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Gender-based violence: Enough is enough

As social workers, we must do better, not only to protect our female-majority workforce, but also to champion the rights of the women and girls we support

By Rebekah Pierre, BASW England Professional Officer

I write with the heaviest of hearts, united in grief with women across the world who are mourning the loss of our sisters who never made it home. 

We grieve for Sarah Everard, whose life was taken at the hands of a serving Metropolitan police officer – the type of man women have been taught to trust, to call upon when in danger.

So too do we grieve for women of colour whose stories did not make it to the media, whose loved ones still lack answers - Blessings Olusegun, Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry, amongst others. 

Sadly, none of their stories are anomalies; rather, they point to a global pattern of misogyny and male violence so deeply embedded into the fabric of society, that we are desensitised to it. 

The recent report that 97% of young women have been sexually assaulted speaks volumes of the systemic nature of misogyny and violence against women and girls. If this statistic alone is not enough to spark seismic change, I am at a loss as to what will.

No Sanctuary from the Streets

There is no place on earth where women and girls are truly safe. We are not safe in the streets or at home, in rural areas or in populated cities, in daylight or in darkness. 

As a childhood survivor of domestic abuse, I know this to be true.

Yes, the streets are intimidating. Like countless women, since I was about 11 years old, public spaces have been the backdrop of countless incidents of being followed, harassed, cat-called, groped, photographed without consent, and targeted by kerb-crawlers - each time by men who felt entitled to my body, space and time. 

But for many of us, home has not always been a refuge either. Whilst the pandemic has not caused the increase – only perpetrators are responsible for that – it threatens to escalate abuse and close down routes to safety (Women’s Aid, 2020).

A life in lockdown

For this reason, the advice issued by the Metropolitan police in response to Sarah’s death, which advised women to stay indoors, was so very hard to hear. Aside from not always being possible for victim-survivors, it put the onus on women and girls yet again. But without tackling the root issue – male violence against women, modifying our behaviours will achieve nothing.  

What else can we possibly modify? We have been told to cover up, speak up when assaulted, (but then shut up so as not to harm men’s careers), stay on well-lit roads, carry keys between our fists, share our live locations on our phones, stay indoors after dark – the list is endless.  

The suggestion of a 6pm curfew for men was met with outrage, yet this unwritten law is the lived reality for most women. 

One thing is clear - we cannot tolerate locked-down lives any longer. 

Meaningful action

What struck me most about International Women’s Day this year was that it felt incredibly consumeristic. Businesses usually silent about gender equality (and complicit in the current pause on gender pay-gap reporting) became vociferous for just one day where profit was to be had. It was tokenistic and empty. 

As social workers, we must do better, not only to protect our female-majority workforce, but also to champion the rights of the women and girls we support. All are subject to institutionalised sexism. That means:

  • Adopting intersectional feminism, which recognises the unique needs of Black and minoritized women, who are 4.3 times more likely to die of COVID-19 and five times more likely to die in pregnancy 
  • Breaking chains of the patriarchy and toxic masculinity, which harm us all. 
  • Making a conscious choice to unlearn a lifetime of internalised misogyny through gender-bias training
  • Understanding the unique needs of women and girls in a scary new technological era, with online Child Sexual Exploitation, revenge porn, 'incel' culture, OnlyFans, and relentless beauty standards peddled on social media.
  • Social workers are also strongly encouraged to attend the BASW England launch of our updated Domestic Abuse Guidance.  

** Book now - BASW England Domestic Abuse Guidance Launch (18 March 2021) **

'Not all men'

Less than 24 hours after the death of Sarah Everard was confirmed, the phrase #Notallmen began to trend across social media platforms.

Whilst both men and women can be victims of domestic abuse, and it is crucial to acknowledge the severity of every incident, it is a gendered crime, with men making up 92% if perpetrators, and women 75% of victims.

We know that not all men are perpetrators – however, when everyone from the former President of the United States to the Police have been implicated in serious crimes against us, it is impossible for women to distinguish who is safe.

Caring about violence against women does not equate to caring any less about men’s issues, which are very present and real. The two are not mutually exclusive, but they are linked – violence against women harms everyone.

Simply regurgitating #Notallmen detracts away from the issue, and recentres men yet again. What we need is for men to become allies and stand up for us. To prioritise supporting women who need help now, rather than hypothetical innocent men who may never. 

