It’s already February, so my News Years’ resolutions are, admittedly somewhat late.
I have six kilos to lose. Just like last year.
I would like to give up smoking cigarettes. Just like last year.
I am starting a Masters degree. So, passing that… that’s a new resolution.
I am starting a new job. Finding a way to improve the work/ life balance… that’s new… (Wait, I don’t think that’s really all that new!)
I am participating in a flash mob next week to combat violence against women. I want to be more proactive in my community’s domestic violence committee. Activism requires diligence… so this year I want to be more proactive about my efforts to be part of a movement to end violence against women.
I encourage everyone to include this resolution in their list. The six kilos can wait. The women who are dying at the hands of their partners everyday… can’t.
October and November were two very tough months for me. I added no new posts to this blog. I ignored my twitter feed.
In my non-internet life, I dragged myself out of bed each morning and went to work. I found my children annoying, office politics trying and the clients, whose stories I aspire to valourise seemed overwhelming and irritating. I gained unneeded kilograms. There was no activism in the month dedicated to sixteen days of activism.
Whilst I assisted the suicidal to plan for safety, counselled those living with depression to avoid alcohol, do exercise and steadfastly reframe their experiences in the face of overwhelming negativity, I ignored my own advice. Blatantly. Whilst I empathised with those whose world-views had been tainted by experiences of trauma, I naively ignored the impact of the unrelenting stories of abuse on my own world-view.
Ironically, I have been trained to look for the signs and have experienced them before. (Last time, I was smart enough to take a seven-month sabbatical. I found work as a book-keeper, steeped myself in numbers and avoided people until my reserves were replenished). This time, I thought I was immune. I undertake clinical supervision twice a month (overkill, perhaps), but I kidded myself this was insulation enough.
But burnout is insidious. It creeps into your life until you can no longer ignore its presence. When its presence is undeniable, your uselessness is also undeniable. You go through the motions. Maybe your work looks the same on the outside, but the outcomes for your clients are different. The difference is in you and your sense of hope. Your clients don’t feel it anymore…
It is ironic that at the time when your effectiveness is most compromised that you feel least able to take a holiday, when it is a holiday that you need the most (a break from caring, from being professionally accountable for restraining the inner turmoil). So, I made many excuses in October and November for not taking a break, before I finally succumbed.
Frivolity was called for. I took my children to water parks and beaches and tried to teach them to surf. I remembered I am not just a social worker. I am a mother. Immersing myself in chlorinated water, I forgot the feeling that so often plagues me in mental health service provision: that I am emptying the ocean with a tea-spoon. I drank pina coladas rather than reaching for a thoroughly unenjoyable drink after work. I savoured walking the beach-side board-walks in a town, where there was no chance of running into a client.
The inner turmoil resolved itself. I returned to ridiculous case-loads; one crisis after another and, most significantly, a client death.
But I coped. I remembered my essential truth. I am a mother, a friend, a daughter. I work as a social worker. I write, I tweet, I find bargains at op shops, I avoid exercise and try to eat healthy. I love chocolate, the view from my living room window. I do my best. Sometimes, I fail.
I can experience sadness and anger at the injustices of the system I work in. I can blog about domestic violence. And sometimes, eating tacos or swimming in a pool, I give myself permission to forget.
For five years, I was a single mother living solely on a single parent pension.
There are aspects of the experience I am deeply grateful for. I am an op-shopper extraordinaire because of my time living on welfare. The experience of not being able to justify purchasing new clothes gave me a keen eye for clothing at Vinnie’s five dollar bag sales.
There are other aspects of the experience I am not so grateful for. I hate that my fifteen year old son lived in fifteen different apartments/ flats by the time he was twelve, whilst I struggled to find affordable long-term accommodation in the private rental market. I hate that my seven month experience of government housing was an exercise in teaching my children to avoid syringes. I could have been teaching them to read/ write/ draw better…
When I began studying social work (so I could extricate myself from poverty by becoming qualified to help others to do the same!), I became compulsive about applying for scholarships and part-time jobs I was hopelessly unqualified for. I averaged three applications for scholarships/ part-time jobs a week in the hey-day of my mission to get off welfare (I know this because I have hoarded even the failed applications). I did not own a computer (I was too poor to!), so I completed most of these applications at public libraries and I am indebted to the librarians, who were liberal in their reading of the half an hour booking rule. Sadly, in answering one prestigious scholarship application, I was questioned about what my goals were in five years’ time. My rather underwhelming response was ‘My ambition in five years’ time is to not be on welfare.’
