Women all around the world are susceptible to many types of violence. The Convention Eliminating Discrimination Against Women addresses three types of violence: violence occurring in the family, violence in the community, and violence perpetrated or condoned by the State. The 1993 UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women placed violence in the context of human rights.
Violence against women is most often committed by someone known, usually a husband or boyfriend, and it is this type of violence that will be explored in this section. It is estimated that 1 in 3 women have been or will be the victim of violence by an intimate partner – beaten, raped, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused. Domestic violence affects poor and rich countries, all cultures and ethnicities. No region of the world is immune. Today approximately 100 countries have specific laws and/or policies in place to criminalize domestic violence, yet efforts at prevention and prosecution have been uneven. Empowering women with education and economic independence is critical, as is addressing the attitudes of men and boys and gender stereotyping in the media.
Why Are Women Vulnerable to Domestic Violence?
Experts believe that women’s unequal status in families and societies contributes to their victimization.
- When power relations are uneven, men are able to exert control in a variety of ways. From threats to actual violence, dependency plays a role.
- Women who have little financial or sociocultural autonomy have fewer options in life, including escape from an abusive partner.
- Many societies have discriminatory divorce laws and practices, trapping women in abusive marriages or forcing them to choose between marriage and custody of their children.
- Domestic violence is often treated as a private matter, exempt from norms and laws that apply to stranger violence. Victims face stigma not associated with other crimes. Impunity emboldens perpetrators.
- Implicit acceptance of violence against women leads victims to vastly under-report instances of abuse. When they do report abuse, legal mechanisms for remedying the situation are often unavailable – the laws don’t apply or they are unevenly enforced by police and judges. This creates a vicious cycle where women feel that if they take the risk of speaking out, they will not receive justice, which leads to more instances of domestic violence going unreported.
Amnesty International has described women as being in “double jeopardy” where violence is concerned – over-represented as victims and underrepresented as decision-makers in society. They are more likely to be hurt and less likely to receive justice than any other type of victim.
A Universal Problem
In her Atlas of Women in the World, Joni Seager notes that the highest concentrations of reported domestic violence are spread throughout the world. See the sampling below:
|Country||% of women who report suffering from domestic violence|
- Battering or beating is a form of physical domestic violence just as common in the developed as the developing world. In fact, the number one form of injury sustained by women in the United States is battering by an intimate partner.
- For women all over the world, violence proves deadly. The UN estimates that between 40 and 70% of all female murder victims in the U.S., Australia, Canada, Israel, and South Africa were killed by their husbands or boyfriends.
- In some traditional cultures in the Middle East and Asia, murder of women is in the form of dowry murders or honor killings and is condoned by society. Dowry murders involve disputes over dowry or marriage benefits, and include bride burnings in India, thought to affect up to 6000 women annually. Honor killings are more common in the Middle East where a man (husband, brother, father) is given immunity for killing a woman who is thought to have brought shame on the family.
Psychological terror is considered domestic violence.
- It can take the form of excessively controlling behaviors, such as when men restrict a woman’s mobility and activities.
- It can take the form of verbal abuse where women are subjected to insults and systematic assaults to their self-esteem.
- It can take the form of threats of physical violence. Most situations of mental abuse are accompanied by physical and/or sexual violence; in other cases women often succumb to demeaning treatment in order to avoid escalation.
One in five women worldwide is thought to have experienced sexual violence of some kind. This includes sexual assault, molestation, rape, and exploitation.
- Girls and younger women are at the highest risk for sexual violence of all kinds.
- Forced sex can be common in marriage as well, particularly in societies with highly unequal gender relations. In many countries throughout Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and Latin America, marital rape is not illegal.
- Either deliberate or accidental HIV infection can result from rape. Men are sometimes led to believe that sex with a virgin will cure the disease.
Sexual violence can also take the form of sexual exploitation, either through prostitution, trafficking, or even informal quid-pro-quo exchanges that are coerced. These acts are more common in developing countries, especially throughout Sub Saharan Africa and Asia.
“Women are the most vulnerable and the best poised to curb the effect of climate change.”
- Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO), 2007
Women are seen in the context of global climate change in two iterations: as direct victims and as agents of change.
- Working as they do in intimate interaction with the natural environment as farmers, water carriers, and firewood-gatherers in poor countries, they are the first to see changes in ecosystems, and these changes affect them profoundly.
- They are also often the most knowledgeable about these changes and how to mitigate them or compensate for them.
With both an immense stake in natural resource flows and credibility in documenting changes, women are seen as well-suited for grassroots activism in this area. Wangari Maathai, the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner, is an excellent example of this intersection of environment and grassroots activism – see her profile below. What is missing, many believe, is the representation of women in decision-making bodies at the national and international level, and in government regulatory and legislative bodies.
Women are victims of war in numerous ways. The UN has reported that 90% of modern war casualties are civilians, disproportionately women and children. It has been estimated that for every person directly killed in conflict, nine more are likely to die from starvation or disease.
The chaos that accompanies war takes a particular toll on women – from the destruction of homes and communities to widowhood to opportunistic crimes such as rape to displacement and life in refugee camps.
Many areas of the world wracked by conflict today were already some of the harshest places for women to live. Experts note that this is not a coincidence, and believe that if women were empowered, perhaps less violence would prevail. This has led to concerted efforts to involve women in post-conflict reconciliation activities, as well as conflict-prevention initiatives.
- Brown, M.E (1994): Soap Opera and Women’s Talk – The pleasure of resistance. London: Sage
- Dines, G. and Humez, J.(1995): Gender, Race and Class in Media. London: Sage
- Gunter, B.(1986):Television and Sex Role Stereotyping. London: John Libbey
- Kuhn, A.(1985): The Power of the Image – Essays on Representation and Sexuality. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul
- Minh – Ha, T.T. (1991): When the Moon Waxes Red. London: Routledge
- Spigel, L. & Mann, D.(1992): Private Screenings – Television and the Female Consumer. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press
- Trowler, P. (1988): Investigating the Media. London: Collins
- Van Evra, J. (1990): Television and Child Development. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum