Reclaim the Night confronts CHOGM

Virginia Brown
Reclaim the Night Collective*, Perth

We’re expecting a great, egalitarian festival-forum of nations headed by a woman in Perth in October, so this must mean women have equality, right?

The official publicity about the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) gives no hint of the violent anti-women dynamics of the nations of the so-called Commonwealth. This alliance bills itself as a mutually-beneficial partnership of democracies. And CHOGM, the Australian government assures us, “will provide an opportunity for Commonwealth leaders to meet in Australia to discuss world issues relevant to building a strong and secure future for all”.

The question is, given the track record of these leaders – why should we abandon women’s rights to them? And what are the facts of how this British-Empire-descended alliance works for women?

Although 40% of the global workforce, women receive 10% of the world’s income and own 1% of the world’s property. The Sept 18 Wall Street Journal noted that this is despite women accounting “for more than half the world’s university students, and 60 countries have more young women than men in universities”. Globally, one in three women has been sexually assaulted or beaten.

These problems are also part of the Commonwealth; major disparities exist between levels of gender equality and measures of absolute rights for women in its nations.

New Vision reported in 2007 that: “In real terms, women in the richest [Commonwealth] member state earn 70 times more than women in the poorest member state. An average Australian woman can expect to earn about $25,000 (sh42.5m) a year. In comparison, her counterpart in Sierra Leone has an average income of only $353 (sh600,000) and in Mozambique $482 (sh820,000).”

In the 2010 Global Gender Gap Index rankings (assessing countries’ equality between men and women in various measures, with first place representing the highest overall equality), South Africa scored at 10th place, in comparison with the much lower rankings of Mozambique (22nd), Australia (23rd) and Singapore (56th). These rankings reflect the poor participation of richer countries on some measures of gender equality. For instance, in Kenya and Mozambique, women earn an average of four-fifths of men’s income, lower in absolute terms than the average income of women in Australia and New Zealand, but a higher percentage of men’s earnings.

In Australia, 93% of perpetrators of sexual assault are male (National Crime and Safety Survey, 2002). More than four out of five victims of sexual assault are women and girls. However, a 2004 Victorian report found that prosecution results from only 1 in 6 reports to police of rape, and less than 1 in 7 reports of incest or sexual penetration of a child.

The United Kingdom, at least the symbolic leader of the Commonwealth, has one of the worst records for repression of women. In May this year, its Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke sparked calls for his resignation with his claims that not all rapes are “serious”. In a nation where the conviction rate for reported rape is 6.5% despite false rape reports being very rare, and an estimated 95% of rapes are unreported, this reinforces the message that women should not bother reporting rape. The UK is increasingly upping the ante by jailing some women whose reported rapes did not result in a conviction.

Slashing anti-violence services

With a combined gross domestic product of US$10.6 trillion (three-quarters of this spread between its wealthiest nations; India, the UK, Canada and Australia), the Commonwealth members spend a tiny percentage on anti-misogynist violence services, and treat that as too much.

In Australia, an Australian Institute of Health and Welfare survey released in June found that women still comprise 62% of clients accessing government-funded homelessness services, with domestic violence being a particularly strong reason for this. Despite it also finding that that increasing numbers of Victorian women are sleeping in their cars and accessing other homelessness services, the Federal government has scrapped funding for a successful personal alarm system in Victoria.

Federal funding cuts in this year’s budget to anti-misogynist violence services have meant the reduction in operating hours and services of the Women’s Legal Service (Qld) as of October, and the slashing by 12.1 million over 5 years of funding for anti-domestic violence services in regional, remote and rural communities.

In New Zealand, government ‘reprioritisation’ of funding (a cut of $800,000) has meant “an effective cut for services such as Women’s Refuge, Te Rito Family Violence Coordinators, and advocacy services for children who witness family violence”, according to the Green Party, despite the Feb 22 earthquake having exacerbated the demands for these services. 2010 had already seen an 11% increase in crisis calls made to the Women’s Refuge, and more than double the number of calls made by the Refuge to family violence victims seen by police than in 2007.

Clearly, the violent repression of women extends also to government attacks on anti-violence services.

These figures are stark, but when do we ever hear about these cosy meetings and collaborations between Commonwealth governments being guided by concerns about the women’s rights violations endemic to them all?

The ‘Commonwealth’ arose on the colonisation and oppression of millions, indigenous women in particular, who have faced mass rape as a tool of colonialism. The brutalities of the British Empire have morphed into the brutalities of the Commonwealth’s late capitalism. In Canada, where First Nations women comprise less than 4% of the population, the figure of about 600 murdered and gone missing over the last three decades has seen little official resourcing into these killings. The Native Women’s Association of Canada found more than two-thirds of those to be murder cases, and believes that due to the absence of a national database of missing persons and inconsistent police records, the real numbers could be much higher. These women have not only been victims of misogynist and sexual violence, but also of a racist system which sees this disproportionate victimisation as unworthy of attention. Nearly half the homicides of First Nations women are unsolved, in contrast to the overall homicide clearance rate of 84%. The British Columbia Missing Women Commission of Inquiry – finally initiated last year but criticised for being unwilling to meet with the women’s families or those who have had “close calls” – was told that police in that area stop cars to investigate illegal fishing, but not missing Aboriginal women.

