This week the Prime Minister lamenting violent crime in Trinidad and in particular homicides, reflected that fully one third of the people killed in the country were killed in domestic settings. He associated himself with the anger of everyone at this all-enveloping insecurity and then, went on to reflect that women had a responsibility to choose their partners wisely.
As anyone could have expected, a furor has ensued. The PM was called out for victim blaming. Many acknowledged that we all have a personal responsibility to make wise choices. But if we better understood that both the use and experience of violence are symptomatic of deeply embedded gender attitudes and biases, we would also understand that personal decision making is just one component of effective prevention. (See here for example).
How we experience agency, what choices we make, these are determined by the culture of the collective, which, yes is constantly being renegotiated and re-shaped. And just as still too many men are socialized through school, religious practice, peers and popular culture into demanding control over and access to women’s bodies, many women are socialized into submission. (Just think of the range of soca music in any year where women are being done something to).
It is this gender socialization that partly informs how governments develop and secure implementation of certain policies. So if male entitlement to women’s bodies is deeply rooted in culture, it will be hard, for example, to criminalize all rape within marriage, as in the case in several countries in the region. Those Trinidadians who led the failed battle to do just that in the 80’s will recall the infamous statement “if you can’t rape your wife…”
It is also this patriarchal socialization which undermines effective policing. Too many women, whether in domestic violence situations or as victims of sexual offences will not go to the police. They fear judgment, they fear indifference, they dread the consequences of ineffective and deficient protection that leave them more vulnerable to worst violence. They fear that some person will say, ‘well what were you doing there at that time?’ ‘Why didn’t you scream?’ ‘ What were you wearing?’ In other words, ‘why did you not make another, more wise decision?’ And this patriarchal socialization explains why some judicial practitioners still seek to reconcile a woman to her violent partner as a first response. And, not to flog a dead horse, it is this socialization that explains how families can shame women into staying in bad marriages. “You made your bed, now lie in it”.
Beyond the socialization, there is the paralyzing dread of further violence that can keep women pinned into submission. I recall a client whose husband threatened to kill all the children if she left. And we also know that many women, for the sake of their children, stay for economic reasons.
So, yes, individual empowerment to self-protect is important. But let us not be unthoughtful of the many ways in which agency is undermined by culture, by weak policy, by inadequate protection frameworks and by absent social services.
We know all of this, don’t we? Yet how dismaying to see so many agreeing with the proposition that women need to choose the right man and to agree without any caveats or thoughts on the differentiated responsibility of the state to protect and prevent violence against women. And not enough discussion either on the role of men to not engage in violence.
We have to admit, those of us who have been doing this work, that our efforts have not been enough and also that the public space is coarser, more intimidating, more predatory, harder I believe on young women. We live in times where individualism has overtaken social solidarity. Where VIPness is the strangely accepted face of inequality; and where corruption frustrates our expectations of the state. All of this must be contributing to the noxious mix of anomie (the turning away from collective norms of care, solidarity, empathy) with masculinist resistance to equality. And this resistance spreads virally through all kinds of new media (video games as well).
And so the state, through its various institutions, has to ensure the environment within which people’s enlightened agency can be exercised, especially not to engage in violence. The state must protect the vulnerable and must equalize power relations- whether of age (as in child protection) whether in employment (regulating employers for decent work) or whether in punishing and protecting from all forms of violence. After all, is that not the bargain between the state and citizens in our social democracies?
Is it that we have lost faith in the authority and power of the state to arrest the galloping violence and insecurity and so have turned on victims? Help yourself because the state cannot help you?