Notes on violence against women in the neoliberal age
In the neoliberal era, while violence structures the lives of the poor across the world, the injustice of these lives is profoundly gendered, says V Geetha. It is the poor and marginal woman's body that bears the burden of both keeping her family together as well as labour for very low rates, thereby making sure wages stay depressed at all times. In the bargain, her children, her kin, in short the community that she makes with her labour of care, are also doomed to reproduce the self-same cycle of exploitation.
AS I write this in the third week of February, I see all around me signs of the latest global campaign to protest violence against women: the One Billion Women Rising (OBR) event coordinated by the playwright Eve Ensler from the United States who went viral with her provocative play, The Vagina Monologues. Ending violence, the campaign proclaims, is as important as ending poverty, fighting climate change and global warming, ending wars.
Known worldwide as VAW, that is, violence against women, this phenomenon appears so given that even attempts to describe it, such as the acronym VAW itself, only end up naturalising it. In other words, this violence appears irrevocable, almost inevitable, as the statistics that come attached to these campaigns tell us: in this instance we have been told that one in three women on our planet can expect to endure physical hurt in her lifetime.
However, the act of violence is seldom singular - it is not a single act, merely, which a man commits and a woman endures. Sexual violence or more generally violence against women informs and expresses the very essence of authority: to harm and assault a woman in the most casual sort of way, be it by powerful ruling-class men, or men from socially dominant classes, or by personnel of the state, appears to be the very hallmark of impunity. It is this impunity which produces sexual harassment, makes for highly exploitative workplace cultures, renders state personnel opaque to criticism, and places women in such vulnerable and risky positions whenever the societies they are part of experience major crises or disruptions, such as we are witnessing in places like Syria and Libya, and closer to home in Sri Lanka. In this sense sexual violence is one of the most acute expressions of power that takes itself for granted; from the man on the street who stalks a woman to men in a nation's armed forces, they are all equally convinced of women's inferior status, of her being an object available for male pleasure, and it is this conviction which renders their position on gender unassailable.
However, I do not wish to dwell overmuch on what makes for the existence of impunity that is fundamentally gendered - it is something that many of us across the world live with, endure and resist. Instead I would like to rethink the problem of sexual violence from another position, which is not unknown but does not nearly get the same critical attention as singular acts of violence, as is evident from the OBR campaign against violence.
Violence as structure
Whether inevitable or not, violence structures the lives of the poor across the world: the violence of dispossession, hunger, malnutrition, long hours of unremitting labour and discrimination and humiliation which are built into their work and life environments. In this world, men as well as women survive precariously, though drawing on different skills and solidarities and clearly accessing options and resources available to them albeit on an unequal basis. Thus, the injustice of these lives is profoundly gendered: it is the poor and marginal woman's body that bears the burden of both keeping her family together as well as labour for very low rates, thereby making sure wages stay depressed at all times. In the bargain, her children, her kin, in short the community that she makes with her labour of care, are also doomed to reproduce the self-same cycle of exploitation.
This is what the world is like for women across the global South - be it in South Asia, South America, Africa or the countries of the Balkans - where the biggest challenge is the expansion of what may be called predatory capital, which has produced a global market that appears to know no rationale except its own profits, and is willing, therefore, to sell, market and ultimately destroy everything precious to human existence, including water, trees, grain. Faced with this pitiless logic of expropriation, whether by multinational mining, iron and steel businesses or companies that market water and air, women in poor, peasant, nomadic and working communities across the globe, but particularly in the global South, have had to work very hard and ingeniously to both confront challenges as well as circumvent them.
Predatory capital: Resistance and responses
What do a global profiteer and his national colleagues - global capital co-exists with and with the support of national governments in much of the global South, where increasingly national sovereignty is being defined in terms of state power, rather than the well-being of the people - typically do? To start with, they mark out terrain that they would like to work over for their industries; they identify populations that live on that terrain, and then work out schemes for getting them to comply with their industrial and market logic; and where compliance is not to be had, they resort to coercion, using their own private armies or looking to states and governments to support their will to plunder.
In India, for example, the entire central Indian region, and parts of the eastern plains and plateau, home to some of the country's richest mineral and forest wealth, are at present being held captive by global and local industries. Of the latter, many have recently begun to expand their interests across the world, particularly in the countries of the former Soviet Far East and parts of Africa, and may therefore be considered 'global' in their own right. In order to get at the mines, companies have resorted to terrorising, shifting and destroying entire populations, which in the Indian instance comprise a large number of indigenous communities. Known as adivasis, these people of the forest and fastness are being literally thrown out of their homes and fields. Attempts to protest are immediately countered with force, arrests, murders, both judicial and non-judicial.
