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The caged bird sings

This is a space where you can hear different voices; our staff and volunteers who have kept the Centre going over the last 40 years, our friends, colleagues and supporters from across the violence against women sector, and people who have used our services and want to share their experiences.

Because she is a woman

If it were between countries, we’d call it a war. If it were a disease, we’d call it an epidemic. If it were an oil spill, we’d call it a disaster. But it is happening to women, and it’s just an everyday affair.

Michael Kaufman: White Ribbon Campaign – Breaking the Silence to End Men’s Violence, Statement of Principles

Consider this …….

A disease is ravaging our planet. For those who contract this disease, the prognosis is poor. Physical injuries, some resulting in long term or permanent disability, are common. Mortality rates are high … in the UK one single form of this disease kills one woman every three days, with similar numbers in France, Ireland and Australia. In the US this form of the disease kills three women every day. In Brazil it’s reckoned that it kills between ten and fifteen women every day. In India, 70% of women suffer from this single form of the disease. In fact, globally, this disease is responsible for one third of all murders of women.

It kills or incapacitates more women in the 15 – 44 age group than all forms of cancer, and it also kills or incapacitates more women in this age group than war, road traffic accidents or malaria combined. It strikes mainly women and can begin even before they are born.

This disease increases the chance of our suffering other conditions and disabilities …. we may find that we suffer chronic pain from the injuries inflicted, it might impair some of our basic functions like our hearing or our sight, increase the chance of our suffering gastrointestinal problems like irritable bowel syndrome, our sexual health may be affected with sexually transmitted infections or injuries to our genitals, incontinence because of anal injuries or rupture. We will almost certainly have poor mental health, perhaps even post-traumatic stress disorder, may try to cope with this by getting medication from our doctor, medicating ourselves, drinking alcohol, taking drugs to block out the physical and emotional pain, and we might even try to deal with this disease by injuring ourselves, and if it all gets too much, by killing ourselves.

It is not an epidemic. It is a pandemic.

Pandemic [pan-dem.ik]


1. (of a disease) existing in almost all of an area or in almost all of a group of people, animals or plants.

This disease is destroying the lives of many and affecting the lives of all women across the world. Fear of this disease is with us almost from birth.

But of course, it’s not a disease. If it was, we would indeed be calling it a pandemic, discussing it at the highest levels of government, making strategies to combat it, to prevent another outbreak. But there are no outbreaks to fear. Violence against women is with us constantly. It’s not one identifiable disease but many. It can manifest as domestic abuse, rape, sexual assault, ‘honour’ crimes, forced marriage, female genital mutilation, stalking, sexual harassment, all forms of commercial sexual exploitation, right along the continuum from lads’ mags to human trafficking. It is all pervasive and though it has been directly experienced by one third of women, it affects all of the women on the planet.

Violence against women is a major public health issue, it is having a huge impact on world economies, it is denying many years of productive life to millions of women. It is a pandemic: a silent pandemic.

Violence against women = shame. It’s that simple. We have clothed this issue in shame, blamed the victims, excused the perpetrators and ensured its continuation shrouded in silent protection.

The numbers we have tell us this story. But it’s not the real story. Because of the shame and blame surrounding this violence and abuse we don’t hear the whole story. How many people do you know contracted Swine Flu, or Bird Flu or any of the other ‘pandemic’ diseases that we were told were going to wipe out the planet? We’d hazard a guess that it’s not many. Yet governments mobilised, strategies put in place, preparations made.

How many women do you know who have experienced some form of violence and abuse in their lifetimes? Each and every one of us will know women who have experienced some form of domestic or sexual violence. It may be us, someone in our family, friends, colleagues or neighbours. It’s not likely to be openly discussed and we are very unlikely to ask someone if they have ever experienced that kind of violence or abuse. But ask the question, scratch the surface and what you may find is that you hear ….

“I wasn’t actually raped but there was that time on holiday ……”

“My last boyfriend was pretty suffocating and controlling ….. of course he never, ever hit me.”

“When I was married my ex was really violent, but it was the drink. When he was sober he was a different man,”

So, “what on earth is going on?” we say. “Who is responsible for this violence?” “Whose fault is it?” “How can it be allowed to happen?” “What can we do about it?” “Who are these people who behave like that?” “What are the police doing about it?” “What is the government doing?” “Who are they, these abusers? Why are they allowed to do this?”

We need to blame someone, to make sense of it all. To admit to ourselves that a rapist may be our next door neighbour, our workmate, our cousin, our friend, our father, our husband, our son is terrifying. It is terrifying because we think we know that a rapist, a wife beater, a child molester is ‘other’. He is identifiable, not someone we know. When we see ‘mugshots’ of sex offenders on television we assure ourselves that we would have known and spoken out if we had seen this man. We question how he managed to evade capture when it was so obvious that he was evil. We feel safe when we think we can identify an abuser. We feel in control.

We also need to be able to feel that someone is paying for their crimes, to apportion blame. But the way we apportion blame can shift again and again, usually depending upon the ‘victim’. If the victim is elderly, frail or is a small child we can assure ourselves that the perpetrator is ‘sick’ or ‘deranged’. Headlines such as “Sick paedophile ex-policeman plotted vile fantasy to conceive a baby to rape and abuse” (Daily Mirror: 26.02.15) will reassure us that this person is not like anyone we would know.