Not all men are perpetrators – but all women suffer as a by-product of living in a sexist world. This applies to intersectionalities of race, age, gender, LGBT+, neurodiversity, disability, class, education, culture, religion, care experience, and all others not listed above.

To highlight this, I spoke to women from diverse backgrounds both within and outside of social work who so kindly shared their experiences. Please note that the women below have defined themselves as they wish to be defined.

* Read the perspectives of women from diverse backgrounds - both within and outside of social work - who kindly shared their experiences *

Patriche Bentick, Senior Practitioner

Patriche is Black British, with parents from St Vincent and the Grenadines. She is first generation British on her father’s side.

I went to a really diverse primary school in Waltham Forest where there were people from all countries, languages, accents. Then it all changed when I went to secondary school in Dagenham, which was predominantly white. It was a huge challenge.

Because of my multi-layered oppressions, I cannot identify whether I am being oppressed because I am black or because I am a woman. I have of these different aspects of my identity, being young, Black, female, having tattoos and piercings, I have to stop and ask – Which one am I being oppressed by right now?

I went to court the other day for work, and the security guard would not let me in. I showed him my badge which said who I was – yet 5 minutes later he was asking if I was the mum in the case. I said no, am the manager of the Social Worker who is in there. He told me to calm down. This was even coming from a Black man. I looked smart, really smart, and yet I was still treated this way. Even if I was the mum in the case, why does that even matter? The issue is, if I was a white flustered woman trying to get in, that would not have happened.

When I have to speak to a white man, I have to think 10 times. I have that specific stereotype as an aggressive woman. If I am driving and make a mistake, a man would treat me a particular way because I am a woman. It’s the subtleties. People expecting you to be able to do things. People not showing respect when you’re speaking or taking you seriously when making suggestions.

Malcolm X once famously asked, “What do you call a Black man with a Ph.D.?” This applies to Black women with the additional layer of sexism and gender oppression.

Colorism, class and gender are a huge issue even within my own communities, where sexism is very overt. 

In the Caribbean, I will walk down the street and get hissed at like an animal. It’s very much in your face. There is a level of owning that I think some men have. There’s a lot of unspoken taboos around child sexual abuse, incest.

There’s a level of expectation of girls from a young age for just being children. When it comes to impoverished areas, there’s an expectation that girls will be able girls will be able to cook and clean.

In the UK, there are other layers such as fetishization. Once, I had this white man watching me about half an hour. He ended up giving me his card. He had this fascination with me being Black. A man might approach me like they are deserving. They deal with me like I want a relationship. It never occurs to them that they may not be able to fulfil my needs. It’s like – I want that thing, I am going to get that thing.

I am constantly hypervigilant because I feel unsafe. I always text my girls when I get home. I won’t play my music from the station to my home because I want to be aware. I have my keys in my hand so I can get in quickly. We don’t have any means of protecting ourselves in the UK because it’s not legal, and it’s scary.

This hypervigilance isn’t just because I’m a woman, or black. It’s because of the crossover. It’s because we are seen as less.

In social work, it is no different. I constantly see children in care struggling to have their basic needs met, struggling to find the right food or salons. Struggling to have their skin taken care of. As a social worker, I know that women experiencing domestic abuse are still going through abuse, but it is totally unique being a black female. Social workers must bear that in mind.

Hannah Branton, Social Work Student

I have bipolar, and in terms of my mental health, my experiences of being an impatient is that they will label any young women in with ‘Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder (EUPD).

It’s very much geared at adult women – they will blame it on hormones, or instability. There is a lot of stigma attached to personality disorders. It was only when I had a four-month admission when someone said ‘that’s clearly incorrect – it’s BPD’. The people making decisions about personality disorders would only ever meet you for a few days. From about 18 to mid to late 20s it was EUPD, EUPD, EUPD. I am still the same person, but I went from being admitted from 4 days to 4 months – there is such a stark contrast in age terms of age treatment.

Amongst the male population, there was much higher mood disorders or psychosis, whereas with women, you would hear ‘Oh yeah, I’ve got EUPD’. It was so dismissive.  

For some people, disability is be celebrated, but it’s different for women. In the workplace, I’ve experienced this attitude of ‘Oh great, now we’re stuck with someone just because of the equality act.’ It’s like you’re a hinderance.