In such a context, women bear the brunt of the tensions, and also because in many terrains they are in the forefront of the struggle. Women who thus have put their lives on the line have had to reckon with police interrogations, custodial violence and vile sexual assault by both the minions of the state as well as the hired goons of capital. There are other issues at stake as well: the loss of livelihoods, when lands are taken over, has meant that families migrate in search of work. Where men migrate initially, women, children and the elderly stay behind, and in such cases, the burden of survival is borne almost entirely by women. Whether having to protect their fragile peasant economies, or enter into strategic negotiations with the brokers of capital and industry, women are forced to walk the knife-edge in an everyday sense.
Sometimes women migrate too, with their families, or even on their own - and are forced to be part of a labour pool that is employed for uncertain periods of time and often for very depressed wages, with almost no safety at workplaces and certainly no laws in place against sexual harassment or assault. Migrating single women stand to be trafficked, or sometimes voluntarily enter the sex trade, and in either case cannot expect to have any guarantees against assault: only when there is a possibility of organised action have women sex workers experienced a measure of autonomy, as has been made evident in places where such organisations exist, like in parts of India, the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam.
Yet this is not all. Women resist, and have made it clear that the hills, the rivers and the coast are theirs and meant for them and their unborn generations. This maternalism which goes beyond the familial has helped draw hundreds of women into the struggle - for instance in southern India's Tamil Nadu state, which has for over 550 days witnessed a struggle against a Russian and French-supported nuclear plant, women have time and again drawn attention to their roles as guardians of life, and argued vociferously against energy options that strengthen the hands of the rich and take away from the poor, that help the cities to live and grow while disenfranchising all those who have to part with their share of resources that the city's affluent populations may live.
The market and its many contexts: A gendered critique
In such a context, what is the everyday life of a working-class, disenfranchised woman in the global South? How may we understand the violence that she endures, negotiates and confronts? While the larger picture is bleak and extremely worrying, the fact remains that in any number of contexts, women affected by the effects of the new market economies are not mere victims. In the Indian context, for instance, the presence of new manufacturing industries in the vicinity of small towns or rural populations that lie on the fringes of metropolitan centres such as Chennai or Delhi has meant that girls from working-class and lower-middle-class families have new work options: rather than settle for underpaid domestic labour, modest vending of goods, or service labour that is uncertain and often exploitative, young women have chosen factory labour.
This is not a new development: it has been noticed that women by and large have preferred the grind of a garment sweatshop to labouring on the fields, where they are the victims of not only capricious work conditions, the weather and limited number of workdays, but also of social control and humiliation. In India, where most of the labouring people come from the so-called subordinated castes, this latter can be a fairly traumatic, though everyday, experience. Factory labour, while exploitative, relentless and cruel in the manner it attaches workers to the grind of the assembly line, is yet better-paying in a relative sense, and while there is the ever-present threat of sexual harassment and coercion, chances are that social humiliation is less easy to enforce.
For women, then, the market, such as it is, allows a pyrrhic reprieve from an older and more resilient violence, of the caste system. However, this cannot be assumed and has to be precisely established: and much depends on where the factory is, the nature of the labour pool, especially its varied nature, and whether recruitment has been through local agents or directly through company-appointed personnel. Besides, even where women's lives have marginally improved, they still have to negotiate and fight for their dignity and survival.
The point is that the feminisation of certain kinds of labour is not accidental, and while it may pay provisional and temporary dividends, it cannot in the long run make for female labour mobility in the workplace or help women develop skills that will help them negotiate their terms in the workplace. There is a further twist to all of this: for instance, many factories in Tamil Nadu recruit women with the explicit promise that their wages will help them earn their dowry! This has led to all sorts of unfair labour practices and besides has helped sustain the pernicious practice of dowry, paid at the time of marriage to the groom's family, and through it a cycle of domestic humiliation and violence.
In another sense too, the growth of the market has put additional pressure on women from peasant or working-class communities. The structural adjustment regimes imposed on many countries in the South by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and its cohorts have resulted in the state withdrawing from its welfarist role. In countries like India, where the state's welfarism has translated into subsidies for agriculture through soft loans and the whole paraphernalia of the so-called 'green revolution', the sudden withdrawal of the state from this role and the concomitant problems that peasants are left with have led to the tragic phenomenon of farmers' suicides. While this has been identified and studied as a grievous social problem and elicited responses from policy makers, the nether side of this problem, of what a commentator has called the problems experienced by 'those who did not die', that is, the widows and daughters of the deceased, has been relatively ignored. The struggle for survival, the issue of loans, personal safety, sexual vulnerability and the burden of honour that peasant families carry with them to the grave - all these have made for a very unhappy rural female populace in parts of India, who are unable to leave, but equally unable to continue to be peasants as their foremothers had been. This is a silent sort of violence and one that is barely acknowledged.
