The future of the left since 1884

Tragic failures

Without radical change, violence against women and minorities will continue, writes Molly Cobain.


Long read

The disappearance and tragic murder of Sarah Everard in March this year captured the attention of the whole country and sparked a huge social media movement led by women who began to share their experiences of the sexual violence and harassment they had faced at the hands of men. In the UK a woman is killed by a man every three days. With much of the recent online discourse centred around the safety of women in the face of male oppression, it has become clear that there is a need for meaningful action from parliament to tackle male violence and misogyny.

Misogyny and violence towards women can largely be attributed to toxic masculinity, which is one root cause of crimes such as murder, assault and domestic violence. Reactive and performative responses to this from politicians – such as simply condemning male violence – are failing to get to the core of the problem and this has devastating results for women all over the world.

Too often, incidents of sexual harassment, assault and even murder committed by men are excused as individual behaviour when the reality is that male violence and misogyny are entrenched societal problems. It is the capitalist, patriarchal society in which we live which produces social and economic pressures that encourage toxic masculinity. This is because the competitive nature of the system makes it economically viable for those with wealth and power – namely the white, male ruling-classes – to oppress both white and minority women.

The concept of ‘hierarchy’ is crucial here, and is created by the drive to succeed and therefore ‘move up’ the societal chain. This can encourage apathetic behaviour and the entrenchment of gender inequalities because it allows those with power to ‘punch downwards’ and increase social and economic inequalities to maintain their power. Sexism and racism thus help to maintain these structural disadvantages which manifest through capitalism, creating a vicious cycle. The outcome of this is that women, the working class, and minority groups are more likely to be subjected to both male and state violence and will find it difficult to escape this due to the economic pressures they face.

In its role as an instrument of the state, the police also play a significant part in perpetuating violence. And recent displays of police brutality and aggression in the UK are disturbing signs of such violence becoming more overt. In particular, the unexpectedly violent reaction from the police to the vigil that was held for Sarah Everard shocked many people. It is a glaring example of the oppression marginalised groups targeted by the police experience every day. The Black Lives Matter movement has been instrumental in highlighting the systemic racism which exists within law enforcement. By doing so, BLM has proven that the problem is not individual ‘rotten apples’ within the police force. The problem is that the whole system is designed to maintain the social hierarchy through oppression and gendered and racial violence.

Some of the more recent online discourse around state and gendered violence has begun to make the argument that Sarah Everard’s disappearance only received nationwide recognition because she was a middle class, white woman. Many people pointed to the lack of attention paid to Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry, two women of colour who went missing and were tragically murdered in June 2020. When considering this in conjunction with the oppression women of colour disproportionately experience, it is clear that race is an additional factor in the way women are treated by society and the state.

Nicole and Bibaa’s mother, Wilhelmina Smallman, has since spoken about the way that the disappearance of her daughters was initially dismissed by the police. Her comment on the discourse around white privilege in relation to violence against women was profound: “Other people have more kudos in this world than people of colour so from my point of view, all women, women of colour, white women, all of us we are on the same journey.”

The protectors of the broken system we live in want to divide those who are determined to change it. The way forward is by building a movement through solidarity in order to enact changes that address the entrenched social issues crippling our society and deepening gender, racial and social inequalities on an unfathomable scale.

Toxic masculinity and male violence are social issues and therefore they require social solutions. This can only come in the form of structural and economic changes that reverse the effects of austerity and reduce the UK’s deep-seated social cleavages. Providing adequate social security, more social housing, improved mental health provision, and funding for domestic abuse charities are just some of the approaches that will go a considerable way towards reducing the economic and social pressures of a capitalist society. With radical institutional change comes the opportunity for growth and – if done properly – this will transform into preventative measures which tackle issues such as toxic masculinity at its root.

With the Conservative government continually eroding the rights and freedoms of many in our country, it is the responsibility of the Labour party, as it always has been, to stand up for those who are struggling to be heard. The UK government has been allowed to exercise economic violence in the form of austerity for a very long time now and these policies have directly deepened social and economic inequalities. It is absolutely crucial that the left does not become complicit in this. At the very least the Labour party must strongly oppose austerity and state violence at every opportunity and recognise the dangers of failing to do so.

Violence against women is only going to worsen as societal pressures intensify. The capitalist patriarchy is directly harming marginalised groups and lives are being lost every day at the hands of economic and physical violence by the state. If we continue down the path that we are currently travelling, then we will tragically fail many more young girls like Sarah, Nicole and Bibaa. Or as the late Maya Angelou once said, “no one of us can be free until everybody is free.”

Image credit: Tim Dennell/Flickr

Molly Cobain

Molly Cobain is a caseworker for a Labour MSP at the Scottish parliament.


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