Whilst (surprise, surprise!) I failed to secure this scholarship, social security entitlements like JPET for childcare, a single parent pension, the associated pensioner education supplement and a scholarship based on financial circumstances, enabled me to study full-time by distance education. My youngest child was nearly nine when I finished my degree. He was ten by the time I secured a full-time job and no longer required supplemental income from Centrelink.
Under the current legislative changes to the single parent pension, I would have been penalised $60 a week, at the same time I was trying to finish 490 hours of an unpaid placement to secure my qualifications. Because my status as a Newstart recipient would have precluded me from claiming pensioner education supplement, I would, in fact, have been about $94 a week worse off.
The change to single parent pensions has been associated with significant savings in government expenditure. I find myself ruminating about the HECS repayments I would not be making if I were not employed in a professional role that I was able to become qualified for by studying, whilst I was living on a single parent pension. I wonder about the dollars in income tax payments I would not be paying if I were not employed (or employed in menial employment). I wonder about the donations to welfare organisations I would not be making. I wonder if these are being counted in estimating the savings…
I wonder about the choices women in abusive relationships will be forced to make. Exiting a violent relationship after your child turns eight will not come with any tangible safety net. Instead, at the same time women are trying to recover from trauma, they will be scrambling to fill out fortnightly Newstart forms with evidence of employment they are seeking. And I wonder when robbing the most disadvantaged women of choices became popular public policy, but perhaps that’s a silly question.
This year, October is National Domestic Abuse Awareness month in the United States. On 1st October 2012, the United States President Barack Obama issued a Presidential proclamation calling ‘on all Americans to speak out against domestic violence and support local efforts to assist victims of these crimes in finding the help and healing they need.’
Just over a week later, half a world away, the Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard gave an impassioned 15-minute speech in the House of Representatives naming and condemning opposition leader, Tony Abbott’s misogyny. (See, for example,
http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/political-news/julia-badass-gillard-slipper-resignation-just-a-sidebar-20121010-27c0g.html#ixzz29G9t8dXA. Ostensibly, these two political acts are unrelated.
On one continent, one leader of a nation noted that ‘Despite considerable progress in reducing domestic violence, an average of three women in the United States lose their lives every day as a result of these unconscionable acts [domestic violence]’. On another continent, another leader of a nation condemned the sexism of the opposition leader’s statement that, perhaps ‘men are by physiology or temperament, more adapted to exercise authority or to issue command?’ One has nothing to do with the other, right?
In one part of the Western world, a President proclaimed October National Domestic Abuse awareness month ‘by virtue of the authority vested in[him] by the Constitution and the laws of the United States’. In another part of the Western world, a Prime Minister of a minority government, accused the opposition leader of being ‘big on lectures of responsibility, [but being] very light on accepting responsibility himself for the vile conduct of members of his political party.’ In one part of the Western world, a President was applauded. In another part of the Western world, a Prime Minister was accused of playing the ‘gender card’ (see, for example http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/opinion/miranda-devine-gender-card-is-a-loser/story-e6frezz0-1226494961475). One has nothing to do with the other, right?
In the aftermath of the Gillard speech, one of my feminist idols, Australian feminist Eva Cox, noted, “Sure, [Mr] Slipper’s comments were anti-female in the same sense that schoolboy crap is anti-female. It makes one doubt his judgment, but whether they were deep indicators of sexism is another issue,” Ms Cox said. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m not grieving the fact that Peter Slipper is gone. To put it mildly, he was a dickhead. But this trivial name-calling is distracting from other issues.” (http://afr.com/p/national/sexism_not_the_issue_cox_biL9njCga8lz5RLq0fKK1N)
Reading Cox’s comments, I took pause, for a moment. After all, Cox’s point about focusing on the more important issues affecting women in our society rather than trivial name-calling (albeit whilst labelling Slipper a dick-head in the same breath) was a valid one. In one nation, a Presidential proclamation pronounced October to be a month for acknowledging the senseless deaths of women and children due to domestic violence. In another nation, fifteen minutes of Parliamentary time was dedicated to naming and condemning what Cox describes as ‘schoolboy crap’.
However, as I reflected on the furore over Gillard’s speech and the US women’s site Jezebel paying homage to Ms. Gillard by calling her “one badass mother—-er”, I started to peruse debates on my twitter site by feminists as to whether Julia Gillard should have used the word ‘misogyny’ or ‘sexism’ and I came to a conclusion that we are really all asking the wrong question. And that’s what Julia Gillard’s speech and the Presidential proclamation of a month to raise awareness of domestic violence really have in common. Patriarchy still matters.
