Baroness Helena Kennedy KC on taking VAWG seriously
Misogyny is a term which is often translated as hatred of women, but is actually about a way of thinking. There are, of course, men who hate women, all women, but they are few. The misogyny which more commonly blights the lives of women, and which has a dark hold on our societies, is much more complex. It is about a deeply embedded belief in male primacy and a sense of entitlement which subordinates women and limits their power and freedom. Men themselves are often not even aware of it; it is so deeply encoded. ‘Power is encoded male’, as Mary Beard the classics scholar has so eloquently pronounced.
Men around the world grow up being taught, often in subtle ways, that women are less important and that they exist to satisfy male needs. The fear of male violence permeates women’s lives. Misogynistic thinking can include a whole range of behaviour from incest and child abuse, to rape, coercive control, domestic violence, all the way through to sexual harassment and the daily round of micro aggressions, which undermine the confidence and self-belief of women and girls. Is it any wonder girls keep silent in mixed classrooms, don’t ask for equal pay or a promotion in the workplace, or as MPs or councillors withdraw from political life when they are experiencing sexist behaviour and abuse on a regular drip feed?
The culture of masculinity is so deeply ingrained in our lives that women also buy into it. It is all around us. At some level, everyday abuse and objectification of women by men is tolerated by many because it is taken as a given that this is what men do. And on top is the mythology that we ‘make’ men do it.
We incite it by how we look and dress and by our sexual being, by our wicked tongues and our devious ways, by our drinking and failure to conform to ideas of good womanhood as men define it. The shame and self-blaming that I have heard over the years from women clients who have been raped, violated or battered is heart breaking and it is because of the learning from childhood that good girls must be self-safeguarding at all times or bad things will happen to them; so if bad things do happen it is because they must have done something wrong or failed in the business of being a good woman.
I have spent a lot of my life as a criminal barrister visiting the nation’s prisons and they are full of women who should not be there. The majority have themselves been the victims of violence and abuse or exploitation at the hands of men. They often have alcohol or drugs dependencies to dull the pain of their experiences as children or as adults who have been abused. They cover up for men, aiding and abetting their criminality, playing the role of ancillary. The main run of female offending, however, relates to crimes of dishonesty. To this day, far more women are in jail for theft than for the total of those committing drugs, sexual and violent crimes. Men are incarcerated for violence at a far higher rate than women, who rather find themselves inside for pilfering, usually because of a combination of poverty, addiction and mental health problems.
One of the disappointments for me is that women can also collude in the blame game of their own gender, believing that women are the authors of their own misfortune, dismissing the seriousness of male transgression. For some women, patriarchy is their only means of survival in a tough world and they will often defend the indefensible. Margaret Attwood, the great author, has said that men fear women will laugh at them but women are afraid that men will kill them. This quip is not without substance. In the UK, two women a week are killed by a spouse or partner. Every seven minutes a woman is raped and police receive one phone call per minute about domestic violence. Misogyny and violence against women within policing is now heavily documented and the failure to investigate adequately and to prosecute rape and domestic abuse of women has been exposed.
Over the years, almost every pillar of rectitude from the BBC to Parliament, from churches to universities, from children’s homes to police forces, has at some stage been accused of colluding in keeping the lid on misogyny and its consequential sexual crimes, putting institutional reputation ahead of safeguarding women and children. At the core of so many shameful episodes were the deep-seated attitudes which I am describing.
‘Slut-shaming’, shoulder-shrugging and victim blaming are not new. And it happens to women of all kinds, all classes and ethnic identities. Not all men are sexually abusive but it is hard to find a woman who has not had a bad experience at the hands of a man. It is why it is time for the dial to shift. We have to start talking seriously about male violence against women and girls. For too long the focus has been on the women who bring their complaints – their failures, their shortcomings, their conduct. No wonder women are made to feel shame.
We all have a part to play in changing things; challenging at every turn the way of thinking that is misogyny and exposing its hideous consequences for human relations. It means effectively prosecuting the wrongs that emanate from it and ensuring that the perpetrators’ attitudes are also being addressed in the punishments imposed.
But the justice system faces its own challenges. A lack of resourcing means there is a backlog of 150,000 cases awaiting criminal trial; criminal prosecutors and barristers are leaving practice because of over work and cuts to legal aid; the probation service has been eviscerated and alternatives to prison and training programmes have all but been abandoned; and policing has lost the confidence of women in society.
Securing greater justice for women is going to involve a huge culture shift. Equality can only be achieved if we all call out the practices that sustain inequality. This includes confronting instances of violence when they happen and working on the long term goal of ending violence against women and girls by investing in prevention work in our communities, particularly in schools.
Confronting misogyny is key but we cannot criminalise what people think. Freedom of thought is an important right and I do not want to see ‘thought-crime’ being promoted as a remedy, as in some totalitarian regimes. What goes on in that space between our ears is the source of dreams and imagination, creativity and ingenuity as well as bad stuff. It is the home of our conscience and much else. It is only when thought is translated into actions which are criminal that the state should have a role. And that role should be taken seriously.
Copyright Helena Kennedy KC, April 2023
Baroness Helena Kennedy KC is a member of the House of Lords and Director of the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute.
This article was first published in the programme for Dixon and Daughters, a co-production between Clean Break and National Theatre, written by Deborah Bruce.