Male violence against women and girls, commonly referred to by the acronym VAWG, is very much in the public consciousness right now. From campaigns fighting objectification (such as No More Page Three) to the high profile court case of Reeva Steencamp’s murder, it seems like open discussion and debate can be found at every turn.
But what changes have happened in recent history? How do the rights of women in the present day compare to those fifty years ago, a hundred years ago or more?
In trying to investigate statistics and progress, there are real difficulties to overcome. Even now, in a society that we like to consider open-minded and progressive, data concerning violence against women and girls is an educated estimate at best, based on police reports, convictions or service-users at women’s organisations. In historical circumstances where men were the only people collating that information and claims of abuse were seen as evidence of hysteria and mental health issues, it becomes even harder to gain a true picture.
On the surface, it seems like women’s rights have progressed unbelievably fast. The Married Women’s Property Act of 1870 allowed women to keep their own property, theoretically free from coercion during divorce cases, 1888 saw the first successful equal pay case upheld, and women over 30 were granted the right to vote in 1918. That same year welcomed the first female MP to Westminster, and the 1920s brought a slew of equality laws, such as allowing women into legal professions, to inherit equally, bringing gender parity to divorce proceedings and equal voting rights for all women in Britain. To the untrained eye, women today have no reason to be outraged by social inequality.
However, the situation is rarely so simple and legal progression is hardly indicative of violence, particularly in a patriarchal society that is dismissive of such ‘claims’.
In 1956, rape was defined in unequivocal detail under the Sexual Offences Act, which explained clearly the sexual acts involved and cleared any misconception. Understandably, this has been altered over time, but in spite of the legal terminology and clarity in definition, rape and sexual assault remains one of the most misunderstood crimes. Our society still blames the victim based on their past and reputation, rather than the perpetrator. Juries pass judgement and society forms beliefs based on a series of callous and rarely countered myths, and we live in communities where the truth is a taboo that brings ‘shame’ on anyone who dares to break it.
Statistics vary, depending on the organisation involved, but roughly one in four women is thought to face serious sexual assault (or attempted sexual assault) in their lifetime. Has this increased or decreased over time? There is no sure way of telling, particularly when 17th century Lord Chief Justice, Matthew Hale, unashamedly reported that in a rape trial, the victim is the one under scrutiny, and that it is an allegation easily made but hard to prove. In fact, under that law, women had to prove consistent and continuous physical resistance as well as prove their mental health.
Does that seem shocking? Perhaps. But even now, perpetrators of rape and serious sexual assault still base their defence on the perceived “willingness” of the victim, her reputation or that she “changed her mind”, despite these being completely irrelevant - rape is rape.
And female genital mutilation (FGM) is another key headline in the media at the moment. Despite being illegal both to mutilate girls both in this country and to take them abroad since 1985, the first prosecution has only been made in the last few days. It is estimated that 66,000 women are living with FGM in the UK at present. The truth is that genital mutilation exists, but the taboo nature makes it incredibly difficult to pursue.
Perhaps, as a society, we are more aware of what constitutes violence against women and girls. Certainly, the stereotypes are played on in the media, in soaps and in newspapers. But it seems that only these common labels are addressed – women from certain backgrounds, strangers in streets, domestic violence that only involves physical abuse – rather than the full range. Yes, it is an improvement on instant dismissal as emotional instability, but it’s nowhere near enough, particularly when mental health, false claims and victim blaming still exist as key “escape routes” in any case that does not meet with the perceived “norm”.
In the end, there is only one lesson we can truly take from history – the united voice of women is a powerful force, not to be reckoned with. When joined together, we can change society, make ourselves heard and fight. In a patriarchal society, it’s not an easy journey to speak out, adjust perceptions and end violence against women, but with constant discourse, debate and a refusal to accept the labels and stigmas, we can keep the world moving forward.