We live in a world, where the leader of a Western nation has to contend with a man telling her to make an ‘honest woman of herself’. We live in a world, where one in three women will be subjected to domestic violence. We live in a nation, where a woman trying to do her job as the Prime Minister of Australia is denigrated on the basis of her gender. So, why should it surprise us that in Australia ‘In 2009 – 2010, 21% of all complaints to the Australian Human Rights Commission were under the Sex Discrimination Act, and 88% of those complaints related to sex discrimination in the workplace.’ (see http://www.hreoc.gov.au/sexualharassment/index.html#sh3). These things have nothing to do with each other, right?
So, whilst we argue about what brand of patriarchy matters and which flavour of sexism we should be resisting and what we should just let slide, three women in the United States die at the hands of their partners every day. In Australia- another country, another world away, fifty five percent of all female homicides are perpetrated by intimate partners (http://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/pubs/BN/2011-2012/DVAustralia#_Toc309798390). In the process of arguing about what constitutes ‘misogyny’ or ‘sexism’ and which aspects of a deeply sexist society predispose women to experience domestic violence, women are dying. We shy away from the term ‘female genocide’ because there is no army perpetrating this violence (as if patriarchy would need one!) But all these things have nothing to do with each other, right?
In one nation, a President – perhaps with some measure of desperation- calls for national attention to be directed towards the victims of domestic violence in October. In another nation, a Prime Minister is called ‘a cow.’ But these things have nothing to do with each other, right?
These were some of the comments in response to Olivia Fleming’s article about the outrage over the above-pictured cover (see http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2204521/Is-domestic-violence-Vogue-Anger-choking-cover-featuring-Stephanie-Seymour.html?ito=feeds-newsxml):-
I have a troubled relationship with the word ‘evidence’ and I was reminded of this reading the article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/sep/14/central-park-rape-sparks-debate?CMP=twt_gu this week.
The word reminds me of police officers, intimating that an apprehended violence order was unlikely to be sustained in court because a woman’s obvious fear of the perpetrator and her testimony about past acts was unlikely to constitute sufficient ‘evidence’ to meet the legal standard that ‘on the balance of probabilities’ it was more likely than not that a reasonable person in her circumstances would be afraid and required legal protection.
So, it was somewhat disturbing to note in the above-mentioned article, that the sexual assault of a 73 year old woman in a public place may have been retaliation against her taking a photograph of her attacker masturbating in this public space. The article notes that the ‘more women use technology to document egregious behavior, the more they ensure that the offenders could be brought to justice.’
And I want to share this optimistic outlook. However, I have held a shaking woman’s hand when a police officer told her oh-so-gently that the 72 texts she had received in 3 hours from her ex-partner, which she had painstakingly saved, did not meet the standard of proof for demonstrating ‘on the balance of probabilities’ (not, ‘beyond reasonable doubt’, mind you!) that she required protection from harassment. Furthermore, it is troubling also that women, like this brave 73 year old bird-watcher, may be putting themselves at risk of abuse by documenting ‘egregious behaviour.’ Ironically, women are compelled to ‘use technology to document egregious behaviour’ because the legal system discounts claims of rape, for example, as ‘he said/she said’.
There are values shaping what constitutes evidence and, as much as we might like to believe that these are neutral, in a patriarchal society, patriarchal norms and values will shape what counts as evidence. It is one of the reasons for under-reporting. Some years ago, a child protection worker told me matter-of-factly that children make horrible witnesses because they are poor historians and that this makes the prosecution of child sexual assault very difficult. So, there are certainly values at play. The violence against women and children is not so abhorrent that we view the lack of prosecutions resulting from value-laden concepts of evidence as a reason to challenge our notions of what constitutes evidence. We assume that women and children reporting abuse, often at considerable emotional cost, are lying. Therefore, 73 year old women take photos and a perpetrator, who has already violated her once, violates her again. There’s got to be something wrong with a concept of evidence that allows this to happen…
“If we’re serious about preventing the toll of family violence, we need to properly support family violence death reviews that operate according to evidence-based best practice and consult with community experts in family violence.”
