A weapon against half the world

To mark International Women’s Day on 8 March, Julie Bindel calls for a global movement against sexua

Inside the walls of a coastal town in Morocco, several women crouch at the roadside selling bunches of herbs. One of the women catches my eye. She is nursing a baby but looks at least 60 years old. I try to see her as a woman with whom I share substantive experience. I have no children; I am not poor. As a lesbian, I do not require access to safe contraception. I do not need to worry about my rights as a married woman. Yet there is one thing that all women share - something that shapes our lives and partly determines the way we live and the choices we make - that is, the threat and reality of sexual violence.

It is this commonality that is taking me to the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations headquarters in New York this month. In the past 15 years, the women's movement has become truly global, a development kick-started in an unlikely place: Beijing. In 1995, 23,500 women and 5,000 government representatives of 189 counties gathered in the Chinese capital for the UN Conference on Women and formulated a Global Platform for Action (PfA), through which governments should address gender inequality, including measures to end violence against women. The PfA remains the most wide-reaching international commitment to women's equality. At this year's catch-up conference in New York, many of the delegates will be asking how far we have come and what still needs to be done.

As I write, women and girls all over the world are being beaten by their husbands, raped, burned and mutilated in the name of "tradition", forced into marriage, sold into prostitution and murdered for transgressing a twisted code of "honour". Violence against women is an international epidemic. It has been identified by the World Health Organisation as a grave health issue, affecting more people than HIV and Aids.

Globally, at least one-third of all women and girls will be beaten or sexually abused once or more throughout their lives. In Kenya, 70 per cent of those asked by the Women's Rights Awareness Programme admitted they knew neighbours who beat their wives, and almost 60 per cent said that the women were to blame. The news is not much better in the UK. A recent survey on Londoners' attitudes to rape found that almost half think that rape victims are at least partly to blame.

The poorer the woman, the more vulnerable she is to exploit­ation and sexual violence. If a woman has to fight for clean water, she may be pressured to swap this for sexual favours. If there is no work in her town or village, she could be targeted by traffickers promising her a better life overseas.

Under attack

In most countries, women have won the right to vote only within the past 50 years. There is still nowhere in the world where women have access to political or social power equal to that of men. I spoke to Rachel Carter, head of policy and advocacy at the UK-based NGO Womankind Worldwide. She believes that the main achievements of the Beijing conference have been the formation of a vibrant international movement and the development of legislation against violence towards women in countries that had no prior public awareness of the issue.

“However, the massive gap left to be plugged is implementation," Carter says. "There is a tendency for some governments to see their country strategies, legislation and policies as an end rather than a means to an end."

Do we need to create a new formal agreement, as we did in Beijing? "I would be reluctant because, if anything, in today's climate, I think we would go backwards. Climate change and the rise of fundamentalism have made it worse for women. Women's rights are being eroded. Women's freedom was used as an excuse for the invasion of Afghanistan, but now women's rights are being traded out and it is worse in some ways for them."

Baroness Gould is chair of the Women's National Commission, which provides a link between the UK government delegation to the conference and NGOs. She is similarly cautious: "If we had another Beijing, we might go backwards in terms of reproductive health, in particular abortion and contraception. There are very few countries in Africa where abortion is legal."

There is evidence to back up Carter and Gould. Zimbabwe has long had a vibrant women's movement, but women have borne the brunt of the recent turmoil there, and growing numbers of cases of both sexual and domestic violence are being reported. In countries experiencing conflict, or which have recently done so, violence towards women tends to have increased.

During the Beijing conference, representatives of uncompromising Catholic and Muslim countries refused to sign in support of women's rights to abortion and contraception, or a right to sexual self-determination, and yet these are the very issues that lie at the root of women's vulnerability to domestic and sexual violence. "If a woman lives in a country where rape in marriage is not a crime, and domestic violence is viewed as perfectly acceptable, how can she ever leave?"asks Hilary McCollum, a UK-based anti-rape activist. "And if there is no option for a woman not to marry, how is she ever going to be free from the control of men?"

South Africa is one country that is suffering from a surge in sexual violence, even though it has one of the best constitutional and legal frameworks in the world for human rights, including violence against women. After the end of apartheid in the early 1990s, and during its transition towards democracy, South Africa experienced a rapid increase in reported rapes. South African rape statistics are now among the highest in the world. In 1997, the Human Sciences Research Council released a report claiming that child rape in South Africa had reached "epidemic proportions". One-third of reported rapes between January and September 2001 were of children between zero and 11 years of age.

According to rape crisis groups in the country, many of the rapes committed are akin to those experienced during the anti-apartheid struggle, with victims suffering extreme violence, often by multiple perpetrators. "While the history of apartheid and conflict must play a role in this," Carter says, "I think we must go back again to the root causes of power imbalances between genders, patriarchy, and women's bodies being used as both personal and political territory upon which wars are played out." It has been recognised since the 1992-95 Bosnian conflict that rape is a tool of war. During the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, for example, up to half a million women were raped by combatants.

Women in rich countries are also vulnerable to pimps, rapists and wife-beaters. Dowry deaths, honour killings and female genital mutilation all happen in the UK. Girls are taken to Harley Street clinics by their Somali-born parents to be mutilated in the name of culture. Pakistani families send girls "home" to marry a cousin they have never met, often before puberty. Women born into Turkish families can be killed by their male relatives for daring to love an unsuitable man.

Heroine Harman

Honour crimes also happen to women of British descent. Wives who dishonour their husbands by leaving them or being unfaithful often die for stepping out of line. The Deputy Prime Minister, Harriet Harman, much derided for her outspoken feminism, has fought hard to prevent men from pleading provocation in such cases, a defence that can be traced back to the Middle Ages.

But the global women's movement is making a difference. A recent Unicef report found that female genital mutilation in one region of Ethiopia had fallen from 100 per cent to 3 per cent, largely as a result of innovative public education programmes run by Kembatti Mentti Gezzima-Tope, a women's self-help centre in the township of Durame. Meanwhile, the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project in Duluth, Minnesota, has saved the lives of countless women and been replicated around the world. By developing a multi-agency approach that involves the courts, prosecutors, probation and refuge workers, it has brought about a sharp fall in the number of women killed as a result of domestic violence.

“In the UK, we have made enormous progress in terms of sexual violence," Gould says. But we live in difficult times. For Carter, relying on what she calls "paper rights", such as those outlined in the PfA, will not translate into women's lives being saved or sexual violence being eliminated. We need concerted action, she says, and her hope is that the conference at the UN this month will inspire just that. "We need to be able to tell men what they will gain if they give up power, which will be no easy task.

“Right now we don't have enough mechanisms to hold governments to account, despite the PfA. Fifteen years after Beijing, and we are struggling to hold up the damn walls."

Julie Bindel is co-founder of Justice for Women

This article first appeared in the 08 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Game on

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times