Note: this article contains references to sexual violence and harassment which some readers may find upsetting
Falling on the 8th of March each year, International Women’s Day often brings panel discussions on Women in Business, shops filled with bunches of flowers and boxes of chocolates For Her, and songs asking us Who Run The World. In light of this, it is easy to forget the roots of IWD; when women textile workers in St Petersburg, 1917 went on strike at the beginning of the February revolution, demanding Bread and Peace.
In Ireland, International Women’s Day pre-2018 was marked with a march demanding a repeal of the 8th amendment. Repeal politicised swathes of young people, who became part of an active movement demanding bodily autonomy and reproductive justice. Currently, many of those politicised by the campaign for repeal are turning to movements around tackling sexual violence as the next step for the feminist movement. In Ireland and abroad, high profile cases involving sexual violence have highlighted the plight of rape culture, and the justice system’s failure to protect victims.
In 1993, Lavinia Kerwick was the first woman in Ireland to waive her right to anonymity, after her rapist was acquitted. Kerwick (then 19) campaigned for the introduction of victim impact statements, and the right to appeal lenient sentences. “I went public and in many ways I exposed the court system for the very first time and how that system treated victims. The guilt and shame does not belong to you, it belongs to the rapist.”
In 2015, Chanel Miller was sexually assaulted by Stanford swimmer Brock Turner behind a dumpster at a frat party while she was unconscious. Her victim impact statement, published online days after Turner’s sentencing, sharply criticised the court proceeding’s focus on Turner’s ‘bright future’ as an athlete, and his legal team’s attempts to frame the case as an example on the perils of binge drinking. “Alcohol was not the one who stripped me, fingered me, had my head dragging against the ground, with me almost fully naked.” Miller waived her anonymity in 2019 to speak out against the insultingly meagre six month sentence handed down to her abuser when she published her memoir, Know My Name.
“Ireland’s housing crisis means victims of domestic abuse are often faced with either staying in an abusive relationship, or becoming homeless.”
On the 28th of March two years ago, rugby player Paddy Jackson was acquitted of the rape of a young woman at a house party, sparking protests under the banner of I Believe Her, and We Stand With Her, to show solidarity with all victims of sexual crime, and voice opposition to the misogyny of both Jackson, and the ensuing court proceedings.
These cases, in conjunction with the trial of disgraced director Harvey Weinstein, demonstrate the common intersection of rape culture and economic and social privilege.
“I’m not going to the police, I’m not going up against Ulster Rugby. Yeah, because that’ll work.”- a message the woman at the centre of the Belfast rape trial sent to a friend the day after the alleged rape.
“I was told he (Turner) hired a powerful attorney, expert witnesses, private investigators who were going to try and find details about my personal life to use against me.” – from Chanel Miller’s victim impact statement.
During the course of the gruelling, high profile case, Weinstein’s defence team claimed that his victims were not truly victims because they needed something from the influential Weinstein, a line of argument which surely belonged to the prosecution, given it alluded to the significant power imbalance between the accused and the many plaintiffs.
#MeToo predominantly exists as a hashtag and a protest movement. The challenge is to translate it into cultural and legislative change. To truly deliver justice for victims of sexual violence and abuse, #MeToo must be linked to a strong campaign for economic justice which serves all women, not just those in the upper echelons of society whose power is often used as a marker of progress. Funding for rape crisis centres, and adequate housing should be an indicator of how society treats women. The number of female CEOs per capita, or the quantity of ‘feminist’ embossed merchandise sold each March should not.
Ireland’ housing crisis means victims of domestic abuse are often faced with either staying in an abusive relationship, or becoming homeless. This is the kind of ‘choice’ the feminist movement should be concerned with, not the choice of which conservative female TD (who opposes social housing or anti eviction legislation) you can vote for. Two years ago, on the same day the government released the homelessness figure of 9,724, the housing group Take Back The City displayed a banner by the Ha’penny bridge which read ‘Housing Cuts Make Women Bleed.’ As of January of this year, the homelessness number stands at 10,271 (Focus Ireland).
“Funding for rape crisis centres, and adequate housing should be an indicator of how society treats women. The number of female CEOs per capita, or the quantity of ‘feminist’ embossed merchandise sold each March should not.”
Earlier this year, several women came forward to speak out about the disturbing trend of Dublin landlords demanding sex in exchange for rent. The #SexIsNotRent scandal, which highlighted the plight of those in precarious housing shows that feminist movements cannot be limited to meaningless pontification about ‘girl power,’ or workshops about knitting pink genitalia shaped hats.
Women working in the hospitality sector are also commonly affected by rarely reported sexual harassment. This issue has been taken up by the trade union movement, with Unite the Union’s campaign ‘Not On The Menu,’ which called for the need to reinstate the duty to protect staff from third party harassment, a measure scrapped by the government in 2013.
Tackling endemic sexual violence must take on the gross inequality of a society in which wealthy and powerful men are so often let off the hook, and provide real support for women economically trapped in abusive circumstances. Ultimately, feminism must be reframed as a class issue.
If you have been effected by any of the issues discussed in this article, the Rape Crisis Centre runs a 24 hour helpline: 1800 77 8888.