What causes violence against women? An update on the research
What causes violence against women, and how can we prevent it?
Publisert: 02.05.2018 Redigert: 02.05.2018
First, much remains the same: “prevention” of violence against women and girls is still a visionary and transformative agenda, aiming to change the social environment so that such violence becomes unthinkable. It remains well and truly possible – and history has seen greater shifts. But it will require change at all levels of the socio-political system, supported by holistic and sustained efforts from governments – support that is still largely lacking on the scale needed.
Identifying and addressing the underlying causes of violence is central to this endeavour – and while we have more research to guide us now than we did five years ago, this remains both a simple and complex exercise.
“Simple” because the ultimate cause of violence against women is unchanging and clear – a perpetrator who believes he (as they are mostly men) has a right to abuse. He may also believe, or know, that he can get away with it – that no police officer will arrest him, that no justice system will hold him accountable. This is why an effective legislative and justice response remains the “foundation stone” of preventing violence. But even where good response systems are in place, many perpetrators continue to feel justified or permitted in abusing women. And this is where the complexity comes in.
Recent years have seen great advances in thinking and evidence on how this perceived permission or justification for violence is “transmitted” to perpetrators, across the different layers of society.
Back in 2013, the socio-ecological model, drawn from public health-based analyses, had already given us an understanding of how a number of complex and intersecting factors predicted violence against women at the individual, relationship, community and societal levels. We outlined these, based on the evidence of the day, in the original article, and a comprehensive update can be found on pp. 26-27 of the 2015 UN interagency Framework to Underpin Action to prevent Violence against Women.
Since then, deeper research has confirmed through empirical data what the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women recognised in principle nearly 25 years ago: that violence against women is a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women, both arising from and reinforcing gender inequality and discrimination. That is, evidence is now much stronger on the role of entrenched structures, norms and practices of gender equality that exist across the social environment.
Violence against women is a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women
For instance, a 2015 study by Lori Heise and Andreas Kotsadam published in The Lancet analysed the relative statistical significance of a range of variables at the social level, and the way they interacted. It found that discriminatory laws, social beliefs and norms around gender and violence were the most significant “macro” or societal-level factors predicting the prevalence of intimate partner violence across 44 countries.
Other factors that had previously been considered influential, such as level of socioeconomic development, were found statistically “unlikely” to have any causal relationship at all to such violence. Levels of education were also found to have a less significant influence, and a variable one depending on its interaction with gendered norms and power imbalances.
Emma Fulu et al.’s important 2013 research, Why Do Some Men Use Violence against Women and How Can We Prevent It? was the first original, large-scale multi-country study on perpetration. It showed just how these societal-level narratives and gendered power imbalances could influence perpetrator behaviour. Researchers interviewed over 10,000 men across Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Papua New Guinea on their self-reported motivations for violence. They found that both partner violence and non-partner rape were “fundamentally related to unequal gender norms, power inequalities and dominant ideals of manhood that support violence and control over women”, and “reflect[ed] influential narratives of masculinity that justify and celebrate domination, aggression, strength and a capacity for violence as well as men’s heterosexual performance and men’s control over women.”
They found that both partner violence and non-partner rape were “fundamentally related to unequal gender norms, power inequalities and dominant ideals of manhood that support violence and control over women”
Social, economic and political conditions, as well as historical and cultural factors, influence the way such gendered narratives are expressed in different countries and communities. Even in countries approaching income parity or equal participation of women and men across occupations and decision-making roles, the media and popular culture may still be dominated by gender stereotypes and domestic labour may still not be equally shared. Levels of violence against women remain high across countries, indicating that while structural gender equality remains an important goal, more must be done to address binary, hierarchical and deeply-held beliefs and social norms around gender roles and identities.
More must be done to address binary, hierarchical and deeply-held beliefs and social norms around gender roles and identities.
Another thing that has not changed since 2013 is the tendency of popular discourse to situate the causes of violence against women in individual life histories or situations. While factors such as childhood experience of violence, and harmful use of alcohol, are indeed significant and cannot be ignored, it is important to recognise that they don’t cause or drive violence – rather they become relevant in the context of values, structures and beliefs around violence and gender, and in doing so can exacerbate violence against women. The Secretary General’s 2006 In-Depth Study on All Forms of Violence against Women remains as relevant as ever in emphasising that “explanations for violence that focus primarily on individual behaviours and personal histories, such as alcohol abuse or a history of exposure to violence, overlook the broader impact of systemic gender inequality and women’s subordination.”
Recognising this complexity, in Australia, stakeholders across the country developed a national framework for prevention of violence against women. They examined the evidence on the gendered predicators of violence against women – naming them the “drivers” of such violence, and highlighting those found to have the greatest impact in the national context. Factors that were found to be insufficient in themselves to predict violence against women, but which can interact with the gendered drivers to increase the probability, frequency or severity of such violence – particularly at the individual level – were termed “reinforcing factors”. The framework, called Change the Story, now provides and evidence-based and agreed understanding of violence against women, and approach for its prevention, across the country:
Dr Lara Fergus, Director of Policy and Evaluation at Our Watch, Australia’s national foundation for the prevention of violence against women. She was also the consultant and rapporteur supporting the UN-convened Expert Group Meeting on Prevention of Violence against Women and Girls, informing the 2013 Commission on the Status of Women.
• Prevention of violence against women and girls is possible, but it will require change at all levels of the socio-political system, supported by holistic and sustained efforts from governments.
• Some factors previously considered influential, have been found statistically unlikely to have any causal relationship at all to violence against women.
• Violence against women is a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women.
• Study found that discriminatory laws, social beliefs and norms around gender and violence were the most significant societal-level factors predicting the prevalence of intimate partner violence across 44 countries.
• Study also found that both partner violence and non-partner rape were “fundamentally related to unequal gender norms, power inequalities and dominant ideals of manhood that support violence and control over women.
• The most important evolution – and challenge – arising through analyses since 2013 is an increasing and necessary focus on an intersectional approach to understanding the causes of violence against women. Gender inequality never exists in a vacuum – it intersects with other forms of entrenched inequality.
But perhaps the most important evolution – and challenge – arising through analyses since 2013 is an increasing and necessary focus on an intersectional approach to understanding the causes of violence against women. Gender inequality never exists in a vacuum – it intersects with other forms of entrenched inequality, such as that arising from colonisation, racism, ageism, ableism, heteronormativity and transphobia to name a few. While gender inequality may be the underlying cause of violence against women, this does not mean it is the only, or necessarily the most prominent, factor in every context. A Muslim woman attacked for wearing the headscarf, for instance, is experiencing sexist, Islamophobic and possibly racist violence all at once. Just as human rights are indivisible, so are the different forms of inequality and discrimination from which human rights abuses arise. To ultimately end violence against all women then, we need to understand and address all the forms of inequality that women experience.
[i] Cause’ is a problematic word when talking about such a complex phenomenon as violence against women. It is used here for the sake of brevity and simplicity, but it should be remembered that it refers to factors increasing the likelihood of violence occurring, rather than a clear ‘if /then’ relationship. Alternative terminology includes that of ‘drivers,’ ‘determinants,’ ‘contributors’ and ‘risk factors’ of violence.