Little to lose, much to gain

Rebecca Roberts
Wednesday, 28 May 2014

There is a growing sense of frustration and sadness amongst practitioners and campaigners at the economic and political situation we now find ourselves in. Many of the gains in gender equality, economic equality and fairness seem to be in reverse. Justice, it would seem, is increasingly in short supply.

Different forms of state, corporate and institutional violence were discussed at the Centre’s recent ‘How violent is Britain?’ conference organised with the University of Liverpool. Activists, researchers and practitioners gave accounts of the violence of detention, austerity, security – to name just a few of the themes. The specific experiences of women featured in many of the sessions. We heard about the violence of austerity; where the disproportionate economic impact of cuts on women and the contraction of services and resources are hitting home. Women's (already compromised) autonomy and economic independence is increasingly under threat.

Rachel Halford of Women in Prison spoke on the violence of detention, talking about the stark realities of day to day life prior to, during and after imprisonment.  She described the familiar and distressing stories of women who early in life have been abused or neglected by individuals and institutions that they, quite rightly, should have expected to nurture and protect them. We heard of the predictable and yet entirely avoidable routes of women into criminal justice institutions. Despite the brutalities of confinement, Rachel told us that that some women often felt the prison walls offered refuge from the outside world. It is a sad indictment of our society that an institution so explicitly about punishment and control is the best hope some women believe they have for safety. The session on the violence of security covered immigration detention and women's experiences of trauma, sexual violence and torture - further tormented by so called 'asylum' policies. These are just some of the accounts that evidenced the human consequences of active decisions made by institutions, corporations and states.

Where did this leave me? Angry, frustrated and inspired. Angry with the political and economic systems that condones such brutality – and the individuals that allow it. I was frustrated that the answers on how to put a stop to it did not seem forthcoming. It left me wondering whether personally and professionally I am doing enough to work for positive change.

As part of the Justice Matters for Women project a working group met last week to discuss a draft 'call to action'. Surrounded by women with knowledge and experience of the issues at hand, we discussed the potential for a call to action and the opportunity for a collective voice. The wider political and economic context has the potential to have a galvanizing effect. Those working to support and empower women living at the sharp end of austerity and inequality see the missed opportunities, the collateral damage – and in particular – the impact of patriarchy and gender based violence. Our hope is that we can bring practitioners and activists together to build collective confidence to name and challenge the harms inflicted upon women.

Over the coming weeks we will be re-drafting and circulating more widely a statement and set of demands. The working group encouraged us to be bold, unapologetic and uncompromising. This is about stepping back from the daily grind to relate what we know about women’s chances and choices to wider social arrangements. What I took away from the meeting was that we need to find ways to empower women, resist injustice and ultimately transform lives.

To build alternatives and transform our approaches to economic, political and gender justice, we need to dare to change. Change our mindsets. Change our practices. Change our approach.

For many this might mean stepping outside of our comfort zones. But, as one of the working group members said at the start of the meeting – we have very little to lose but an awful lot to gain.

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For other comment pieces and articles from the Justice Matters for Women initiative click here.