A Brief History of Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG)
Updated: Dec 27, 2020
Gender-based violence is a worldwide issue. It exists in almost every culture and country on earth and has been accepted and condoned in history for centuries. ‘One in three women will experience violence in her lifetime’, and as a result, she will be deprived of her human rights and put at risk of mental and physical health problems.
Violence against women remains a key factor undermining women's ability to participate as full and equal citizens.
Patriarchal privilege began to occur ‘around the third to the second millennium BCE’. Much like it does today, this privilege existed based on the ideology that women were seemingly inferior and different to men. As a result, it was believed that the violence and subjection of deviants (mainly women during this period) was a necessary factor in maintaining a well-ordered society.
Over 2000 years ago, Roman law meant a man had ‘life and death authority over his wife’. Little changed here until the 19th century, with men still being able to discipline their wives with force until the introduction of the Aggravated Assaults Act of 1853. When presented, the bill aimed to extend women's rights to that of animals under the Cruelty of Animals Act. Before this, ‘a person was liable to corporal punishment for cutting a shrib, and might be imprisoned for three months...for ill-treating a dog; but in the case of a woman he might be fined only £5’. The act became dubbed as the ‘Women’s Protection Act’, increasing fines and prison sentences. However, fast forward a few months, and the new act had not been working as a deterrent, in 1860 Viscount Enfield told the House of Commons that the Aggravated Assaults Act had been a failure.
Fast forward to the 1970s, the second wave of feminism erupted in conjunction with the women’s liberation movement. In 1974, the national charity Women’s Aid was founded. The 70s suddenly saw an increase in feminist campaigns such as Reclaim the Night, and the coining of the term ‘rape culture’. Protests erupted throughout the decade as a response to the frequent violence against women across the UK.
Marches in 1979 attracted thousands of women from across the globe, demanding ‘justice for rape victims’ and addressing the ‘reality that women worldwide’ feared sexual violence in public spaces every day. The Reclaim the Night protests became so popular that they re-emerged in the 21st century, and have recently celebrated its tenth anniversary in London in 2014.
This century has seen a myriad of different events and campaigns take hold across the globe advocating for women's rights and the end of VAWG. However, countless historical issues are still present and still impacting the rights of women.
The 70s also saw the development of the Sex Discrimination Act (1975), outlawing sexual discrimination in the workplace, and the Domestic Violence and Matrimonial Proceedings Act (1976) allowing married women the right to stay at home without the abuser.
It is alarming, and often hard to believe, that rape in marriage only became a criminal offence in 2003. The first mention of marital rape came in a 1736 treatise and argued that ‘the husband of a woman cannot himself be guilty of an actual rape upon his wife, on account of the matrimonial consent which she has given, and which she cannot retract’. Not only did this treatise impact English law, but it also became the basis for other countries to follow with similar legislation. Although it may be outlawed in the UK today, a study between 2014 and 2015 found that ten countries still permit marital rape.
The Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) Act of 2003 is another example of crucial legislation needed to protect women and girls. It set up the mandatory reporting of FGM to the police and carries a maximum penalty of 14 years’ imprisonment.
2010 and beyond
The passing of Clare’s Law in 2014 has allowed for police to disclose to individuals details of their partners’ abusive pasts. The scheme's introduction provides people with the opportunity and information about their partner if they are worried about potentially violent situations.
In 2016, the #MeToo movement went viral, starting conversations around the world about the prevalence of sexual harassment. It was started by Tarana Burke, a Black woman whose work and contribution has been consistently erased from the movement. This erasure is commonplace. The misogynoir that Black women face has led to the violence they experience being normalised and overlooked by the VAWG sector and the state.
In the UK, the year 2020 saw the Domestic Abuse Bill's introduced into Parliament, creating a statutory definition of domestic abuse that includes and emphasises all its variations. However, this legislation does not go far enough - it must prioritise the safety and liberty of all women. Migrant women must have access to state protection, regardless of their immigration status. The exclusion of migrant women from the bill in its current form reminds us that all too often the most marginalised women and non-binary people are excluded and erased from our understanding and solutions to the problem of VAWG.
Although more research is being conducted, more awareness spread, and more legislation is enacted, gender-based violence has not gone away. Cultural change needs to accompany legislative change in order for a real impact to be had within society. Both these approaches to tackling VAWG must foreground ideas of intersectionality if they wish to be succesful.
This problem is not on its way out. In fact, with the Coronavirus pandemic, many fear that women's safety and freedom from violence has only become more at risk, a surge in violence dubbed the 'shadow pandemic' by UN Women.
Violence against women and girls has been and continues to be a awful reality in the lives of women, girls and marginalised genders. Our Streets Now is tackling one form of VAWG; public sexual harassment.
Here are five other organisations you can support to help end this culture of violence: