For our second Women’s History Month focus, we’re moving away from education and onto an issue of no less importance: violence against women.
Violence against women can take many forms. It can be overt and graphic — like rape or female genital mutilation. It can be insidious and subtle — like psychological torment or verbal abuse.
Whatever form it takes, violence against women is a gross violation of human rights. And it’s tragically pervasive.
According to the World Health Organization, “35% of women worldwide have experienced either intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime.” Even in developed countries, where women ostensibly enjoy greater safety and freedom from gender-based abuse, violence against women is common. In the U.S., for instance, one in 5 women is at risk of being sexually assaulted in college.
These figures are unacceptable, and they should challenge us to ask why — why is violence against women so widespread? Why aren’t we doing more to stop it?
The quick answer: Social constructs reinforce male hegemony over women. Men are, after all, the most common perpetrators of violence against women, and it’s undeniable that most men still enjoy power over women in both the public and private spheres. Though efforts to raise women’s status in society have been going on for decades, dismantling a gender hierarchy that’s been ossified over centuries is no easy feat.
But let’s step back for a moment and unpack that notion of male hegemony and patriarchy, because even though such a system exists, not all men practice violence against women. Looking at why some men are brutal while others are respectful can help us understand where the vulnerabilities lie and where there are existing foundations we can build on to stop the violence.
In that vein, the UN conducted an extensive survey of over 10,000 men and 3,000 women in Asia about their views towards violence against women. Regretfully but not unsurprisingly, 30 – 57% of men in the study admitted to perpetuating violence. In the case of rape, the foremost motive was a sense of sexual entitlement, followed by entertainment seeking, anger, and punishment. These motivations show that violence is an external manifestation of the internalized belief that women are objects to be acted upon, rather than agents with a will of their own.
However, it is difficult to pinpoint a single variable that foments such behavior, because “a complex interplay of factors at the individual, relationship, community and greater society levels” all contribute to normalizing violence against women.
For instance, at the society level, scant enforcement of anti-violence laws sends the message that one can harm a woman with impunity. At the individual level, many male perpetrators of violence were victims of abuse themselves: between 13% to 67% of the men in the study (depending on the exact region) reported experiencing childhood physical abuse. This does not excuse violence against women, but it does shed light on the cyclical nature of violence.
Moreover, the study demonstrates that single “factors cannot be understood in isolation and should be understood as existing within a broader environment of pervasive gender inequality. Consequently, simply stopping one factor—such as alcohol abuse—will not end violence against women.”
Ever hopeful, the UN’s study ends on a positive note by providing recommendations on how to help end violence against women. These recommendations include:
- Change social norms related to the acceptability of violence and the subordination of women
- Promote non-violent masculinities oriented towards equality and respect
- Address child abuse and promote healthy families and nurturing, violence-free environments for children
- Work with young boys to address early ages of sexual violence perpetration
- Promote healthy sexuality for men and address male sexual entitlement
- End impunity for men who rape
- Develop interventions that respond to the specific patterns of violence in each context
In an upcoming post, we will check in with IDEX, a nonprofit that’s been proactively tackling the issue of violence against women to see what it’s like to try to implement these solutions.