaccine has been distributed.
Poverty-level welfare and a lack of support services have always been a problem for those trying to leave dangerous situations. Some have been able to use the temporarily increased welfare under the pandemic to escape. However, the government has already made a number of reductions to welfare support and intends to continue reducing it to the low pre-covid rate.
Kathryn Walsh of the Brisbane Domestic Violence Service told the Guardian, “People have used their super, have used [increased rates of] jobseeker, and some have taken on leases they probably can’t afford to just be safe during this time.”
Reforms being discussed
In recent years there has been a global rise in struggles against women’s oppression. The Women’s Marches against Trump were among the largest protests in US history. These protests were repeated around the world, as was the #MeToo movement. In 2018, when thousands of Google employees staged a global walkout, 300 workers walked out in Sydney. This was in response to a culture of sexual harassment.
In the same year, 10,000 people in Melbourne attended a memorial expressing their grief and outrage at the murder of comedian Eurydice Dixon. Thousands have also attended International Women’s Day, Reclaim the Night and Slutwalk rallies in recent years.
In this context, we have seen some reforms coming into effect. The parents of Hannah Clarke, who was murdered along with her three children in February, have pushed for the criminalisation of ‘coercive control’ – non-violent psychological abuse, used by perpetrators to terrorise and control their targets. Tasmania has already introduced a version of these laws, with other states also considering it. MP Linda Burney has also introduced a private member’s bill to change the National Employment Standards to include 10 days paid domestic violence leave.
These reforms are important. They are a reflection of changing social attitudes and increased understanding of women’s oppression. They also help set new standards of what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in relationships. If the most extreme versions of coercive control are criminalised this can embolden women, and men, to recognise and call out the “less extreme” instances early on. This can help break cycles of abuse.
However, none of these reforms on their own are anywhere near enough. We need to demand that victims have access to immediate support, in the form of housing, financial independence, counselling, and protection from abusive partners. Mental health services should include local access to the counselling and therapy required by victims, as well as specialised psychological assessments and treatment for perpetrators. These are pressing material needs that currently are not being met.
The wealth in society exists to do all of this, and more, but it is currently hoarded by the capitalist elite. In order to achieve all these demands we would need to fundamentally undermine the for-profit, capitalist system. Even when funding is put into social programs, the government will foot the bill while the private sector is free to continue taking wealth out of society, often profiting in different ways from public services. We need to socialise the wealth that we as workers collectively produce, and to do this we will find ourselves in conflict with capitalism itself.
Sexism is a part of class society
Even when forms of abuse like coercive control are criminalised, we can’t trust that police and courts will properly implement the law.
Survivors of abuse and sexual assault are often not believed by the authorities when they report what has happened to them. They often find themselves being blamed for what was done to them, or effectively placed on trial themselves. In many cases police will decline to prosecute the perpetrator. There are cases of police encouraging survivors of abuse to stay with the perpetrator, and even cases of police providing information to abusers to enable them to track down their targets.
These crimes are recreated down through history and throughout the world, regardless of national borders. They are a feature of the kind of society we currently live in. This is a society where women are routinely objectified and dehumanised. This fuels violence against women.
Capitalists have an interest in promoting ‘traditional’ families and gender roles, where women primarily raise children and take care of domestic labour such as cooking and cleaning. An Oxfam study early this year estimated this labour comes to 12.5 billion hours a day worldwide. Capitalism benefits from the ‘traditional’ roles women play. Through their labour in the home, women are made to try and fill the gaps in underfunded childcare, education, and healthcare systems. When times are tough, extra pressure is placed on families and absorbed by women.
At the same time, capitalists want to exploit women through objectification in advertising and the sex industry, as well as exploiting them in the workforce. These goals contradict the promotion of traditional gender roles. Women are expected to be both home-makers and wage-earners. The system is contradictory, and it piles contradictory expectations onto women as a result. They are forced to shoulder a double burden – oppression on the basis of gender as well as on the basis of being workers.
All of this is kept going by the image of women as inferior, or in some sense less human. This dehumanisation also benefits capitalism in another way – when any one part of society is marginalised or painted as inferior, it becomes easier to divide working people against each other and to exploit that part of society more intensively. This more intense exploitation is often in the form of much lower wages. This can be seen very clearly in the gender wage gap and the devaluing of women’s work. When women workers are paid less, their boss takes a higher profit. This allows the bosses to then drive down wages of other sections of the working class too. Part time work and temporary contracts have all been introduced through women’s employment, but are now something that affects all workers.
Violence against women is part of a system where gender roles are used to devalue women. The same ideas lie behind the oppression of LGBTIQ people, whose existence challenges traditional gender roles. We need to fight the devaluing of people’s lives. But a fight against sexist behavior brings people into direct conflict with the basic pressures of capitalist society.
The objectification and dehumanisation of women underpins enormous profits. It takes a fight to take back wages for women workers. It takes a fight to win services and support for families and children, and remove the domestic burden from individual women. Ending sexism means ending a way of viewing women that puts trillions of dollars globally into the hands of capitalists.
Covid-19’s many crises: all connected by capitalism
The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the global issue of violence against women. It’s also exposed the rotten way in which capitalism works, from the desperate situation in neocolonial countries, to the dangers of casualisation, to the refusal of governments to adequately support people to stay home and prevent the virus spreading. All these failures are the result of a system focused on making a profit out of our work.
Capitalism is the common factor. The fight for women’s rights requires a revolutionary fight against capitalism. Feminism needs to be linked to the struggles of other oppressed groups, and to workers’ struggles against the profiteering of the capitalist class.
It is not enough to convince people not to be sexist: the system itself recreates these ideas in every generation. None of us are immune to the practices of male superiority and female subordination. They exist within social movements, trade unions and other left organisations and undermine the mass, united struggle needed to take on the ruling elite. We therefore must fight for a socialist-feminist perspective within the worker’s movement.
Working women have always been at the forefront of socialist struggle. It was a strike of women workers on International Women’s Day that began the Russian Revolution. Women hold an enormous amount of potential power as workers. Workers create the wealth of society, and have the ability to bring the system to a halt, and change society into something better.
We need to replace the sexist, racist capitalist system with a democratic socialist society. A society where wealth is managed collectively, decisions are made democratically, and everyone is allowed to flourish and live a life free from violence and control.
by Meredith Jacka & David Elliott