Moments of crisis, such as this pandemic, are often viewed as periodic interruptions to an otherwise normal landscape. And what occurs during these supposed blips are often attributed a status specific to these disruptive events.
Except we know from other crises that this is not reflective of reality. I have spent many years working in global crises caused by armed conflicts, often viewed as momentary, albeit violently devastating events, after which societies are expected to “go back to normal”.
I have seen first hand that while women experience increased levels of gendered violence as a result of such crises, that violence only appears and has meaningful effect because of the normalised ways women were subjected to violence and discrimination prior to that crisis.
It is becoming more and more clear how our pre-crisis normal endures as well as influences the current crisis we are in, starkly evident when viewed through the lens of gender, racial and wider inequalities: an Ipsos survey found that women are suffering more anxiety and insomnia than men due to increased pressures of work, family and care; in the UK, black women are 4.3 times more likely than white women to die with Covid-19; Sarah Everard is murdered as she makes her way home; murders of women in Northern Ireland and Scotland are reported within days of each other last week; Women’s Aid experiences a 41 per cent increase in calls since lockdown, while their recent research shows that young women are experiencing a surge in image-based and online sexual abuse since March last year.
A virus in and of itself does not discriminate. People, systems and institutions do. The disparities reflect what happens when a contagious virus arrives on to political, economic, social, religious and cultural systems that are built on, infused by and reliant for their sustenance and profit on gender, racial, economic and broader structural inequalities. These inequalities determine how this crisis plays out in the same way that they determine women’s particular susceptibility to men’s violence.
I have a growing concern that the current heightened visibility of inequalities and of violence towards women, which the UN estimates to have increased globally, will be put down to the “exceptional” circumstances of this pandemic. There has been a common thread among the reporting of the murder of women over the past few weeks: that these events are rare and exceptional. Indeed, this is an important observation. Women’s organisations have worked hard for decades to bring into view a clear-eyed understanding that women most commonly experience violence from men known to them.
However, attribution of exceptionalism here is not just erroneous, but also serves to occlude that which we do not wish to see, admit or do anything about. Putting such events into context matters.
In Ireland, we all know the names of women such as Josephine Dollard, Deirdre Jacobs and many others who have disappeared. We know of Kate Mulhern, who in 2019, aged 17, fought off would-be abductors in Meath. We have also recently read the deluge of social media posts in response to Sarah Everard’s murder, where women have described the multitudes of narrow escapes when followed, harassed on the street or public transport, or locked into taxis. Those incidents don’t get counted in the exceptional “kidnapped and murdered” box, or indeed any other box. Coercive control is increasingly evident as a feature in many women’s relationships, as they are isolated from family members, some locked into their homes all day – held by their captor. We have listened, aghast, to the podcast Where Is George Gibney?, where many girls were held in locker rooms and bathrooms, taken to hotel rooms and driven in cars, for the purposes of sexual abuse. The UN estimates that 137 women are killed by a partner or family member every day.
Taken all together, it paints quite the picture. To present it in any other way, or to frame specific incidents or what we are seeing in this pandemic as existing outside of this very real context, takes away from the reality of the continuum of violence in women’s lives in the home, on the streets, in work and in social places and the spaces in between, such as when simply moving from one place to the next, as Sarah Everard was.
Research by Transport Infrastructure Ireland shows that large numbers of women feel unsafe using public transport, cycling or walking alone, and 55 per cent say they would not use public transport after dark. The research tellingly finds that women themselves feel “heavily responsible” for their own safety.
If before the pandemic this was the context of women’s lives – and according to the UN, one in three women globally experience violence in their relationships – what do we expect to see other than continuing, if not increased levels, of that violence, particularly when response measures do not place the omnipresent violence in women’s lives at their core? And if we are seeing increased reporting of gendered violence during this pandemic, what do we think is going to happen after we emerge from it? That it will simply go away?
In the aftermath of the armed conflicts that I have worked in, many women’s rights activists expose the fallacy that a return to normal post-crisis brings us back to a place of peace. That place that we return to is not after all a peaceful one for women. How can it be, when it will not only reflect the realities of pre-crisis violence outlined but will also now be influenced by the increases in violence that result from the crisis.
Do I want to “go back to normal” – to return to that place before the pandemic? No. In that normal place we live, as women, with an everyday in which we have to think, plan, do the emotional, practical and psychological work of reducing our risk of exposure to men’s violence. I want to move forward to a place where it’s not women’s responsibility to do that.
The real question for us as we sit out the lockdown is how can we recalibrate our normal so that it is transformed to embrace the possibility of real change to the gender, racial and broad-ranging inequalities that create and exacerbate very normalised harms in all of our lives and in some people’s lives in particular ways.
Aisling Swaine is professor of gender studies at University College Dublin. She was named by A-Political as one the world’s 100 most influential people in gender policy 2021