Violence against women doesn’t happen in a vacuum

The government's predilection for prioritising effect over cause has consequences - we must focus on prevention as well as cure.

The International Development Secretary has trumpeted her work on Violence against Women and Girls. And of course any focus on this vital matter is welcome, but look below the surface and there’s obviously a problem: It’s still treated throughout government as a 'women’s issue'.

Today marks the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Given that one in three women worldwide will experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime; that, in some countries, violence against women is near-universal; and that the World Bank identifies gender-based violence as one of the biggest health risks facing women – more of a threat to their wellbeing than either cancer or car accidents; given all these issues - it’s clear - one day will never be enough.

The government have succeeded in raising the status of this vital issue, tackling the often collusive silence that surrounds the debate. This commitment must be applauded. But their approach is fundamentally flawed.

In June this year, Parliament’s cross-party International Development Committee highlighted DfID’s bias towards support services for the victims of violence rather than programmes aimed at tackling the underlying cultural beliefs and social structures thatperpetuate this savage trend. Of 117 interventions listed by DfID, just 16 were aimed at changing social norms.

Take a glance at the Department for International Development’s (DfID) list of projects aimed at tackling violence against women. Of the 69 projects listed, 'women' and 'girls'mfeature 81 times. 'Men' and 'boys'? Not once. Placing the burden for tackling violence solely on women’s shoulders is not only a route to more stress and risk, but (crucially) it won’t actually tackle the core cause. And in doing so, implicitly allows violence to continue.   

All too often, gender inequality, reproductive and sexual health, childcare, and violence against women and girls are defined (and dismissed) as women’s issues. Men are the primary perpetrators of violence, and committers of risky sexual and drug-taking behaviour – risks that are all-too-often passed onto their unknowing or powerless wives and girlfriends – but they’re habitually missing from the debate. Violence doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

Since the Tories have come to power, gender activists have become alarmed at a shift in the programmatic approach to supporting women – warning of short-termism and hollow-gesturing. As I wrote recently, the duplicitous nature of a government which promises violence against women and girls is "at the heart of everything they do", whilst devoting tokenistic pots of money to the cause is failing to effectively integrate gender inequality into wider development programmes.

It is crucial that we shift the focus onto prevention as well as 'cure': not only are the mental (and sometimes physical) scars of being a victim often 'incurable', but living with the fear of violence can be just as damaging, psychologically and physically, as actually experiencing it.

That is the challenge today, as it should be every other.

Gavin Shuker MP (@ShukerOffice) is the newly appointed shadow minister for international development, with specific responsibility for tackling violence against women and girls

Street children look on as Indian social activists take part in a rally on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women in Kolkata on November 25, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

Gavin Shuker is MP for Luton South and chair of the All Party Group on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade.

Photo: Getty
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We argue over Charlie Gard, but forget those spending whole lives caring for a disabled child

The everyday misery of care work is hidden behind abstract arguments over life and death.

“Sometimes,” says the mother, “I wish we’d let him go. Or that he’d just been allowed to slip away.” The father agrees, sometimes. So too does the child, who is not a child any more.

On good days, nobody thinks this way, but not all days are good. There have been bright spots during the course of the past four decades, occasional moments of real hope, but now everyone is tired, everyone is old and the mundane work of loving takes a ferocious toll.

When we talk about caring for sick children, we usually mean minors. It’s easiest that way. That for some parents, the exhaustion and intensity of those first days with a newborn never, ever ends – that you can be in your fifties, sixties, seventies, caring for a child in their twenties, thirties, forties – is not something the rest of us want to think about.

It’s hard to romanticise devotion strung out over that many hopeless, sleepless nights. Better to imagine the tragic mother holding on to the infant who still fits in her loving arms, not the son who’s now twice her size, himself edging towards middle-age and the cliff edge that comes when mummy’s no longer around.

Writing on the tragic case of Charlie Gard, the Guardian’s Giles Fraser claims that he would “rain fire on the whole world to hold my child for a day longer”. The Gard case, he argues, has “set the cool rational compassion of judicial judgement and clinical expertise against the passion of parental love”: “Which is why those who have never smelled the specific perfume of Charlie’s neck, those who have never held him tight or wept and prayed over his welfare, are deemed better placed to determine how he is to live and die.”

This may be true. It may also be true that right now, countless parents who have smelled their own child’s specific perfume, held them tightly, wept for them, loved them beyond all measure, are wishing only for that child’s suffering to end. What of their love? What of their reluctance to set the world aflame for one day more? And what of their need for a life of their own, away from the fantasies of those who’ll passionately defend a parent’s right to keep their child alive but won’t be there at 5am, night after night, cleaning out feeding tubes and mopping up shit?

Parental – in particular, maternal – devotion is seen as an endlessly renewable resource. A real parent never gets tired of loving. A real parent never wonders whether actually, all things considered, it might have caused less suffering for a child never to have been born at all. Such thoughts are impermissible, not least because they’re dangerous. Everyone’s life matters. Nonetheless, there are parents who have these thoughts, not because they don’t love their children, but because they do.

Reporting on the Gard case reminds me of the sanitised image we have of what constitutes the life of a parent of a sick child. It’s impossible not to feel enormous compassion for Charlie’s parents. As the mother of a toddler, I know that in a similar situation I’d have been torn apart. It’s not difficult to look at photos of Charlie and imagine one’s own child in his place. All babies are small and helpless; all babies cry out to be held.

But attitudes change as children get older. In the case of my own family, I noticed a real dropping away of support for my parents and disabled brother as the latter moved into adulthood. There were people who briefly picked him up as a kind of project and then, upon realising that there would be no schmaltzy ending to the story, dropped him again. Love and compassion don’t conquer all, patience runs out and dignity is clearly best respected from a distance.

All too often, the everyday misery of care work is hidden behind abstract arguments over who gets the right to decide whether an individual lives or dies. I don’t know any parents who truly want that right. Not only would it be morally untenable, it’s also a misrepresentation of what their struggles really are and mean.

What many parents who remain lifelong carers need is adequate respite support, a space in which to talk honestly, and the recognition that actually, sometimes loving is a grim and hopeless pursuit. Those who romanticise parental love – who, like Fraser, wallow in heroic portrayals of “battling, devoted parents” – do nothing to alleviate the suffering of those whose love mingles with resentment, exhaustion and sheer loneliness.

There are parents out there who, just occasionally, would be willing to set the world on fire to have a day’s respite from loving. But regardless of whether your child lives or dies, love never ends. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.