Feminism And The Scope Of Social Policy

Social policy: a comprehensive mechanism used to create systemic change. Research into the formation of social policy focuses on policies which impact the “distribution of and access to goods and resources,” aiming to improve people’s wellbeing and create an equitable standard of life. In the case of New Zealand’s democracy, social policy’s functioning is dependent on the welfare state. Issues of social policy vary significantly, providing a broad scope for policy specification; from housing and how we conduct criminal justice and education to matters of social security, health, and employment relations. This is significant, noted American sociologist David Reisman says, because social policies in welfare states “reflect the dominant cultural and political characteristics of their societies.” Because social policy reflects our socio-economic, cultural, and political views, our action (or inaction) directly influences our current quality of life.

The aim of effective social policy is to improve wellbeing. In New Zealand, the Māori concept of Hauora encompasses the physical, emotional/mental, social, and spiritual wellbeing of an individual or community. But patriarchal norms in New Zealand institutionalize oppression. While there have been many strides towards equality between women and men since 1840, recent social policy, built through institutions influenced by patriarchal and colonial history, demonstrates that women are still an oppressed community within New Zealand.

New Zealand is a country in conflict between societal progress and its traditional, colonial values, founded upon a religion which continues to support patriarchal, gender normative roles. We particularly see patriarchal norms influencing modern perspectives of relationships, perpetuating rape against women and a victim-blaming culture. In an article titled “Now there is justice for Grace Millane. For her sake, for all our sakes, let’s now change how we talk about blame,” referring to a murder trial filled with accusations about the victim’s sexual preferences, Samantha Keene discusses the double standard of talking about sex across gender. “Men are heralded for their sexual conquests, labelled studs, while women’s sexual engagements are vilified and used against them,” Keene writes. “In cases of sexual violence, women are routinely questioned about what they wore, or whether they had lots of sex in the past, including with the violent person.” The trials of Grace Millane and Sophie Elliot, along with the #MeToo movement and studies on sexual assault culture in New Zealand, have only recently begun to influence social policy. Meanwhile, traditional, patriarchal values continue to affect how women are treated in relation to sex and sexual violence. According to New Zealand’s largest crime survey, in 2020, 94% of sexual assaults went unreported to police.

In The Second Sex, Simone De Beauvoir defines women as the sociological other, dehumanized and disempowered by male societal norms. Through depriving women of power and the ability to make their own choices, “the other [is rendered] unable to achieve human freedom.” Thus, women are viewed as an opposition to the (male) societal norm and oppressed.

Understanding the belief of “male superiority” is useful in proposing and implementing social policy; a specific case study is domestic violence in New Zealand. Statistics found that in 2017, the police were called out for family violence incidents an average of 328 times per day. After that, the Domestic Violence Act was introduced in 2018. This shows the influence that philosophical theory, particularly feminist theory, has on social policy. By understanding systematic psychological behaviour geared against women because of institutionalized oppression, we are able to identify potential issues to create and implement effective social policy.

Protest is an important tool in pressuring for social policy to be created and implemented. The Suffragette movement is a historical example of this, agitating to pass the Electoral Act allowing women to vote. In 2019, women and their supporters protested to convince New Zealand’s government to accept new abortion legislation. The Wellington protest presented a petition of over 13,000 signatures to Parliament calling for abortion to be taken out of the Crimes Act. The sheer amount of people protesting in support of a woman’s right to choose was instrumental in pressuring the government to approve this legislation. Collective action and protest are significant means of gaining Parliament’s attention and creating systemic change.

The scope of social policy is significant even when investigated through a feminist lens, because New Zealand’s historical origins still influence our policies about women. This culture of oppression has given rise to collective action through protest, which has been core toward creating more equitable social changes. Social policy is a reflection of our values, our belief systems, and of our history, and when implemented effectively, is significant in maintaining a good quality of life.

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