The political rows unleashed in the United States by the decision of the Supreme Court to repeal Roe vs. Wade — the landmark 1973 decision establishing the federal right to abortion — have been immediate and furious. But less attention has been paid to the international backdrop against which the decision was made. Evidence from around the world points to an increasingly widespread attack on women’s freedom…and on proud democracies as well.
“Don’t have sex if you don’t want a baby,” said one passionate young woman off the Supreme Court in June 2022. If only all women had that choice. And if only anti-abortion activists would commit to doing so. In fact, every 68 seconds on average in the US a sexual assault occurs. One in six American women has been the victim of rape or attempted rape. Between 2009 and 2013, US child protection agencies substantiated or found solid evidence indicating that 63,000 minors a year were victims of this type of aggression.
In the UK, rapes are at their annual highs on record, with 67,125 cases handled by police in England and Wales in 2021. However, there were just 1,557 prosecutions that year, compared to 2,102 in 2020. In the last four years, rape trials in England and Wales have fallen by 70 per cent. In short, the right of women not to be raped is not being respected.
Every 68 seconds on average in the US a sexual assault occurs. One in six American women has been the victim of rape or attempted rape
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Similarly, the World Health Organization estimates that close to a third of women on the planet have been subjected to physical and/or sexual violence by their intimate partners or ex-partners throughout their lives. In several countries, lockdown restrictions due to the pandemic increased the number of cases and reduced the ability of systems to handle them.
But the pandemic is not the only factor behind violence against women. In Russia, domestic violence has been on the rise since January 2017, when lawmakers drew international outrage by decriminalizing it. Predictably, this higher incidence came from a sharp drop in complaints and a lack of willingness on the part of the police to investigate the cases.
Russia is not alone. In England and Wales, nearly half of adult female homicide victims in the year ending March 2021 died from domestic homicide, with a staggering 1.6 million women reporting domestic assault. But while the recorded number of domestic assault offenses rose to 845,734 in England and Wales in this period, the number of people referred by police to the Crown Prosecution Service (SEC) fell to 77,812 from 79,965 in the year that ended. in March 2020. And for the third year in a row, the SEC charge rate for domestic sex crimes in England and Wales dropped to 70 percent from 76 percent in the year ending March 2018.
From the very moment of fertilization, a woman is left without rights. A State may compel her to complete her pregnancy, even at the most extreme personal and family costs.
The evidence shows that In most countries, a violent partner who threatens rape and fertilization is unlikely to face consequences. In the US, the Supreme Court has today greatly amplified the coercive power of this threat. In the chilling words of the dissenting judges, “From the very moment of fertilization, a woman is left without rights. A state can compel her to complete her pregnancy, even at the most extreme personal and family costs.”
So what is freedom for women in the US and other countries today?
Will we have to accept that criminal justice systems cannot protect women when they are attacked, abused and raped? Will we have to accept that in US states that have already outlawed abortion, with no exceptions for rape or incest, “a woman has to give birth to the rapist’s baby or a young woman to her father’s, regardless of whether it destroys her life”?
Violence against women can be prevented. Comprehensive legislation is essential, and the number of countries that have been adopting it has been growing. But no less vital is effective enforcement, including support for women who step forward and adequate funding, monitoring and cooperation between police, prosecutors and the courts to bring the guilty to justice. Justice.
The WHO describes a set of additional measures with the acronym in English Respect, which means: strengthening skills in a relationship; security of having services; poverty reduction; creation of conducive environments (schools, workplaces, public spaces); prevention of abuse against children and adolescents; and transformation of attitudes, beliefs and norms.
International evidence highlights specific measures, such as psychosocial support, economic and social empowerment programs, cash transfers, and school programs that improve safety, reduce or eliminate harsh punishment, challenge gender stereotypes, and promote relationships based on equality and The consent. These are some of the fundamental components for women’s freedom.
The US Supreme Court has gone in the opposite direction. Instead of looking ahead to a world in which the rights of women and children better protected, the justices who struck down Roe look to “history and tradition” to inspire their visions of the meaning of “freedom within order.” They note that “in the latter part of the 20th century, there was no support in American law for a constitutional right to obtain an abortion… In fact, abortion had long been a crime in each and every state.” .
Are historical traditions really the best compass for interpreting which freedom should be granted to whom?
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But the judges overlook the fact that, for much of that history, freedom was a prerogative enjoyed almost exclusively by (white) adult men. Until 1920, women couldn’t vote in the United States, and for a long time afterward they couldn’t get divorced or get credit in their own names. In several states, being married to the victim was recognized as a legitimate defense against a rape charge (as recently as 1979 in New Jersey, for example). Are historical traditions really the best compass for interpreting which freedom should be granted to whom?
Women’s participation in representative politics has gradually increased hand in hand with their right to vote. But this too is under attack. Attempts are being made to drive women out of public life with intense, demeaning and sexualized online harassment. In Japan, a pattern of sexist attacks on Twitter, targeting women in politics, has been documented.
Similarly, a study in Sweden shows that while male politicians are targeted primarily in relation to their official positions, female representatives are subjected to humiliating comments that explicitly point out that they are women, causing them to self-censor more than their male colleagues. The same disparity has been found in Canada. In the UK, women politicians from left and right have spoken out about this issue.
It is time for all politicians to support not only strong legislation, but also the funds and institutions necessary to ensure women’s freedom and safety, whether at home, in politics or with their doctor.
* Dean of the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford.
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