In terms of my experience as a bisexual woman, if there was acceptance across the board, would we need these LGBT+ events? I play hockey and football, people assume my sexuality automatically. For a man, you would think – wow, they’re so active and sociable. There’s assumptions that you must be really butch and masculine. It’s a complete juxtaposition between the way men and women are treated. They’re starting to show more sport on TV….though women’s sport only makes the red button on the BBC, it’s not quite prime time.

You’ve got people at the top of the game talking about sexism, but no one is listening to us.

Mish Ahmed-landeryou – Lecturer in Occupational Therapy

Every time we try to raise our voice, there is always a counter narrative. I believe in collaborative efforts and building allies toward a just society…airing them, no matter if they do make people feel uncomfortable or triggered.

When it comes to sexism, it comes from a place of intersectionality. I’m Asian, I’m female, I’m short, which you would think wouldn’t be but it is – because of that, I am treated in a very childlike manner yet I am in my 50’s. If I get passionate, I am treated as a child.

There is this notion somewhere, whether it is conscious or unconscious, in how media and how history has portrayed the Asian woman. There is this image that we’re fragile and need to be saved. Because of that, there is a certain way of speaking to us. But there are assumptions that you need saving. When you try to bring that to the forefront, the other person gets angered because they don’t want to hear that they’re not helping.

Every day I have lived with it, I have grown up with it. My childhood experiences, I still carry those now. As a child in the 70’s in England, there was so much racism, physical acts…I am always hypervigilant. I am short, I make myself smaller. I don’t make eye contact. I try not to sit alone, but I also try not to sit in big groups.

One day I was on public transport and this guy sat next to me. First of all he splayed his legs out as far as he could. Then he put his arms on the arm rest into my breasts. I thought ‘what am I going to do here?’. At first I was really frazzled and lost my voice – I then said, ‘can you move your elbow away form my breast please.’ He looked at me, moved them away and did it again. And I thought – you know what, I just don’t have the energy and I moved on.

There’s no accountability. I have had men call my office and masturbate down the phone. I was able to report the incident, but I wonder how other people may have felt if they were too traumatised or felt unable to speak out.

You just have to keep going an inch at a time…then reconfigure, pause, and move another inch.

Anonymous – Dark skinned Black woman working in Logistics and Supply Chains

We will never be free until the least of us are free. If Black women are not liberated, none of us are. White feminism doesn’t work.

Coming from a background where my parents have a really strong Christian faith, you can’t really talk about sexism without talking about the colonial history of Christianity and what that did to a lot of societies that had matriarchal societies, which obliterated these.

Those stereotypes really played into a lot of the sexism that Black women feel. How our bodies are, it’s something abhorrent – wider lips, breasts, hips, which were over-sexualised in the west but were completely normal in the traditional mindset in Africa.

We are seen as less pure, less virginal, as having wider sexual appetite, that’s something the British used to talk about in their slave papers. That led to white people at the time who were in Africa feeling that was okay to rape these women, it stemmed from this view that we’re not pure. We are still dealing with those issues today.

I currently live in the East Midlands – I have been here for 6 months, and haven’t seen one other Black person. People literally stare at me. It’s the classic British thing, no one says anything but I don’t feel safe.

The industry I work in is great, but there is a lot to be done. When I started my career, I was coming in as a manager in the North. I started in Wakefield and I was one of the only women on a site of 100 men, and I was the only black person – ever. The first thing I noticed straight away was there were no female toilets on the site. And they were like – oh, there’s a disabled loo.

 People thought I was a cleaner at one point. People said ‘you need a mentor’. People would allocate admin roles to me. I would say, you realise I just completed a 4 year degree.

Real change must happen or we’ll be here having the same conversation in 20 years’ time.

Nicola Crawshaw, Care Experienced Social Work Student

It just feels very close to home. Sarah was the same age as me. We have all been in that situations and relate. Collectively, enough is enough. How much longer is this going to go on for?

Whilst I was in foster care, the family that I lived with were very political. My foster mum was a local labour councillor, so there was always business around the house with elections. I remember one day coming home from school and the local MP was leaving the house. As he walked past me, he asked if i had voted. I said, ‘I can’t, I’m 16'. He looked me up and down suggestively and said ‘really?' I was in my school uniform.

It was my first experience of understanding how disgusting men in power can be.

