By Amy Cartledge & Maheen Behrana
Violence against women is certainly not an uncommon term. But why is it that, despite having the language to discuss these gender-based issues, we are so poorly equipped to use it?
Violence against women has been named by the World Health Organization as no less than a “major public health problem”, with estimates stating that over a third of all women worldwide have experienced some form of gender-based violence in their life. Although a shocking statistic, it is essential to look at what this form of violence actually means in order to tackle it. This Violence is not a Tragedy is aiming to broaden people’s understanding of what violence against women encompasses — indeed, physical and sexual violence are not the only ways that women come under attack from men.
Recently, a BBC documentary called Is This Coercive Control? highlighted just how narrow many people’s definition of domestic violence can be. The documentary featured a group of participants who were shown a film of a developing relationship between two people, Alex and Rachel. At various points, the film was paused and participants discussed the behaviour on display. Rachel was clearly being emotionally manipulated by Alex, who criticised her clothing and encouraged her to cover up, convincing her that none of her friends liked her and sabotaging her chances of getting a job. Many of the participants watching only acknowledged that Alex was being abusive (if they did at all) at the points where the threat of physical violence became very clear.
The case shown in the documentary goes to trial, and Rachel alleges that Alex had ‘trapped’ her in the relationship. Some participants claimed that Rachel was lying when she said this because she was not imprisoned under lock and key. The idea that a coercive and controlling relationships can create mental prisons far stronger than any physical constraints was clearly not recognised or accepted by the majority of participants.
Evidently, many people struggle to define these violent behaviours if there are no immediate signs of physical or sexual violence. Raising awareness of the terminology of gender-based violence is thus a clear necessity in being able to tackle the issue.
What terms should I know?
As defined by the United Nations Refugee Agency, gender-based violence refers to harm inflicted upon someone based on their gender. Rooted primarily in gender inequality and power imbalances, it is fundamentally a human rights violation. Although wholly preventable, gender-based violence is found across all countries and cultures in the world, particularly rising in situations of conflict and crisis. The term violence against women is derived from GBV, however refers only to cases involving those identifying as women.
Not limited to physical and sexual abuse, GBV can also include mental and financial harm which can manifest as coercive behaviours and tactics to isolate a partner. Human rights violations such as sexual violence, child/forced marriage and female genital mutilation come under the umbrella term of violence against women.
The term domestic abuse and intimate partner violence (IPV) are often used interchangeably; however, it is important to recognise the differences in each behaviour. Defined by the UK government as “any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse”, domestic abuse occurs between those “aged 16 or over who are, or have been, intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality.” Whereas domestic abuse is perpetuated by a partner in an intimate relationship, whether familial, romantic or borne of living together, IPV denotes domestic abuse solely perpetuated by a romantic partner.
Is gender-based violence limited to violent behaviour?
A common misconception surrounding GBV and IPV is the very nature of the abuse taking place, in that it is limited to purely physically violent acts. Yet this failure to appreciate the multitude of abusive behaviours is precisely what perpetuates the problem at a community level. When looking at statistics from the Office for National Statistics, we can truly begin to understand how deeply the roots of psychological abuse are buried in many intimate relationships. In 2019, 72.6% of women who were subject to IPV experienced some form of psychological abuse, including coercion, gaslighting stalking and financial control. This is compared to the 3.8% of women who has suffered sexual abuse.
Particularly in intimate partner relationships, coercive control plays an important part in rendering women vulnerable to abusers and causing them harm. Our lack of appreciation of this fact is just the other side of the coin to us failing to understand that violence is never the fault of the victim. When someone refuses to recognise coercive control as violence, they become hardened against the women who do not leave abusive situations, and fall into the trap of believing their (often highly manipulative) abusers over them.
Gender and sexuality in GBV
While gender-based violence is certainly not limited to women, the sheer gender disparity amongst victims and perpetrators cannot be ignored. According to governmental studies, women are twice as likely to experience intimate partner violence than men, and are more likely to suffer repeated instances of abuse. Whereas less than 4% of male homicides are perpetrated by (ex-)partners, this drastically increases to 45% amongst women.
Little research has been carried out to shed light on the presence of gender-based violence amongst those identifying as LGBTQIA, yet some data from the US shows that these communities in the United States experience similar rates of IPV and sexual assault to the heterosexual communities. However, research from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs shows that the majority of intimate partner violence survivors in America are HIV-affected people of colour in LGBTQIA community.
It is worth noting that, in the USA, the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence survey did find that incidents of rape and physical violence perpetuated by a partner were higher amongst homosexual and bisexual women. Roughly 61% of the bisexual women surveyed experienced some form of intimate partner violence compared to 35% of heterosexual women. Comparatively, some 29% of heterosexual men and 37% of bisexual men have experienced this violence at the hands of an intimate partner, both exceeding the rates witnessed amongst gay men (26%).
More troubling however, is that more than 60% of LGBTQIA violence survivors have said they have previously been denied access to domestic violence shelters. Looking more widely at the institutional response to GBV, studies indicate that currently some 94% of sexual assault centres, prosecutors’ offices, law enforcement agencies, and child victim services in the US exclusively serve heterosexual survivors of IPV and sexual violence.