In the 2003 study, ‘Risk factors for femicide in abusive relationships: Results from a multi-site case control study’ Campbell, et al concluded that the following were ‘predictors’ of potential intimate partner femicide:
Dr Atmore’s comments reflect the stark fact that domestic homicides are predictable, but we currently treat them as if they are not. When Campbell et al (2003) note that: ‘Under these types of conditions [i.e. when a perpetrator has a previous arrest for domestic violence], arrest can indeed be protective against domestic violence escalating to lethality’ (p. 1092), they hint at the fact that our system actually has the tools to prevent domestic homicides, but we don’t. Simply put, if we take previous arrests for domestic violence seriously and incarcerate repeat perpetrators, we would reduce domestic homicides. But we don’t.
Significantly, a perpetrator’s use of illicit drugs is a risk factor in intimate partner femicide. For me, this statistic has a personal resonance. In 2006, I contacted a senior police officer about an innovative DV program in NSW,
‘What’s your secret?’ I asked.
‘We target perpetrators [of DV] for their drug offences. We figure… if we can’t get them off the streets for the domestic violence, we can use the drug offences.’
Whilst this approach was evidence-based and a cause for applause, in one sense (after all, perpetrators of domestic violence were being kept off the street!), the police officer’s answer saddened me. Domestic violence was not a sufficient cause for incarceration. A perpetrator’s drug use was.
Herein, lies my ambivalence about domestic violence death reviews. I embrace domestic violence death reviews because I believe that domestic violence death reviews will help us understand domestic violence and its relation to domestic homicides better. On the other hand, I worry that other correlates of domestic homicides – like illicit drug use- will get prioritised in the fight to end domestic violence.
Don’t get me wrong. In a patriarchal society, a domestic violence death review is better than no domestic violence death review. But let’s not kid ourselves. Domestic violence causes domestic homicide. Incarcerating perpetrators of domestic violence prevents domestic homicide.
Campbell, J. C., Webster, D., Koziol-McLain, J., Block, C., Campbell, D.,
Curry, M. A., Gary, F., Glass, N. McFarlane, J., Sachs, C., Sharps, P.,
Ulrich, Y., Wilt, S. A., Mangello, J., Xu, X., Schollenberger, J., Frye, V. &
Laughton, K., 2003, ‘Risk factors for femicide in abusive relationships:
Results from a multisite case control study’, American Journal of Public
Health, vol. 93, no. 7, pp. 1089-97.
I was inspired this week to think about every day sexism in the context of my work after reading Laura Bates’ eloquent piece- http://blogs.independent.co.uk/2012/08/21/everyday-sexism-what%E2%80%99s-the-big-deal/.
‘The loyalty of social workers is often in the middle of conflicting interests’ is a fact acknowledged in the International Federation Social Worker’s Statement of Ethical Principles (see http://ifsw.org/policies/statement-of-ethical-principles/). In everyday practice, what this means is that you pick your battles…
So, my career is littered with examples of times, when I was not a very good feminist so I could be a good social worker. One vignette that comes to mind is shooting the breeze with a magistrate, who thought it was acceptable to slap a ‘hysterical’ woman to calm her down and frequently got frustrated by the weight of Apprehended Violence Orders on his calendar because ‘most of these cases could get sorted out with mediation, couldn’t they?’
The feminist in me wanted to challenge him, but the social worker, who has an understanding of human relationships, who is duty-bound to put my clients’ interests first was more cautious. I recognised his comment as a test. An old man now, who prided himself on very considered decisions, the magistrate was tentatively gauging how I made decisions about the women I supported. To spout feminism at him would be to ensure that he discounted much of my advocacy in his court-room as rantings of that feminist. So my response to his statement was far more restrained than the feminist in me was satisfied with…
That social work role involved liaison with police officers, trying to cross the thin blue line and form allegiances with mostly men, who carried their prejudices on their sleeves, at times. I can remember meeting a senior police officer, who commented, ‘Most of these women don’t know what’s good for them.’ His emphasis on ‘these’ and the blatant sexism of his comment was an opportunity for feminist education, but the experience of previous women in my role, who had clung to their feminist principles and challenged every example of sexism was not encouraging.
So, by suppressing my feminism, I was able to achieve good interagency relationships which benefitted my clients in court. That’s what I tell myself. I used my feminism in my interactions with the women I worked with, saved my zeal for supporting women and re-enforcing the unacceptability of domestic violence.
This week, I had a day like the one Laura Bates’ described. My relationships with GP’s and psychiatrists matter now. So, sitting with one of these people central to the well-being of my client, I gritted my teeth, as he called his colleagues ‘niggah!’, commented that he liked curvy women, wondered how a single woman had her sexual needs met…The response that was expected was an indulgent giggle. And I’m ashamed to say, I obliged.
