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.

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue