Our world and the culture of violence against women and girls

Posted by on Nov 21, 2014 in women's health | 0 comments


We live in in a world, where efforts to prevent violence against women and girls is inadequate, according to a five-part series published today in The Lancet journal. The statistics are startling:

  • Almost a third of women worldwide have experienced either physical or sexual partner violence
  • 7% have experienced sexual non-partner violence
  • Nearly 70% of girls are married before the age of 18, many against their will
  • Up to 140 million women worldwide have undergone female genital mutilation

Here in the U.S., the culture of violence has extended to the internet, where it is seemingly acceptable for men to threaten and coerce women who disagree with them or who try to enter the Men’s Club.  If you’ve not heard about #Gamergate or #Celebgate, (or #Ubergate, for that matter) I urge you to dig deeper at challenges pervading wealthier, Western nations. And that’s likely the tip; consider the Cosby debacle or growing reports of sexual assaults on college campuses. Just look at this latest piece on the culture of rape at University of Virginia; the implications are horrible and the code of silence, widespread and misdirected. As the Lancet authors point out, “rape is often a matter of stigma for the victim; violence in the home has been considered a private affair. Turning of the head and closing of eyes have occurred despite [the evidence].”

The Lancet Series suggests that while global attention to violence against women and girls has increased, not enough is being done to prevent the violence from occurring in the first place. Moreover, rigorous data on interventions that work on the prevention front — even in high-income countries — are scarce. Still, the little evidence they have gathered suggest that a multi-pronged strategy is most effective, one that “holistically addresses the individual, interpersonal, community and societal drivers of violence. A key place to start? Correcting gender-power imbalances.

The Series authors write that “women’s and girls’ vulnerability to violence is deeply rooted in the greater power and value that societies afford men and boys in access to material, symbolic and relational resources compared to women.” Moreover, “this gender-based risk is often compounded by other forms of discrimination and inequality based on, for example, race, class, ethnicity, caste, religion, disability, HIV status, migration status, sexual orientation and gender identity, which affect both exposure to violence and the experiences of response.”

Mind you, there has been great strides on the societal level with regard to efforts to change legal and policy norms and recognize this type of gender-driven violence as human rights violation. However, as the authors aptly point out, laws and policies may provide the framework for the unacceptability of violence against women and girls but they are insufficient.

A strategy that has started to take hold is involving men and boys in efforts to stop violence. It is imperative the societal norms that perpetuate gender inequality and violence be reversed and that the role of men and boys as allies in the work to prevent and end violence against women and girls is elevated. Let me be clear: not all men are violent; men who perpetuate or practice violence against women have themselves, often encountered high levels of violence. The use of violence against women is a source of power accorded to men in many settings; take the tech space, for example. And, if cultural norms dictate that “women fall under men’s control, then physical or sexual force and threat are ways to achieve this.”

Still, investment in violence prevention is inadequate. From an economic standpoint and compared to national public expenditure on sports or election campaigning (both of which are estimated in the $3 to $5B range), the U.N. has only benchmarked $100M for investment into violence programs. Yet, the indirect costs are astronomical; the Series emphasizes that women who are exposed to or the victims of violence make greater use of health services than non-abused women, even years after the violence has ended. Violence against women and girls also affects productivity and contribution to social and economic development; the annual costs of intimate violence partner in Western societies ranges from $5.8B in the US (2003 figure) to £22.9B in England and Wales (2004) and $4-5B in Australia. The study Authors also emphasize that while many governments have developed national plans of action to address violence against women and girls, few had dedicated budget lines and domestic spending to support them, despite evidence that points to a strong economic rationale for such policies (for example, the U.S. could save an estimated $23,673 per woman prevented from experiencing violence).

Aside from government allocation of funding and altering societal norms, an important conclusion of the Series is that the healthcare sector has an important role to play in shifting attitudes. Victims are seen regularly in many different health settings and yet programs are not adequately synergized to affect change. By and large, practitioners are taught that their role is to treat disease and related symptoms and many harbor prejudice against involvement in so-called private matters. The authors also say that  there is little rationale for distinguishing between preventive programs directed at smoking, drug abuse and healthy eating versus those that raise awareness about the health burden of violence and the broad acceptance of norms that perpetuate it.

“Violence against women and girls is not just another women’s issue, but is a public health and development problem of concern to all.”

There are many ‘Gates in circulation. Daily, we read about another case of online harassment, another case of rape, another threat, another sign of abuse. Not only do we need to reverse the tide; we need to prevent it.




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