2021 has been a year of reckoning for many people when it comes to the subject of violence against women.
The abduction and killing of Sarah Everard as she walked home in March prompted a huge public outcry, and led to many women coming forward with their own experiences and to express their frustrations about the sexual and physical threats that many experience on a daily basis.
The narratives around Sarah Everard’s killing went beyond that specific crime, and led to a number of national conversations on the sorts of violence that all women face. The government responded to the public mood by suggesting some (largely ill-received) proposals regarding streetlighting and uncover policing of bars and clubs. While many lambasted these moves, it is clear that as a society we are beginning to view instances of violence against women not so much as randomised tragedies but as part of a cultural and systemic fabric that has been allowed to take root in modern society.
But we need to go further than this. All forms of violence against women are connected and we should treat them as such . For example, though stalking is often viewed by the police and courts as a minor crime, studies have found stalking behaviours to be present in 94% of homicides. But violence against women is not just a distinct social ill that needs to be remedied with specific and measurable solutions – in fact, it is just one manifestation of the wider range of gender inequalities that continue to exist across society. Most people wouldn’t dispute this view, but if you suggested that violence against women could be reduced by tackling inequalities such as the gender pay gap, this might invite a degree of skepticism , despite the fact that a decrease in the gender pay gap has been shown to correlate with decreasing levels of violence by men against women.
The reasons behind this may not seem immediately obvious. – something that women only have the luxury of being worried about because the societies in which they live are safer and less violent than many places in the global south. Indeed, in a 2012 article for The Times, Libby Purves penned a searing indictment of Indian culture and men in the aftermath of the infamous Dehli gang rape case, and dismissed the typical fixation of UK-based feminists on matters of pay, domestic work and the like as mere ‘fripperies’.
Not only was Purves’ characterisation of Indian men as inherently brutal towards women racist (she described Indian men as ‘hyenas’ – an undeniably dehumanising term), but the piece also failed to see how the gender inequalities she dismissed as ‘fripperies’ were in fact inextricably linked to the sort of horrific violence that she (falsely) characterised as particularly Indian.
India is a highly unequal society, including when it comes to matters of gender. In terms of its own gender pay gap, India ranks 112 out of 153 economies in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index 2020. As of 2019, just 20.8% of India’s workforce were women and only 11% of corporate committee chairs in the country are women, compared with 27.3% globally.
We could treat these statistics as a complete coincidence, but this does not change the fact that these conditions for Indian women exist alongside high levels of social violence – and it is not such a great leap to feel that the two phenomena are linked.
Simply, when women are underrepresented in the workforce, or have lower median earnings than men, we have to ask ourselves why.
The causes of women’s lower global economic participation – and of gender pay gaps throughout the world – are well-studied . We know that one reason that at least partly explains why women may participate less in the workforce, and why they progress through the occupational ranks less rapidly when they’re in it, is because childcare and domestic duties are typically split unequally between men and women. Women in both India and the UK do significantly more unpaid work in the forms of caring responsibilities and housework than men do (though the undermines many women’s ability to participate fully in paid work.
We know and accept that childcare and cleaning are forms of work. Many people hold down jobs in these industries. But the people who hold down these jobs are, overwhelmingly, women. More than 82% of cleaners are women and over 97% of all nursery nurses are women too. The average annual salary of a full-time cleaning job in the UK is £18,579; for a nursery nurse the average is £19,000; clearly this kind of work is not just undervalued when carried out for free.
The fact that women in paid employment are overrepresented in sectors with low pay is again a crucial factor that underlies the gender pay gap. Rates of low pay often mean that in a heterosexual relationship, it is women who scale down their hours or drop out of the workforce completely when they have children. What’s more, due to the fact that work linked to caring is already afforded a low value through low rates of pay, women with lower economic participation rates are often perceived to be ‘working less’ compared to men. This is despite the fact that so much of women’s unpaid work is actually what enables men to participate in the workforce to their fullest while also having a family life.
The implications of the constant undervaluing of women’s work must not be underestimated. When the work that has fallen to women in society is seen as somehow less valuable than the work that men do, women implicitly become less ‘useful’ to society. Lower utility (however mistaken this perception is) then connotes . If women are seen as less important to the functioning of a society, their lives are then of less value and are less vital to sustain.
If we’re to truly confront the scourge of violence against women that plagues all societies across the world, we have to confront the origins of our biases against women. We have to question all the other inequalities that arise from these biases. Even things that people might dismiss as ‘trivial’ or ‘fripperies’ are rarely just that; tackling each single form of inequality can have a positive impact on the interlinked systems which leads to this undervaluing of women in the first place.