The way women speak is interpreted v differently from how men speak. For example, you would say that a man is ‘nagging’, if we’re passionate we are called ‘hysterical’, or there is a joke ‘are you on your period’. We are told not to interrupt men, so we are constantly waiting our turn. It needs to change.

Language itself is sexist. One of my bug bears is when people ask what my title is. I’m happily married and usually go by Mrs, but you would never ask a man the same thing. I don’t understand why that’s something you have to declare about yourself. Collectively, people say ‘Hi Guys’ – it’s really frustrating.

We’re constantly judged with our appearance. We will get things like ‘I would love to see what she looks like without that slap on’. People think you do that to impress a man. But you don’t. You do it for yourself.

We minimise our accomplishments, and we’re almost embarrassed to share them. All women are socialised into not wanting to take up space, not wanting to have the spotlight on them, I didn’t do my GCSEs at school because of being in care, but I am doing really well now grades-wise – it is something I keep to myself.

We teach girls that their bodies are sexualised, and that they are responsible for covering up and avoiding men. The responsibility shouldn’t be on us.

Anonymous, Social Work Student, Hull

I’ve never told anybody story, it was just part of my life.

It wasn’t until my daughter spoke up about what has been going on recently that everything clicked. I’m from a small town, and have a small-town mentality – I am very naïve. But so are the people here, they are quite closed minded. I once heard a taxi driver say he had never been anywhere in the country where men spoke so disrespectfully to women.

As a teenager, it was acceptable for men to prey on us, so I never saw it as anything wrong. When I was 15, we would be jumping in 20 year olds cars. If that happened to my daughter, I would be mortified. Now, we see that as child sexual exploitation. It was pass the parcel, notches on the bed post. It was a competition to see how many women they could get. They would smack you as you walk past, grab your boobs, send you unsolicited pictures.  The names they called us were awful – the way they spoke about women was disgusting. We just accepted that. I can remember being sat on a street corner at 15, and a 30 year old man, a friend of my step-dad’s, saying ‘do you want to suck on my lollipop?’. Men used to call public phone boxes and talk to us in a sexual way. Or shout ‘fat cow’ whilst we have been walking down the road.

One boyfriend dragged me out of my bedroom by my hair. But I never thought of it as abuse. I just thought it was an argument.

I got pregnant at 17, and the father of my baby left me for it. I got 9 months of verbal abuse – it broke my heart.

When I had her, he kept keeping me dangling, he had no positive regard for my feelings. That continued and spiralled – I would then seek attention from other boys who would repeatedly use me because I was so vulnerable. It wasn’t until I was about 26 that it affected me, so I binged ate. I had no regard for myself whatsoever.

When I did have boyfriends, they would be so controlling. I never even thought of learning to drive, because it was always ‘What do you need to drive for? Where do you need to go? What are you wearing that for?’. It was only recently I did learn to drive, and I only felt comfortable with a female instructor.

For years, work was my safe place – it was  nearly all women. I didn’t have to come out of my comfort zone. I locked myself in the same job for 10 years because I didn’t’ want men to pick fault with me or put me down. I would have been a nervous wreck if I had to go into a meeting with a man, back then. Men scared me.

Since starting my course and going to university, being around men has been a challenge - but it has helped me see that some men are different. Until going to uni, I had avoided being in the same environment as men, so I have had to really push myself.

I want to make a change so that other women don’t have to get to 40 like I have before they realise it’s not acceptable to accept sexism or abuse.

 

BASW England is launching updated Domestic Abuse Guidance in a webinar on Thursday 18 March from 12-1.15.

This event marks the official launch of the BASW England Domestic Abuse Guidance for social workers, featuring survivors and representatives from:

  • Video contributions from Women’s Aid
  • An Overview of the Safe & Together ™ Model from Sarah McMillan 
  • Ann Craft Trust
  • Asmaat Khan, a survivor of both domestic abuse and forced marriage, as well as a social worker.
  • Dr Michaela Rogers, lecturer at Sheffield University

This event will provide ‘Top Tips’ from those with lived experience of domestic abuse, an overview of patterns of domestic abuse over COVID-19, as well as an introduction to the Safe & Together ™ Model. An intersectional approach will be threaded throughout, recognising how the form of abuse may vary across diverse communities considering race, culture, sexuality, disability and other factors.