Taylor Swift lawsuit: let’s talk about violence against women

Lee Webster | Aug 16, 2017
Taylor Swift
In a welcome and important victory this week, Taylor Swift won her lawsuit against David Mueller, the radio DJ who groped her at a photo shoot in 2013. A jury in Denver, USA, found Mueller guilty of assault and battery, and ordered him to pay Swift the symbolic amount of $1 that she had asked for.

In a statement following the verdict, Swift recognised all those “who feel silenced by sexual assault” and powerfully said "I acknowledge the privilege that I benefit from in life, in society and in my ability to shoulder the enormous cost of defending myself in a trial like this. My hope is to help those whose voices should also be heard."

Swift touches on a key point – her lawsuit shone an important spotlight on the violence that women face going about their daily lives, from the work place, to the home, to the street. For every case that hits the headlines, like Swift’s and that of American musician Kesha, there are millions of women who face daily violence, most often at the hands of a partner or family member, that goes unreported, or where perpetrators escape justice.

We need to talk about violence

We desperately need to talk about violence against women and girls. And we need to talk about both prevention and response.

Violence against women and girls is not confined to a class, race or country – it is a global problem, affecting 35% of women worldwide. Research has shown that both intimate partner violence and non-partner rape are fundamentally related to unequal gender norms, power inequalities and dominant ideals of manhood that support violence and control over women.

Despite decades of human rights frameworks, legislation and campaigning by women’s movements for a more gender equal world, with some notable successes, gender inequality remains entrenched in all aspects of society, and in all countries in the world.

Responding to violence – woman to woman support

In Zimbabwe, Womankind works with the Zimbabwe Women Lawyers Association (ZWLA), a women’s rights organisation that provides free legal advice and support to marginalised women and children and also campaigns for laws and policies that protect their rights. Through their work at the grassroots level, they are reaching vulnerable women who have nowhere else to turn. Women like Ruth, who for years hid her husband’s violence from their four children. She’d been brought up to believe that it was her duty to submit to her husband. But then one day he tried to kill her.

"I was afraid to tell anyone about the violence at first but eventually I sought advice from the priest and my family. They told me I had to accept it because that’s how men are expected to behave. But when the beatings became unbearable I decided to see a lawyer."

Ruth had no money to pay for any legal support so the lawyer referred her to ZWLA.

"When I came to ZWLA I was distraught but Revai, the lawyer who assisted me, just sat and listened to my story. She guided me through seeking a divorce order and helped me get a fair share of our family home so that I could build a new life for my children. But more than that, she gave me courage. Even though I had no money for legal fees ZWLA were there to represent me and help me take back control of my life."

This response, from women to women, both practical and emotional, is a crucial part of supporting women to rebuild their lives after violence. Crucial to not only surviving, but to healing.

Womankind’s report, More than a Roof, launched in 2016, documents the work of specialist women’s organisations who provide shelter services to women survivors of violence. It provided clear recommendations on responding to violence against women and girls, including a women-centred, women-led approach, the need to provide holistic services to help women rebuild their lives, and the urgent need for core, flexible and long term funding for women's rights organisations.

Prevention is possible

Governments have obligations under international human rights law to exercise due diligence in the prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls. Reliance on criminal justice systems is not a substitute for efforts to tackle the root causes of violence and will have limited impact if women and girls are unable to access institutions due to social barriers. For example, the World Bank’s World Development Report 2012 shows that the main reasons given by women survivors of violence for not seeking help were a perception of violence as being normal and justified, and feeling embarrassed, guilty and ashamed.

Our work with women’s rights organisations points to the crucial role of women-led organisations in driving forward community-level change to prevent violence, tackling the harmful social norms that normalise and perpetuate violence. Our Prevention is Possible report shows that the most effective interventions to end violence against women and girls are community-based, challenge attitudes, norms and behaviours, empower women and girls and make a long term commitment to communities.

Increasing women’s agency and supporting women to come together to know and claim their rights is critical in combating violence. This includes providing women-only safe spaces, supporting women to become financially independent, providing training on rights and supporting women to take leadership positions.

It is local and national women's rights organisations that are best placed to lead and deliver work to prevent violence against women and girls. Yet they are operating on a shoe string, unable to meet the demand and need.

Support and services for all women

Whether you’re in a local community in Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, the UK, or the USA, whether you’re a pop star, a farmer, or a woman working in the informal economy, violence against women and girls is a betrayal of our fundamental human rights. It is dehumanising, its purpose to control and oppress women and girls.

So we commend Taylor Swift, for speaking out, for seeking justice and for acknowledging the millions of women who experience violence and cannot. We hope that she gets the love, support and services to heal and thrive. And we will keep working towards a world, where all survivors have those means, and where ultimately violence is prevented and women’s rights are realised.

If you are affected by violence against women and girls, call the National Domestic Violence helpline on 0808 2000 247 (UK).

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