The Sexual Politics of Violence against Women

The Sexual Politics of Violence against Women

Gender & sexuality; Violence against women

The Violence Against Women Act expired on February 15, 2019. On April 4th, the House of Representatives approved legislation renewing the Act with additional provisions to restrict gun ownership and expand transgender rights. Renewal is important. Abused women are five times more likely to be murdered if their abuser owns a firearm. Moreover, domestic violence is strongly correlated with mass shootings — 54 percent of mass shootings were related to domestic or family violence. The potential gains of the Act’s renewal extend beyond individual women and families to significant segments of society. But the bill is blocked: Senator Mitch McConnell refuses to take up VAWA for a vote in the Senate.

Domestic violence and intimate partner violence are forms of interpersonal violence so widespread that nowhere in the world are women safe from these cruel, sometimes fatal, attacks. One in three women (35 percent of women globally) are raped, beaten or assaulted in their lifetime. The costs are staggering: 2 percent of the global economy or $1.5 trillion in 2016. The acts of social and interpersonal violence women most commonly report include rape (by spouses, partners, dates or acquaintances as well as by strangers), psychological and emotional abuse, sexual harassment, use of sexist language, stalking, incest and child abuse. With the spread of social media, online violence, which often targets individual women, proliferates.

The focus on social and interpersonal violence shines a much-needed light on sexual assault, but violence against women takes many forms—economic, political and cultural as well as social. All forms of violence effectively restrict women’s liberty and affect their lives and health directly and indirectly. The emphasis on sexual assault tends to obscure these other forms, which sometimes hold the key to solutions to interpersonal violence.

Economic violence is the mechanism that triggers gender inequity. Its end result is impoverishment, and it exerts its power systemically through laws that limit women’s property rights as well as their autonomy in matters of business and banking. It encompasses discrimination against women in the labor force—unequal pay, the glass ceiling, restrictions on types of work and work hours, and denial of paid leave to accommodate maternity and maternal obligations. Economic violence and systemic violence relate to domestic violence by depriving women of independence. Economic discrimination can determine women’s options and their ability to leave an abusive relationship. Domestic violence is a leading cause of individual and family homelessness, which is a structural issue related to dysfunctional housing markets and inadequate government assistance.

Women added political violence to the debates on violence against women when they considered the meaning of citizenship. Are women equal citizens if they do not have the same access to justice as men? Aren’t states politically violent when they deny full citizenship to women, especially members of minority groups like the Rohingya of Myanmar? Acts of political violence include denying women political representation, which enables male-dominated legislatures to pass laws inimical to the interests of women; the wrongful imprisonment, detention and enslavement of women; women’s forced eviction from their homes and homelands; and their statelessness.

Discussions of the universality of human rights as defined by the United Nations have created a fourth category, cultural violence—the suppression of people’s rituals, for example. Figuring in the debates are customs that deny women’s individual identity, separate from that of their father or husband, and ignore women’s multiple social roles, which some would call identities, or impose an alien identity, as when a woman is absorbed into her husband’s family/clan/religion/nationality and stripped of her own. Activists are examining the practice of making women the symbol of a culture — rules that repress individuality and praise sacrifice to community. Arguments continue about whether customs judged harmful to women’s health by today’s standards are cultural rites to which women have a right or constitute violence against women’s bodily integrity.

Some people believe that gender-based violence is inevitable, but all over the world women are organizing against it. At women’s urging, the UN Secretary-General launched a campaign, UNiTE to End Violence Against Women, in 2008, which UN Women –the UN entity dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women — followed the next year with Say No, UNiTE to mobilize civil society, activists, governments, and the UN system. Every Woman Treaty is a campaign for a global treaty to end violence against women and girls. Launched on International Women’s Day (8 March) in 2019, the treaty would be a legally binding instrument at the global level to hold nations accountable for preventing and addressing violence against women and girls. Every Woman Treaty is a global coalition of more than 1,700 women’s rights advocates, lawyers, scholars, and organizations in 125 countries.

The central focus of these efforts is condemnation of interpersonal violence. The many other economic, political, and cultural forms of violence need similar international campaigns. Most women’s movements around economic, political and cultural violence take place at the local level. In the most repressive societies, national organizing attracts too much attention, landing leaders in jail. The higher the stakes – in terms of corporate and political vested interests — the more lethal the attacks. Women who defend human rights, especially black activists and gender nonconforming women, and those who seek to protect the environment of indigenous people risk their lives.  

Read more in Meredeth Turshen’s Women’s Health Movements: A Global Force for Change (Palgrave Macmillan 2020)