What causes violence against women?
Illustration: Bea Serendipity/Flickr.


Lara Fergus

Publisert: 23.01.2013    Redigert: 16.04.2018

The upcoming Commission on the Status of Women in March 2013 will focus on prevention of violence against women and girls – that is, the transformation of the social environment so that new incidences of violence become less frequent and ultimately no longer occur.

Such a transformative agenda is by no means impossible – history has seen greater shifts – but it does require change at all levels of the socio-political system, along with holistic and sustained approaches from Governments.

Identifying and addressing the underlying causes of violence is central to this endeavour – and at once a simple and complex exercise.

“Simple” because the ultimate cause of violence against women is always 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 is 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. If we are to prevent violence against women, we need to interrogate how this permission or justification is transmitted, across the different “layers” of society. And this is where the complexity comes in.

The 1993 Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women recognised violence against women as a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women, both arising from and reinforcing gender inequality and discrimination. But the development of prevention programmes requires an unpacking of just how this unequal power manifests in different contexts and on different scales – from individual relationships to global negotiations – in order to effectively target interventions.

Volumes have been researched and written about the causes of violence against women since the Declaration, teasing out greater and greater detail on the factors contributing to violence against women in different environments. 

An ecological model for understanding violence against women

The ecological model of public health-based analyses has gained traction in recent years to aid understandings of these complex and intersecting “contributing factors”, as embedded in the social practices and values of broader society.



The societal level

The largest or all-encompassing circle represents the societal level. At this level, laws, policies and practices emanating from the State – as well as from traditional or customary practices at the broad social level – can directly contribute to violence against women, fail to respond to it, and/or create an environment where violence against women is tolerated, excused or justified.

Societies that value women’s participation and representation, and where there are fewer economic, social or political differences in power between men and women, have lower levels of violence against women.

Other contributing factors at the societal level include limited economic opportunities for women, and women’s insecure access to and control over property and land rights. Strategies to promote women’s economic autonomy and access to skills training, credit and employment; encourage girls’ completion of secondary school; delay age of marriage to 18; and ensure women have their rights respected as to when and whether to marry and have children – are all “protective factors” against violence against women at the societal level.

The community level

At the community level, other contributing factors begin to emerge, compounding those at the societal level. Isolation of women from support mechanisms, and the lack of safe spaces for women and girls to freely communicate and develop friendships and social networks have been found to contribute to violence and compound its impacts. 

Community (or social) norms such as those granting men control over female behaviour, acceptance of violence as a way to resolve conflict, notions of masculinity tied to dominance, honour or aggression, and rigid gender roles all contribute to higher risk of violence against women. Attitudes or practices that invisibilise, minimise, condone or justify such violence are similarly contributory, such as the belief that neighbours should not intervene when a wife is being beaten because that is a “private” matter, or the belief that reporting that a daughter was raped would bring shame to the family.

Broader discriminatory or gender-stereotyping norms – for example supporting male dominance or entitlement – are also associated with attitudes tolerant of violence against women and girls, including attitudes and practices that reinforce female subordination (e.g. dowry, bride price, child marriage); and the normalized use of violence and aggression within the family or society to address conflict. 

Women themselves may be conditioned by these social norms to accept violence, with surveys conducted in various countries showing that in many contexts women will report that violence is justified in a number of cases.

The relationship level

At the level of a relationship or family, one of the strongest risk factors for violence is male control over social and economic decision-making. 

Other factors include justification of male use of violence against women and girls in the family, such as the belief that husbands have the right to physically “discipline” their wives under certain conditions; and placement of individual and family privacy and honour above the safety and wellbeing of girls and women who experience violence. 

Many of the above (community and relationship level) factors can also be reflected in peer groups and organisational cultures, which also have further contributing factors such as male dominance and gender segregation, higher levels of hostility towards women, peer support for violence, norms of sexual conquest and the denigration of women.

The individual level

Finally, at the individual level, the most consistent predictor of the use of violence among men is their agreement with sexist, patriarchal and/or sexually hostile attitudes.

Other contributing factors have been identified relating to age, level of education, and anti-social behaviour. 

Studies on partner violence in particular cite the harmful use of alcohol as presenting a more complex contributing relationship to violence against women and girls, potentially exacerbating and increasing the severity of violence, as well as the first time perpetration of sexual assault. Personal childhood exposure to, or experience of, violence is a strong risk factor for later perpetration, but this is by no means inevitable and is affected by a number of other social, educational and psychological factors – most notably the existence or otherwise of alternative non-violent social norms and models for healthy relationships.

There is often a tendency to focus on individual life histories, attitudes and behaviours in discourses on prevention of violence against women, but it is of paramount importance to remember these are only one part of the ecological model – and continually influenced by factors at all other levels.

To this end, the Secretary General’s In-Depth Study on All Forms of Violence against Women emphasizes 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.”

Unequal power remains the common thread

While the causes of violence against women and girls have been examined from various theoretical perspectives, all have concluded that no single cause adequately accounts for violence against women – though unequal power between men and women remains the common thread.

As the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences has noted: “no form of interpersonal violence against women is devoid of structural violence – as in all places, such abuse is underpinned by beliefs about the perpetrator’s right to harm another, based on societal notions of gender and rights.”


Lara Fergus was the consultant and rapporteur supporting the Expert Group Meeting (EGM) on Prevention of Violence against Women and Girls, convened by UN Women in partnership with UNFPA, UNICEF, WHO, UNDP and ESCAP in Bangkok, September 2012. While this article focuses on the causes of violence against women, further discussion on the implications of this for prevention policy and programming can be found in the background papers submitted by the experts to the EGM, and in their Final Report, available at: http://www.unwomen.org/events/59/expert-group-meeting-prevention-of-violence-against-women-and-girls/ 


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