Violence Against Women: A Hidden Pandemic (Part II)
What factors cause increases in violence against women?
March 8, 2009
There is not a single factor that accounts for violence against women, but several social and cultural factors have kept women particularly vulnerable to this phenomenon.
What they have in common, however, is that they are manifestations of historically unequal power relations between men and women.
The stubborn fact, however, is that in many countries violence against women, especially in the domestic setting, is seen as normal behavior. In that sense, domestic violence exemplifies perverse power relationships.
When this kind of relationship becomes established, people become conditioned to accept violence as a legitimate means of settling conflicts — both within the family and in society at large — thus creating and perpetuating a vicious cycle.
Violence begets violence, and often does irreparable damage to the family and to the social structure.
Women who marry at a young age are more likely to believe that sometimes it is acceptable for a husband to beat his wife, and are more likely to experience domestic violence than women who marry at an older age, according to a UNICEF study. This, among other reasons, is why it is so essential that young girls forced into marriage in Yemen have been able to come forward and request a divorce from the courts in recent months.
Lack of economic resources and the capacity to lead economically independent lives also underscore women's vulnerability to violence, and the difficulties they face in extricating themselves from a violent relationship. According to some studies, there is a link between rise in violence against women and the destabilization of economic patterns in society.
Although physical violence and sexual violence are easier to see, other forms of violence include emotional abuse, such as verbal humiliation, threats of physical aggression or abandonment, economic blackmail and forced confinement to the home. Many women consider psychological abuse and humiliation even more devastating than physical violence.
What's more, from a public health perspective, sexual violence increases women’s risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS (through forced sexual relations or the difficulty in persuading men to use condoms), increases the number of unplanned pregnancies, and may lead to various gynecological problems such as chronic pelvic pain and painful intercourse.
Even more disturbing, a large proportion of women are beaten while they are pregnant. Comparative studies reveal that pregnant women who are abused have twice the risk of miscarriage and four-times the risk of having low-birth-weight babies than non-battered pregnant women.
In India, a study of maternal deaths carried out in 400 villages and seven hospitals showed that 16% of all deaths during pregnancy were due to domestic violence.
Domestic violence can have devastating consequences on children as well. According to a UNICEF report, as many as 275 million children worldwide are currently exposed to domestic violence. One of the findings of the report is that children who live with domestic violence not only endure the stress of an atmosphere of violence at home but are more likely to become victims of abuse themselves.
It is estimated that 40% of child-abuse victims also have reported domestic violence at home. In addition, children who are exposed to domestic violence are at greater risk for substance abuse, teenage pregnancy and delinquent behavior.
Although doctors and health personnel can greatly help the victims, many times they are not trained to diagnose abuse accurately. And more so, women are often reluctant or afraid to report abuse.
Various cultural, economic and social factors, including shame and fear of retaliation contribute to women’s reluctance to report these acts. Legal and criminal systems in many countries also make the process difficult.
Frequently, fear keeps women trapped in abusive relationships. It has been found that almost 80% of all serious gender violence injuries and deaths occur when female victims of violence try to leave a relationship — or after they have left.
As a World Health Organization report states, “The health sector can play a vital role in preventing violence against women, helping to identify abuse early, providing victims with the necessary treatment and referring women to appropriate and informed care. Health services must be places where women feel safe, are treated with respect, are not stigmatized, and where they can receive quality, informed support.”
Given the difficulties in properly diagnosing abuse or reluctance report it, prevention of violence against women is key.
Prevention may act at three levels: primary prevention stops the problem from happening; secondary prevention stops it from progressing further; and tertiary prevention teaches victims, after the fact, how to avoid its repetition. Studies carried out in industrialized countries show that public health approaches to violence can lower the negative impact of domestic violence.
Governments also have been increasingly responsive to women groups' demands to deal seriously with this issue. In Bangladesh, new laws make violence against women a punishable offence. Belgium, Peru and Yugoslavia have amended laws to more clearly define sexual harassment. The Dominican Republic, Portugal, Spain, Uruguay and Belgium, among others, have passed laws that increase penalties for domestic abuse. The Kingdoms of Jordan and Morocco have both made strides to protect women's rights — denouncing so-called honor killings in the former and providing confidential victims' assistance hotlines in the latter.
In India and Bangladesh a traditional system of local justice called salishe is used to address abuse on a case-by-case basis. For example, when a woman is beaten in Bangladesh, the West Bengali non-governmental organization Shramajibee Mahila Samity sends a female organizer to the village to discuss the situation with the people involved and helps find a solution, which is then formalized in writing by a local committee.
In China, there has been some progress regarding this issue as well, such as placing posters on some roads and in subways stressing the problems that domestic violence represent to society. The All-China Women's Federation has been playing a significant role in bringing domestic violence into the legislative and policy-making processes.
In February 2007, Mexico's President Felipe Calderón signed a law passed by the Senate, that requires local and federal authorities to curb violence against women. Mexico's new law is the first-ever federal measure to combat domestic violence and other abuses against women, although similar measures were already in the books in many cities and states.
Many governments find it difficult to work with women at the community level, which is where NGOs come into play. This is the case in Jamaica, Malaysia and Mozambique, among others, where these organizations have been particularly active. In Ethiopia, the Association of Women's Lawyers is actively working against sexual violence and domestic abuse.
The involvement of men is critical to curb the spread of this injustice. In this case also, NGOs have proven to be more effective than government agencies. In Cambodia, Jamaica and the Philippines, NGOs are working effectively with men to support women's empowerment and rights. The Women's Centre of the Jamaica Foundation counsels young male parents and trains male peer educators through its program Young Men at Risk.
But more work needs to be done if this pandemic of violence is going to be controlled.
Government and community leaders should spearhead an effort to create a culture of openness and support to help eliminate the stigma associated with violence against women. Laws should be followed up with plans for specific national action.
Domestic violence is a threat to equality and justice that no civilized society should allow to exist.
Editor's Note: To get the facts and figures of violence against women worldwide — and to read more about specific country studies — read Part I here.
The involvement of men is critical to curb the spread of this injustice. In this case, NGOs have proven to be more effective than government agencies.
The stubborn fact is that in many countries violence against women, especially in the domestic setting, is seen as normal behavior.
Women who marry at a young age are more likely to believe that sometimes it is acceptable for a husband to beat his wife, and are more likely to experience domestic violence than women who marry at an older age.
Studies carried out in industrialized countries shows that public health approaches to violence can lower the negative impact of domestic violence.