In a rural community, where allegiances matter, where there are never enough GP’s and psychiatrists come and go… I would do a disservice to my clients by destroying these relationships and I know, from experience, that bruising the egos of people, who have spent a long time studying so they can call themselves doctors, has consequences for my clients. That’s what I tell myself.
When I got a spam text message that evening reading simply ‘niggah!’, I was repulsed, revolted and slightly paranoid. Had I inspired this taunt by betraying my discomfort? When I rationalised that this was just a spam that had nothing to do with my day, I realised how the weight of everyday sexism builds up- even for someone, like me, who identifies as a feminist.
So, this week I came to a decision, which has been kind of liberating. All of it matters or none of it does. The everyday sexism is part of the same patriarchy that keeps women trapped in abusive relationships. I can’t fight one without fighting the other. So, on Monday, when I return to work in a mainstream bureaucratic organisation, I’ll be wearing my feminism on my sleeve. I’ll let you know how it goes…
I was silent in response to Hubert Farnarckle Jr @ERN_Malleyscrub‘s (some would call) witty tweet ‘Next time I open a door for a woman, I’ll try not to rape, genitally mutilate, DV her or reduce her pay with my spare hand, ok?’. The tweet came in response to my comment that this week’s debate about the opening of doors did not negate the very legitimate concerns of feminism including rape, genital mutilation, pay inequity and domestic violence. My reading of Hubert Farnarckle Jr @ERN_Malleyscrub‘s original tweet ‘#Feminism – Complaining about men opening doors for women in a world without enough houses. Thanks for the perspective’ was that the writer was trying to discredit the feminist movement because feminists were debating the opening of doors for women. The tyranny of 140 characters is that is often difficult to express sentiments that require numerous paragraphs to explore appropriately. So, perhaps I misread the intent of the writer’s tweet. Likewise, perhaps he misread the intent of my tweets.
Nonetheless, the exchange does highlight one of the dilemmas that the feminist movement faces. As Tong noted in Feminist Thought: A More Comprehensive Introduction (1989:223) meanings of feminism ‘are ever-changing’. Certainly, later editions of the book incorporate new ‘strands’ of feminism, including eco-feminism, for example (Tong 2008). Similarly, as far back as 1986, Delmar’s paper ‘What is Feminism?’ rejected the possibility of defining feminism because of contemporary feminism’s fragmentation (1986:9). Farganis (cited in Dickens andFontana1994:106) essentialises one of the problems in assuming a universal feminism, when she writes:- ‘Can we reconcile the diversity of women’s experiences … so as to retain the idea that women see the world in ways that men do not? … [Arguably]… if women are so different, might they not find it difficult to agree on political strategy, action or politics?’ (Farganis cited in Dickens and Fontana 1994: 116-117).
Whilst Hubert Farnarckle Jr @ERN_Malleyscrub‘s contention may appeal to some feminists, who wonder why we are debating the feminist ethics of allowing a man to open the door for us, the difficulty is that patriarchy is so pervasive and yet so taken-for-granted that discussion illuminating its existence is, arguably, inherently valuable. Sexism manifests itself in the everyday (some would say trivial), eg. in sexist jokes. Sexism also manifests itself in the human rights abuses and the criminal acts of rape and domestic violence. In illuminating the sexism in the everyday, we do not necessarily do so at the expense of illuminating the sexism in the more serious experiences of patriarchy that women experience every day. We merely highlight the pervasiveness of sexism.
Patriarchy maintains gender inequity and patriarchy impacts on all women’s experiences of being women. The consequences of patriarchy are manifested in many different experiences- from the mildly irritating to experiences that threaten women’s health (both mental and physical), safety and snuff out some women’s lives. Changing patriarchal cultures begins with highlighting patriarchy in all its forms.
Dismissing feminism whole-sale because some discussions of patriarchy seem less relevant or interesting than others is lazy politics. Yes, as a white Western woman, who is fairly affluent, I have the luxury of thinking and debating the appropriateness of men opening doors. That most certainly doesn’t mean that I am committed to a politics that doesn’t include my homeless sisters, who have no doors and it is this assumption that I took issue with in Hubert Farnarckle Jr @ERN_Malleyscrub‘s tweet. Caring about how patriarchy impacts all women means uncovering the gender politics in the everyday and the mundane as well as the sexism that has international human rights relevance.
I care about all doors that shut in all women’s faces.