Back in my line-dancing days (don’t knock it until you’ve tried it) an evening wasn’t an evening without a ballad from Shania Twain.
Unpacking CDs the other day after a house move, I discovered my Come on Over album. I dusted it off, and put it on. I remembered most of the tracks but had forgotten this one, where Shania tells us,
I’d rather die standing
Than live on my knees
Begging please, no more
The lyrics are a world away from the rest of the hat-tiltin’ foot-stampin’ songs on the record. Curious, I googled. It turns out that Twain’s own childhood was marked with domestic violence between her mother and stepfather, and towards herself as a child. She survived it, and went on to become the bestselling album solo female artist, with 40 million other line-dancers also buying the CD I had clutched in my hand.
She did not, as she sang, die standing.
Unlike one woman somewhere in the world, every ten minutes.
This month in France the government launched a three-month consultation on domestic violence against women. Timely, since late August, the tally of women dying from domestic violence reached 101 for 2019. This is already higher than this time last year, which means France is likely to surpass the 121 women killed at the hands of current or former partners in 2018.
Congratulations are not in order.
There are similar figures elsewhere in Europe, with estimates of even higher numbers in the UK (139 killed in 2017). In Spain, though numbers have fallen in recent years, 1000 women have now been killed from domestic violence since records began in 2003.
How about some names for that neat chiliad?
Women who died because they were women, at the hands of men they knew and quite possibly loved, as sisters, mothers, partners, wives, daughters.
And that’s just Spain. According to a UNODC report in early 2018, 87,000 women were killed intentionally across the world in 2017. Though the highest absolute numbers were in Asia, the highest prevalence (rates per 100,000 women) were in Africa.
We must not forget that men, too, suffer from abuse from partners. But violence against women remains a predominantly domestic affair: six in ten of those 87,000 murders were by intimate partners or family members. That is 137 women every day.
That has led to the emergence (and call for) the terms ‘femicide’ or ‘femincide’ to specifically denominate the murder of women. There is not universal agreement on this. A rather startling musing came in the same UNODC study:
The notion of gender-related killing, or “femicide”, requires an understanding of which acts are gender related; something that is subject to a certain degree of interpretation. For example, in many cases there is a continuum of (intimate partner) violence that culminates in the killing of women even when perpetrators have no specific (misogynistic) motives.
And yet in heterosexual couples, it is mainly the woman dying, and not the man. Is there any clearer example of misogyny than murdering your female partner?
But of course, domestic violence does not always end in death. Many women say that the violence begins on a small or irregular scale, and gradually increases in frequency and/or intensity. Nor is abuse always physical, as this depressively comprehensively diagram shows:
It might seem incredible that the place in which women should feel safest – in their own homes – is often the deadliest for them.
So why do men hit women?
In 1975, the question came as a surprise to these messieurs. Ben… c’est évident, non?
For non-French speakers, we were told:
- Some women need beating. Others don’t. (there was no explication of this difference in disciplinary requirements, but another speaker goes on…)
- … She’s nicer to me/more in love with me/more compliant in bed, if I hit her (confirmed by the last man, who shrugs…)
- … that’s just the way it works between couples.
We are a refreshing distance from 1975, and yet here in shiny 2019, one woman still dies every ten minutes from being strangled, beaten to death, shot, set fire to; asterisk, and delete as appropriate. Over forty years on from delightful thinking of the video above, we still need chilling public campaigns such as this one to raise awareness of what goes on behind closed doors:
Such campaigns are effective: since the French consultation began, appeals to the #3919 hotline have quadrupled (though whether there are enough resources to pay for the staff to handle the calls is another question).
But what about the roots of domestic violence?
Women are always, and everywhere, more at risk of violence than men. There are undeniable facts of physiology and reproductivity which risk dependency, vulnerability or limited freedom. But it does not follow that this vulnerability should lead to abuse. If women are dying in such numbers in their own homes, it is because the authorities do not take sufficient interest, or that they still prefer not to interfere, in the name of family privacy. In France, newspapers frequently (still) cover domestic violence as “passion crimes” or – even more demeaningly – tuck them away with the fait divers column, along with cats stuck in trees.
A woman has historically been an object in many countries, traded or bartered for, the property of their husbands. This is evidently still a reality in some countries today, and lingers in others, whether or not it is openly permitted or encouraged. After all, it was only in 2006 in the UK when the Church of England formally acknowledged an issue with the (bride-only) pledge to “love, honour and obey”. Even Meghan Merkle’s decision not to use the word “obey” on her wedding day to Prince Harry would cause ripples… in 2018.
Dependence is another key to understanding domestic violence. Before women entered the workforce in larger numbers in the 21st century, and before modern contraception which gave some women (not all, please remember) the choice of whether or when to have children, the role of wife and mother meant a dependency which precluded being able to walk out the door.
And even with economic and reproductive autonomy, it isn’t easy. Where do you go? Who do you turn to? Especially if you have children; if you are a foreigner or newly-arrived; if you live in communities where local law or judicial services are absent or corrupt; or where there may be an element of shame; or fear of retribution, if there is no safe place to go to.
Lastly, there is the emotional complexity; a perceived or genuine love for a partner who may not always have been this way. A hope that it is just a ‘phase’ – that things will get better. Or – especially if the violence has been going on for a long time, or if there have been previous abusive relationships – low self-esteem or self-confidence, a belief that the belittlement or violence is your own fault.
The reasons behind the violence itself are much debated. We know that men who see their fathers or male family members engage in domestic violence are more likely to repeat the same pattern years later. We know that situations of unemployment, or other drug or alcohol abuse, are also likely to fuel violence at home. But all of those things stem from a conception of virility and masculinity which encourages, permits – or does not sanction – a perception of women as objects, or weak, or ‘owned’; and which defines a ‘real man’ in terms of physical strength, power, aggressivity.
Think video games. Think advertisements. Think comic books. Think fairy tales. Think newspaper coverage.
Think children’s cartoons.
Everything we see, hear or read contributes to these stereotypes. To our own assumptions about where power lies, which turn into the reality of where power does lie. To the freedom that we look for, or believe we are due, in our professional and personal lives. Tackling domestic violence, like everything else, has to begin with tackling those stereotypes: because, well…
(your foot was tapping along. admit it.)