In 2018, the International Women’s day can be proud to now count on the #MeToo movement, recently praised by the United Nations experts in women’s human rights.
Yet if sexist violence against women has been under the spotlight and denounced in every context over the last few months, it is crucial to remember that most physical and sexual violence against women is at the hands of their partner.
In France, the case of Alexia Daval, who was found murdered in October 2017 and whose husband, Jonathann, finally confessed to the crime in January, was heavily covered by European media. In June 2017, even before Alexia’s death, several scholars and feminists denounced conjugal violence that is too often described as a “crime of passion”.
Such murders of women are all too common. In Argentina, the killing of 19 women in 18 days sparked massive protests against gender violence in 2016, spreading across Latin America in the past two years under the banner of “Ni una mas” (“not one more”).
According to the World Health Organization, 38% of all female murders globally (compared to only 6% of male murders) are perpetrated by a current or former spouse or partner. The prevalence of intimate partner violence (IPV) more broadly is at “epidemic” proportions: 30% of women world-wide who have been married or in a consensual union have experienced physical or sexual violence at the hands of their partner. While such violence can affect men, in the vast majority of cases, including in Europe, the woman is the victim and the man the perpetrator.
The economic, social and health consequences for women, their families, communities and societies, are tremendous, even if they have not received the political attention they should.
Compared to women who have not experienced such violence, abused women are more than twice as likely to have experienced an unintended pregnancy that ended in an abortion, almost twice as likely to experience depression, and more likely to have a premature or low-weight birth. Almost half of the women who experience physical or sexual violence by partners report sustaining physical injuries that require medical assistance.
A series of factors
Decades of research in both developed and developing countries suggest a series of individual, relational, community and societal risk factors associated with women becoming victims of intimate partner violence, and men becoming perpetrators.
Individual risk factors include witnessing their mother being the victim of abuse, experiencing physical or sexual abuse themselves as a child, the harmful use of alcohol as a trigger factor, and the acceptance of violence as justifiable behaviour.
Relational risk factors include controlling behaviour by the male partner, marital discord, and large age and educational gaps between the two partners. Community-level risk factors include high neighbourhood unemployment, poverty and/or crime rates, a high proportion of illiteracy, and presence of individuals who justify intimate partner violence. Gender inequality is also strongly associated with high levels of IPV. As the WHO stated in a 2010 report “Preventing intimate partner and sexual violence against women”:
“Gender inequality and male dominance reduces the opportunities for women to be involved in decision-making at every level; decreases the resources available to women; and increases acceptance of the use of violence against women.”
Education and asset ownership mitigate risks
A consistent result from developing countries is that women’s education is associated with a lower risk of physical violence particularly their having completed secondary schooling.
Being economically active turns out to be more complicated; some studies find it decreases the risk, while others have found no relation or even a backlash effect. What may matter more is whether women control the income they earn, and especially if they own assets. Economic vulnerability – fear of losing access to shelter and being deprived of the means of generating an income – is one of the reasons that abused women often stay in an oppressive relationship.
Ownership of a dwelling or land may provide women with a concrete option, a place to which to move or the legal standing to be able to exclude an abusive spouse from the home. It may also increase women’s bargaining power in a relationship and deter abuse by reducing a women’s tolerance to violence and raising its cost to men. The potential protective role of homeownership when women themselves own a dwelling has been shown in studies ranging from India to the US.
But which assets – land, housing, savings – increase women’s bargaining power and deter abuse may depend on the context. Carmen Diana Deere and co-authors argue that it is women’s share of couple wealth that most likely increases their bargaining power in a relationship. They found that in Ecuador, women’s share of couple wealth was a protective factor against physical violence from a partner, and in Ghana, against emotional abuse.
How can the state help
The state also plays a crucial role in ameliorating – or aggravating – gender inequalities. The 1993 United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, which recognized violence against women as a violation of women’s human rights, was a watershed agreement on the global level.
Governments around the world have since then passed laws and directed more resources to combatting this problem. Laws that ensure the ability to receive a protective order, assistance with custody issues, and child support all strengthen the position of women by making exit from a violent relationship more feasible. Strong support for victims, such as well-trained healthcare personnel, availability of shelters, a responsive police and court systems are also necessary.
One innovative policy has been to set up women’s units or police stations to improve the ability of authorities to respond to women’s needs. Countries taking such steps are primarily in Latin America and Africa, but also Asia and Europe.
All such programs can help victims come forward, protect them from retaliation, and reduce violence. In the United States, the expansion of legal-assistance programs after the Violence against Women Act of 1994 helped reduce IPV – by one account up to 21% in just the first four years after its passage.
While these and other initiatives can help reduce intimate partner violence, comprehensive solutions will continue to elude us until we reconceive intimate partner and sexual violence as a “men’s issue”, not only a “women’s issue”. Programs that directly engage men and boys in violence prevention can make a dramatic difference in changing violent attitudes and behaviour, especially when they reach adolescence.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, where nearly two-thirds of women report violence at the hands of their partner, a 15-week program targeted 324 men and their partners. Three years later, most of the partners involved reported that violence at home had stopped altogether. After workshops in Mumbai, India, the number of young men who reported using violence against their partner decreased more than two-fold
Getting more political will and resources behind programs targeting men requires getting men on board as partners and allies. A promising signal are organizations run by men, for men, promoting this cause, such as Promundo on a global level, or local organizations, from the United States to Chile.
This post belongs to a series of contributions coming from the International Panel on Social Progress, a global academic initiative of more than 300 scholars from all social sciences and the humanities who prepare a report on the perspectives for social progress in the 21st Century. In partnership with The Conversation, the posts offer a glimpse of the contents of the report and of the authors’ research.