If the victim is young, attractive and drunk, then the tables turn and she must assume responsibility for the sexual violence because of her behaviour, “Barrister sparks outcry by claiming men should be cleared of rape if the victim was drunk” (Independent: 06.02.15). The barrister in question was David Osborne who wrote in his blog, “I have a very simple solution which I hope you will agree is fair. If the complainant (I do not refer to her as the victim) was under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or both, when she was ‘raped’, this provides the accused with a complete defence. End of story and a victory for fairness, moderation and common sense!” And we agree. Don’t these girls know how to protect themselves? Haven’t we been telling them for years to keep themselves safe? What do they expect if they get into such a state? We rarely, if ever, question why we don’t tell men that they should not rape drunk or comatose women. And of course we reinforce the myth that rapists are strangers who will take advantage of a drunken woman and then melt into the night. It’s easy for us to ignore the stats that tell us that only 8% of rapes are committed by strangers.

“Domestic abuse? If it’s that bad, she should just pack up and leave and take the kids with her.” Simple. End of story. No debate. Leaving, that’s the answer. If she doesn’t leave then she’s to blame. “Once a victim, twice a volunteer.” Never heard that old one? How many times have we heard such statements being made? Maybe we have even made these statements, or used similar judgements ourselves. This helps us to apportion the blame, but not for the abuse itself. The blame is for the woman who lives with it. And the statistics that tell us that 48% of domestic abuse incidents recorded by police happen after separation?

We routinely ignore intimate partner homicide. In fact women being murdered by their partners has become so commonplace we don’t even report it any more unless there’s something unusual about the crime, such as the perpetrator is, or has been in the public eye or in a position of power, or there has been some additional salacious information that will attract the reader to the news item. And intimate partner sexual violence is one of the most invisible. We still harbour a belief that rape by a partner is a vicious act where a woman is pinned down and viciously assaulted rather than an act of coercive terror. We almost never see it because women almost never speak of it.

Many of us will shake our heads over our newspapers, wonder what the world is coming to and then move on to the next page.

And we do this because when we are not blaming the victims, we are viewing the abusive or homicidal behaviour as the work of the ‘bad apples’. It’s rare, not something that impacts on our lives, not our business. We see violence against women as the work of a few individuals against a few other individuals. But if that’s the case, why is it that it is experienced by one third of the world’s female population?

The female population of the world in 2014 is just over 3.4 billion. One third of that number is 1.13 billion. That is approximately 1,130,000,000 women on this planet experiencing some form of gender based abuse during their lifetime. This is not the work of a few bad apples.

Philip Zimbardo is the man who supervised the infamous Stanford University Prison Experiment in the 1970s. He has studied power and control for many years and more recently looked at the atrocities committed by US service personnel at Abu Ghraib prison. Zimbardo talks about bad apples, though the question he asks is not focused not on the bad apples, or whether or not there was even a bad barrel of apples. The question he asks is ‘Who is the barrel maker?’ Both the Stanford Experiment and Abu Ghraib depended on an invisible overseer, someone who was looking the other way, yet absolving the perpetrators of any responsibility for their actions. In the Stanford experiment it was by design, to see what would happen by giving a group of people permission to do what they wanted without fear of retribution (it would never make it past the ethics committees these days, thank goodness). In the case of Abu Ghraib, it was also by design, to ‘soften up’ the prisoners for interrogation. The guards were also a group of people given permission to do what they wanted without fear of retribution. There was no ethics committee, the barrel maker did his work and stood aside. Society approved.

So, how does this relate in any way to violence against women? Because there is more than one barrel maker. And it relates to violence against women because there is a system, a power structure that we all live within, which places women’s lives, needs and safety beneath the lives, needs and safety of men. When those of us who work in this field of male violence against women speak the word patriarchy, many people shut down. “Oh god, it’s the feminazis at it again”, they sigh wearily. But not saying the word, not recognising the structure that supports the barrel maker, serves only to encourage and collude with those individual bad apples.

Patriarchy []

- noun

1. A society in which the oldest male is the leader of the family, or a society controlled by men in which they use their power to their own advantage.

Having a few prominent female world leaders or business leaders does not mean that patriarchy does not exist or is on the wane. Men are over-represented as leaders in society’s political, legal and economic structures. Men lead at both micro and macro levels in government, in communities and in the home. Within that patriarchal structure, decisions are made that tend to benefit the lives of men. “Aren’t we getting off the point here?” No, the point is that we live in a patriarchy where rules, laws and culture are created and upheld by men so, when the law or organisational policies do not support women, how can we tackle the issue of male violence against women and children effectively? Patriarchy is dependent on our silence to keep its power. Male violence against women is one tool in the patriarchal arsenal.

The United Nations defines gender based violence as violence that is experienced by a woman, because she is a woman. That simple, single statement shows that women are not equal. The UN goes on to tell us that GBV is experienced disproportionately by women and perpetrated predominantly by men. The knowledge that it surrounds us and the fear of that violence serves to control all women.

This inequality is seen in many, many ways. In the levels of poverty disproportionately experienced by women, in the scale of sexual exploitation across the world and in the singular lack of status accorded to women. Through the deluge of pornography that swamps our everyday lives and reduces us to a collection of penetrable body parts; through the entitlement of men to our labour, our bodies and our children, and the way that our voices are derided and silenced when we speak out about the atrocities that are committed against us. We are not equal.

What can we do about it? We can stop standing over the barrel and fishing out any bad apples that make their way to the surface. We can stop blaming those who are living with the violence and abuse and start looking at the system that supports and upholds it and asking out loud why we are supporting that. We can stop looking at our television screens at reports of women beaten, maimed, held prisoner for years in cellars, attics and dungeons and pretending that there is no common thread running through these acts of atrocity. They are not individual acts committed by individual bad apples. They are part of the pandemic.

We can stop putting our fingers in our ears when we hear the word ‘patriarchy’ and think about what it means to all of us, think about who benefits and who suffers. Yes, we need to tackle the day to day issues by supporting the survivors and penalising the abusers, but if that’s all we ever do, then that’s all we will ever be doing.

It’s a huge task but as they say ….. “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step”.

Isabelle Kerr

April 2015

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