The political ructions unleashed in the United States by the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision establishing a federal right to abortion, have been immediate and furious. But less attention has been paid to the international backdrop against which the Court’s decision landed. Evidence from around the world points to an increasingly wide-ranging attack on women’s liberty, including in proud democracies.
“Just don’t have sex if you don’t want a baby,” said an impassioned young woman outside the Supreme Court in June 2022. If only all women had that choice. And if only anti-abortion activists would commit to making it so. In fact, a sexual assault occurs every 68 seconds, on average, in the US itself. One of every six American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape. From 2009-13, US Child Protective Services agencies substantiated or found strong evidence to indicate that 63,000 children per year were victims of sexual abuse.
In the United Kingdom, rape offenses are at their highest recorded annual level to date, with police in England and Wales recording 67,125 cases in 2021. Yet there were only 1,557 prosecutions in 2021, down from 2,102 in 2020. Over the past four years, rape prosecutions in England and Wales have fallen by 70%. Simply put, a woman’s right not to be raped is not being upheld.
Similarly, the World Health Organization estimates that nearly one-third of women worldwide have been subjected to physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime. In many countries, pandemic-related lockdown restrictions both increased the caseload and reduced the capacity of systems to manage it.
But the pandemic is not the only factor behind the rise in violence against women. In Russia, domestic violence has increased since January 2017, when lawmakers provoked international disgust by decriminalizing it. Predictably, the higher incidence has been accompanied by a sharp decline in reporting and a lack of willingness by police to investigate cases.
And Russia is not alone. In England and Wales, almost half of adult female homicide victims in the year ending in March 2021 were killed in a domestic homicide, and a staggering 1.6 million women reported domestic abuse. But while the number of recorded domestic abuse-related crimes in England and Wales rose to 845,734 in this period, the number of referrals from the police to the Crown Prosecution Service fell to 77,812, from 79,965 in the year ending in March 2020. And for the third successive year, the CPS charging rate for domestic abuse-related crimes in England and Wales decreased, to 70%, from 76% in the year ending in March 2018.
The evidence demonstrates that in most countries a violent partner who threatens rape and impregnation is unlikely to face consequences. In the US, the Supreme Court has now hugely amplified the coercive power of this threat. In the chilling words of the dissenting justices, “from the very moment of fertilization, a woman has no rights to speak of. A State can force her to bring a pregnancy to term, even at the steepest personal and familial costs.”
What, then, is liberty for women in America and other countries today? Are we to accept that criminal justice systems cannot keep up when women are attacked, abused, and raped? Are we to accept that in US states that have already outlawed abortion, without exceptions for rape or incest, “a woman will have to bear her rapist’s child or a young girl her father’s – no matter if doing so will destroy her life”?
Violence against women is preventable. Comprehensive legislation is fundamental, and the number of countries adopting it has been growing. But effective enforcement is no less vital, including support for women to come forward and adequate funding, monitoring, and cooperation among police, prosecutors, and courts in bringing perpetrators to justice.
The WHO describes a further set of measures with the acronym RESPECT: Relationship skills strengthening; Empowerment of women; Services ensured; Poverty reduced; Enabling environments (schools, workplaces, public spaces) created; Child and adolescent abuse prevented; and Transformed attitudes, beliefs, and norms.
The international evidence highlights specific measures such as psychosocial support, economic- and social-empowerment programs, cash transfers, and school programs that enhance safety, reduce or eliminate harsh punishment, challenge gender stereotypes, and promote relationships based on equality and consent. These are some of the building blocks for female liberty.
The US Supreme Court has gone in the opposite direction. Instead of looking ahead to a world where the rights of women and children are better protected, the justices who struck down Roe look back to “history and tradition” to guide their views about the meaning of “ordered liberty.” They note that “until the latter part of the twentieth century, there was no support in American law for a constitutional right to obtain an abortion… Indeed, abortion had long been a crime in every single State.”
But the justices ignore that during much of that history, liberty was almost exclusively the prerogative of adult (white) males. Until 1920, women in the US could not vote, and for long after, they were unable to divorce or obtain credit in their own name. In many states, marriage to the victim was recognized as a legitimate defense against a rape charge (as late as 1979 in New Jersey, for example). Are historical traditions really the best guide to interpreting what liberty is to be accorded to whom?
With the right to vote, women’s participation in representative politics has gradually increased. But this, too, is now under attack. Women are being hounded out of public life by intense, demeaning, sexualized online harassment. In Japan, a pattern of sexist attacks on Twitter, directed against female politicians, has been documented.
Similarly, a study in Sweden shows that whereas male politicians are primarily targeted in terms of their official roles, female MPs are subjected to degrading comments that explicitly target them as women, leading them to self-censor more than their male colleagues. The same disparity has been found in Canada. In the UK, female politicians from left to right have spoken out about the problem.
It is time for all politicians to support not just robust legislation but also the funding and institutions needed to uphold women’s liberty and safety, whether at home, in politics, or at their doctor.
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