Putting women in their place

Rebecca Roberts
Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Bea Campbell, in the final pages of her recent book, The End of Equality, articulates a simple, yet revolutionary vision of a society in which equality is possible;

'Imagine men without violence. Imagine sex without violence. Imagine that men stop stealing our stuff - our time, our money and our bodies; imagine societies that share the costs of care, that share the costs of everything; that make cities fit for children; that renew rather than wreck and waste. This is women's liberation. It is do-able, reasonable and revolutionary.’

Campbell’s book offers a whistle stop tour of the injustices faced by women in the UK and abroad. Written in a style familiar to feminist texts of the 1970s and 80’s (this is no criticism by the way), the book offers a concise and powerful critique of gender inequality and gender relations in the 21st Century.

Justice matters for women

The Justice Matters for Women initiative starts from the position that this systemic inequality cannot be resolved by the criminal justice system. Indeed, criminal justice often plays a role in ignoring and/or compounding many harms experienced by women.  A little over two months ago, we released a call to action to empower women, resist injustice and transform lives;

'The harms women face are widespread yet consistently ignored. Many criminal justice interventions and support services serve to replicate and reinforce unequal gender relations rather than tackle the root causes of harm... We are calling on others to work with us to challenge structural inequality and eradicate punishment and control in women's lives.'

Our call to action was drawn up to build a stronger collective voice for resituating the focus of the debate about the harms women face beyond the operation of criminal justice to wider questions of structural inequality. The strength of support we have received so far indicates that these issues have resonated with many and opportunities for change lie ahead.

Why women?

One of the very few criticisms we’ve had of our approach so far is ‘why women?’– and ‘don’t men matter too?’.

Patriarchy and inequality is harmful to men and women, often in very different ways. Institutions, economy and media operate in such a way that it is usually the norm to place women’s concerns and needs as secondary to men’s. Current campaigns highlight ways in which society continues to tolerate, facilitate and promote violence against women in range of settings. For example, End Violence Against Women and Everyday Sexism.

For me, a commitment to exploring options to radically downsize criminal justice must be coupled with attempts to better address harm and violence. One of the lenses through which the Centre is approaching this is through gender and gender based violence. Karen Ingala-Smith, defending her campaigning work associated with the ‘Counting Dead Women’ website, neatly summarises her reasons for focusing on male violence against women and are well worth a read.

A recent article from Colin Crouch, in the Political Quarterly caught my eye. Crouch highlights a number of dimensions of women’s lives, their identities and social location that places them in a potentially powerful position to challenge inequality and the current concentration of power amongst the few;

  • Numbers: Women are not a minority.
  • Potential of political power: Despite achieving ‘political citizenship’, women still suffer from a range of gender based disadvantages in participating fully in life outside the home alongside men. Their identity therefore has a powerful political dimension.
  • Social location: Women’s dominant role in middle and lower positions in the service sectors means that they occupy ‘the very social location to which one must look for any new challenge to dominance by elites.’
  • Resistant to neoliberalism: Due to the social position and recent political history, women are more resistant to neoliberal ideas.

Crouch makes an important point in terms of highlighting the crucial and necessary role of women in contributing to social change - but I don't interpret that as meaning it is solely their responsibility. Men and women, together, need to be involved.

Ending inequality

Becky Clarke and Kathryn Chadwick explore how women experience welfare and criminal justice policies, often converging to focus on individual pathology ‘which requires women (and it is mainly women at the head of those families being targeted) to receive this support or face sanctions – of imprisonment or eviction from their home’. Clarke and Chadwick argue that this should not just be of interest to women involved in criminal justice; 

‘We hope to see the ‘call to action’ connect and mobilise women. In our view this should engage ALL women. The harms produced by the criminal justice system and experienced by those women repeatedly failed by it, ultimately affect ALL women.

As the Justice Matters for Women initiative goes forward we will continue to publicise and build support for the call to action. Over the coming months we will also be exploring ‘non-criminal justice’ approaches to tackling violence against women.  In the meantime, here are some of the supportive comments from signatories received so far. 

It is time that violence against women and girls was seen as a failure of our society and stopped. Women who, sometimes in the aftermath of abuse, offend, should be recognised as in need of help and support and not punished, when we have failed them by not intervening to stop the abuse in the first place. Vera Baird, Police and Crime Commissioner for Northumbria

Inequality for women continues to pervade our society and women in the criminal justice system continue to face unequal treatment. Elizabeth Matthews, Development Manager, Women's Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre

Existing paradigms are largely constructed of male interpretation of women's experience. Geoffrey Curl, Refugee Worker

I believe that gender inequality is the most widespread and endemic inequality the world is facing today. Suzanna Oglander

If you haven’t signed the call, then please consider doing so, and encourage your friends and colleagues to do the same.