Then there is the problem of dispossession and all the ills that attend it, from forced migrations to being trafficked. Related to the unwieldy and unchecked growth of economies that service the export trade or fill the pockets of the national rich and powerful, trafficking is a complex phenomenon and includes women being coerced into sex work. Labour trafficking is equally a problem: hundreds of women are lured to seek work as service providers, as ayahs, domestic workers and care workers in either West or South-East Asia. Denied rights, straddling several wobbly legal realms, both of the countries they belong to and of the countries where they go to work, these women workers are particularly vulnerable. Instances of domestic workers being sexually harassed, accused of adultery or of being irresponsible and therefore cruelly punished have been well documented in the countries of the South.
In addition to all these structural issues to do with the economy, which entail extremely destructive consequences for women in spite of their determined effort to negotiate with it, there is the pervasive phenomenon of low-intensity conflict. Conflict comes about for any number of reasons: when dispossessed, the poor fight back, and if they happen to come under the leadership of militant armed socialist or communist groups, as we find in several parts of India and earlier in Nepal, and in some parts of South America, they have to reckon with state violence.
However, this war is never merely a people's war against a state: it causes 'collateral' damage of the worst kind, since the state uses the excuse of militancy to wilfully deny rights to ordinary citizens who suffer from its economic policies and to enforce its own neoliberal agenda. This has meant, as has happened in Chiapas in Mexico and in the plateaus and plains of central India, that entire populations are harmed, turned out of historical homes and packed into internal refugee camps. Sexual violence against women is routinely used in such instances, and marauding state-supported vigilantes in the name of fighting armed militants wreak havoc on communities, especially women and children.
Another reason for conflict is the manner in which states across the global South have managed to link their own ruling-class interests, military power and the spread of capital to stymie democratic dissent as well as settle older conflicts: Sri Lanka is a classic example of this phenomenon, and the unholy triumvirate of the military, a racist state and predatory capital - Chinese, Indian and others - have managed to punish critics and attack those who organise against the state. This set of developments has fed into and exacerbated the violence of the civil war, once again with disastrous consequences for women: forced to live in camps, having lost their all, their loved ones, sexually victimised, without prospects, the lot of Tamil women in Sri Lanka is completely unenviable. A similar situation obtains in Kashmir and the Indian north-east, where decades of ethnic protests by populations that have resented being integrated into the Indian Union are now made worse by the neoliberal path to development that the Indian state appears determined to take forward at any cost. Here too, we find that women suffer in exceptional ways: being at the mercy of the armed forces, and having to deal with their children caught in the crossfire of battles between the forces and ethnic militia, and the everyday problems of survival.
We know too the issues at stake for women in other conflict zones, from the Sudan to Palestine, from Mali to Syria, and none of these situations appear easy to resolve: the fate of the oil economies in the 21st century, and the manner in which this fate is linked to the fate of democracy are matters that cry out for understanding. Meanwhile, the lives of ordinary people in these regions continue along difficult paths, and women, in all those nations of the Islamic Crescent, stretching from the African Magreb to the Arabian Sea, have had to bear the brunt of two sorts of violence: of civil war, of American and Israeli imperialism on the one hand, and the cultural backlash in their own contexts, where so-called 'crimes of honour' continue to haunt their intimate lives.
However, as this article has endeavoured to argue, the picture, however bleak, is leavened by the fact that women caught in the ugly dynamism of events that are not of their own making are not hapless victims, and do make important and often rational choices. It is just that these choices appear far too limited and circumscribed to change their conditions of existence, in terms of labour conditions, wages, freedom in matters of love and marriage, dignity in the family, equality in the larger culture.
On the other hand, every act of dissent, protest and every attempt at confronting and negotiating what appear at first to be intractable realities has to be acknowledged for what it is, and while we may now and then realise the strength of a Malala or rue the fate of Rizana, the fact remains that women like them are legion - braving everyday odds that are actually insurmountable, and leading lives that sadly and cruelly are all too easily damaged and hurt. As against the impunity of states and the merciless logic of the market, we needs must balance compassion and justice, understanding and action.
V Geetha is a writer and publisher with Tara Books in Chennai, India. She is the author of the books Gender and Patriarchy.
*Third World Resurgence No. 271/272, Mar/Apr 2013, pp 13-16