Australia’s legacy of European colonisation and dispossession is no less stark for Indigenous women. The 2007 Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage: Key Indicators report found that: “In 2004-05, in [Qld, WA, SA and the NT], Indigenous females were 44 times as likely to be hospitalised for assault as non-Indigenous females.” A report by the Australian Institute of Criminology’s Jenny Mouzos in 1999 found that the homicide rate for non-Indigenous women was 1.1 per 100 000, whereas the rate for Indigenous women was 11.7 per 100 000.

Attempts to buy feminists off

In an attempt to distract attention from these issues and promote the Commonwealth as a positive agent of change, the CHOGM website is advertising an Empowering Women to Lead dinner with “limited places” for the day before CHOGM, with Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Australian Governor-General Quentin Bryce and other government and business leaders.

These sorts of meetings distract attention from the systemic nature of women’s oppression by suggesting that women ‘leading’ within the parameters of the system (and whose political activity has not improved women’s rights) can substitute for systemic change, and function to coopt opposition amongst women. But there is resistance to being bought off this way. Earlier this year Denise Marshall, head of a leading UK women’s service, returned the OBE she received in 2007 for services to disadvantaged women, publicly stating that the government’s cuts to organisations such as hers, which assists women trafficked into prostitution or victims of violence, will leave many unable to function. And more significantly, although women’s rights struggles in the Commonwealth are mainly at a much lower point than they were several decades ago, opposition to misogynist violence and victim-blaming continues to be one of several issues mobilising supporters of women’s rights, whether via ‘Slutwalks’ or Reclaim the Night.

This year, Reclaim the Night (RTN), an annual march by women on the last Friday in October to assert women’s right go freely without fear of rape or violence, will coincide with the opening day of CHOGM, October 28.

Given the promotional circus around CHOGM that is designed to disarm activist groups and disguise the Commonwealth’s support of powerful elites at the expense of the oppressed, Perth’s RTN Organising Collective is making opposition to CHOGM one of its central points this year. The Collective is also supporting the United March on CHOGM to take place at 10am on that morning and initiated cross-promotion of the two events, to broaden the support for the two important protests’ issues.

The RTN Collective made a conscious decision to continue educating ourselves about CHOGM’s role in the lead-up to Oct 28, and this has been very useful in developing our collective understanding of how the Commonwealth fits into current imperialism.

Today, its powerful elite reinforce vast inequalities between the rich and poor around the world, using women’s oppression, racism and warmongering to pursue their aims. The riches achieved by directly oppressing the former colonies are now used to continue extracting wealth via other means, including by empowering conservative, anti-women governments that are willing allies to imperialist nations wanting to increase their dominance of markets and resources or defeat progressive movements that post a threat to their interests.

The oppressive relations which trample over women’s rights for the benefit of big business receive support from the governmental heads attending CHOGM. In the cases of the Prime Ministers of the UK and Australia, this support is imperialist, acting in the interests of a handful of powerful families and corporations around the globe to wage brutal war and occupation on Iraq and Afghanistan to attain oil and profits, elevating misogynist sectors and assaulting women’s freedoms and living standards in those countries, as deemed useful. The ‘family code’ of the current Afghanistan regime sanctions spousal rape and child marriage.

It is for all these reasons that it is crucial to build events specific to women’s rights, as well as promote solidarity between groups campaigning around other sorts of oppression.

What does it mean when the vast inequalities of global wealth distribution mean women hold 1% of the world’s wealth, but even detailed critiques by activists targetting these powerful elites make no mention of this? Activism on the fronts of climate justice, opposition to war, racism and homelessness is disproportionately necessary to women. But action on these fronts alone does not address the many specific forms of oppression women face, nor advance consciousness about women’s oppression. Nor does it combat the sexism that has resulted from decades of demobilised feminist activism. It is common for feminists to be treated as though their activism is motivated by wanting women to be the oppressors. Feminists encounter sexist bullying from people who think their activism is bigoted and have no notion of the scope of women’s oppression.

Winning women’s rights requires the building of a conscious movement aimed at liberating women.

Reclaim the Night Perth: Oct 28, 5pm Cultural Centre, Northbridge. Bands, protest and march to the CBD. Supportive men encouraged to line the march route and assist with publicity.

* The Reclaim the Night Collective has members with different political ideas and approaches – this article was written by just one of us, although benefitting from the ideas of all. We unite in opposing the forces represented by the ‘Commonwealth’ and in demanding:

End violence against women!
No to rape and sexual harassment!
No to CHOGM:
Cease funding war and exploitation
stop the cuts to women’s refuges,
increase funding to women’s refuges and rape crisis services!

Additional useful reference on violence towards women in Australia:
Mouzos, J., and Makkai, T. Findings from the Australian Component of the International Violence Against Women Survey (IVAWS). Published by Australian Institute of Criminology.

Copyright © Virginia Brown October 2011. Feel free to repost for non-profit purposes and without alteration so long as this article URL: is included.