Societal Privilege Does Not Protect Women From Violence

A friend and I begin a Twitter chat.

I have picked up from her most recent tweets that she has been violated; a man has touched her inappropriately in a public space and has laughed back at her.

“I hope you won’t say this is sexual harassment,” he states.

I apologise to her; a helpless apology because, as she reassures me, it is not my fault. I know this, but I also know the difficulty of what she is going through; the violation itself, the speaking up against it. And so still, I am sorry. I am sorry that all of this responsibility – of guilt and self-blame – falls on her shoulders within a patriarchal society that will still find fault with her speaking up.

My friend is privileged, as am I; well-educated, well-spoken, accomplished, young, articulate and autonomous. We are the women that society so often constructs as being immune to violence. We won’t get slapped by a drunk sexist in an upmarket bar, or hit by a boyfriend in the car we’ve bought with our own hard-earned cash, or raped by the husband we’ve desperately wanted to leave for months, or even years. Somehow, our privilege is supposed to protect us from these vices.

Instead, such things are seen as only happening to women who don’t have ‘power’; women who are cast within our dominant (and flawed) gendered narratives as being unable to speak or stand up for themselves.

The African women forgotten by development

In a 2004 paper titled ‘Not Very Poor, Powerless or Pregnant: The African Woman Forgotten by Development’, feminist activist Everjoice Win makes the following observation;

“… the middle class woman is completely silenced and erased from the images of development and rights work. She is constantly reminded that development is about eradicating poverty and therefore it focuses on those defined as “the poor” (read as resource-poor). Therefore her story and her experiences are not part of the narrative. In essence, this means women’s lives are put on a kind of league table and it is those that qualify which get addressed. If the non-poor woman dares give herself as an example, she is reminded that she is too distant from the lives of the women out there to matter.”

Everjoice Win (Photograph by Fungai Machirori)

And so development narratives become exclusionary and prescriptive; in fact it is almost seen as self-indulgent for a woman of privilege and relative freedom within society to air her grievances publicly. She is, after all, seen as being many positions ahead of her more disenfranchised peers on the ‘hierarchical league table of good fortunes’.

And such perception has an impact on many fronts.

Exclusion and judgement in service provision

In contexts across the continent where reporting mechanisms for abuse are generally weak, appearing to have agency deemed high enough to avoid such violence in the first place has an effect on the kind of service one receives. These underlying sentiments may manifest through service providers – many of whom are operating in under-resourced contexts with modest remuneration – engaging in judgemental interrogation and/ or counselling, or making inferences around a victim’s financial capacity to pay a bribe or some such other incentive to get helped.

This brings into question the level of professionalism of such service provision and, further, if an all-inclusive rights-based approach is being employed. A type of service provision that empathises with some victims but subtly blames or exploits others is a travesty of social justice.

Development remains largely centred around getting more women into positions of agency through education, employment and elevated status. Ironically, though – once they get there, women become periphery to the more mainstream focus of development on ‘grassroots women’. Perhaps even more worrying is that their critiques of patriarchal power become subtly deligitimised because of their movement from this periphery to the mainstream.

This failure to understand the pervasive nature of patriarchy means that conversations like the one my friend and I had are difficult and taxing. We should be able to stand up for ourselves, we get told. Through our acquisition of all our head knowledge and experiences, we should – by now – be able to save ourselves.

As society, we need to have ongoing and nuanced conversations about development and agency, especially when this pertains to women. Having access to quality education or some of the ‘finer things in life’ does not translate to a life free of violence or patriarchy. Violence in its many guises and forms is deeply entrenched within our cultures and we need to talk more about how it continually mutates as women practice and gain more agency. In turn, there is a special onus on service providers for violence against women to remain conscious of judgements and biases that may serve as barriers to fair treatment for all.

Privilege neither protects nor save us – as women – from violence.

This post was commissioned and originally published by the Gender Based Violence Prevention Network. A version of it can be found here.

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