by Gerard Emmanuel Kamdem Kamga
Gender based violence is a broad concept that is made up of numerous categories. These include among others intimate partner violence, sex-selective abortion, female infanticide, deliberate neglect of girls, rape in war, violence against prostitutes, trafficking, forced prostitution, exploitation of labour, debt bondage, sexual abuse of girls, forced sexual initiation, rape, sexual coercion and others. These types of GBV seriously threaten the basic human rights of women but the most common form of all is intimate partner violence (IPV) which is the main focus of this reflexion. Before going further, it is crucial to note that GBV does not only frames situations of women victim of violence. Men are also victim of GBV even though statistically the gap between male and female subject to GBV is very disproportionate. The United Nations Population Fund observed that, the primary victims of GBV are women and adolescent girls who also suffer exacerbated consequences as compared to that endured by men. In a previous reflexion, I provided detailed information regarding the gap and differences between male and female victim of GBV. As already mentioned, in this reflexion, I will be focusing on IPV. The reason is that despite the fact that IPV remains the most common form of GBV, sufficient attention has not been paid to it. IPV remains the most common form of GBV around the world for, overall one out of four women experiences violence (physical, sexual and or emotional) at the hands of her intimate partner. The second reason for focusing on IPV is driven by the desire to raise awareness in the society and rethink about the set of norms and institutional responses that may help preventing this phenomenon. The fact is that perpetrators of GBV against women are men, who mostly belong to the inner circle of their victims. It appears that very often, not only women know their aggressors but also they might be living or regularly interacting together and sharing the same space. IPV generally involves a husband, boyfriend, uncle, teacher or colleague, people who along with female are part of a group who most of the time are familiar to one another and share the same space.
IPV, often termed ‘domestic violence’ can take various forms, including physical violence ranging from slaps, punches, and kicks to assaults with a weapon and homicide. It can also take the form of sexual violence such as forced sex, or forced participation in degrading sexual acts. These are frequently accompanied by emotionally abusive behaviours such as prohibiting a woman from seeing her family and friends, ongoing belittlement or humiliation, or intimidation; economic restrictions such as preventing a woman from working, or confiscating her earnings; and other controlling behaviours.
In the following lines I will provide some insights into IPV, the most common form of GBV. In so doing, I will firstly look at the scope of IPV.
The scope of intimate partner violence ranges from physical and sexual violence to emotional abuse and controlling behaviour.
Statistics show that the proportion of ever-partnered women who had ever experienced physical or sexual violence, or both, by an intimate partner in their lifetime, ranged from 15% to 71%, with most sites falling between 29% and 62%. (WHO 2005:5). These statistics are in line with the fact in July 2017, following its general recommendation No35, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, adopted the term ‘gender-based violence against women’ to replace that of ‘violence against women’, previously defined in general recommendation No19. The new term, ‘gender-based violence against women’ was aimed at emphasising the gendered causes and devastating consequences of violence that women are subject to especially in their intimate relationships. Whether one is dealing with gender-based violence against women or IPV both can be inflicted through the following forms:
Physical, sexual and psychological violence in the family, including battering, sexual abuse of female children in the family, marital rape, female genital mutilation and violence related to exploitation.
Physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring with the general community. This includes rape, sexual harassment and intimidation at work, in educational institutions and elsewhere, trafficking in women and forced prostitution.
Physical, sexual and psychological violence condoned by the state, wherever it occurs (UN General Assembly 1993).
The above three paragraphs clearly refer to the family, community, working environment and educational institutions as the main spaces where violence can be inflicted. These spaces are significant for, they symbolise the space of living and interacting of partners; spaces that have instead become the ambit where IPV can be fully deployed.
In relation to physical and sexual violence, another study completed by the WHO (2005) accounts for some crucial finding which were obtained by asking direct, clearly worded questions about the respondent’s experience of specific acts. In terms of physical violence particularly, women were asked whether a current or former partner had ever:
The same study went on to characterise sexual violence by three major behaviours including being physically forced to have sexual intercourse against her will, having sexual intercourse because she was afraid of what her partner might do and being forced to do something sexual she found degrading or humiliating. Statistically, the study portrayed how the prevalence of forced first sex among adolescent girls younger than 15 years, ranges between 11% and 48% globally (WHO:2005). These finding depict IPV as a major feature governing the relationships between partners. The study reveals a variety of brutal acts perpetrated on female mostly because they are female. Such brutal acts appear not to be driven by any rational other than the gender that is at play here. The definition of GBV established by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women during its eleventh session held in 1992 strongly echoes this stand. In its general recommendation No19, the Committee defined GBV as a form of discrimination that seriously inhibits women’s ability to enjoy rights and freedoms on a basis of equality with men. The Committee went on to coin that violence against women (VAW) is ‘violence directed against a woman because she is a woman or affects women disproportionately’ (Art. 6 of CEDAW).
It is my contention that acts of emotional abuse may be far more damaging than those pertaining to physical violence. The pain that which is invisible is more easily discounted, denied or overlooked. Emotional abuse may require years of therapeutic intervention to undo its damage. The study completed by the WHO (2005) shows that specific acts of emotional abuse by a partner include firstly, being insulted or made to feel bad about oneself, secondly, being humiliated or belittled in front of others, thirdly, being intimidated or scared on purpose, and fourthly, being threatened with harm directly or indirectly in the form of a threat to hurt someone the abused person cared about. An act of emotional abuse has the potential to destroying a female in her being owing to the fact that it is her mind’s integrity and sanity that is at stake. Earlier characterisation of GBV did not emphasise the idea of emotional or psychological violence. This was remedied in 1995 when the United Nations World Conference on Women held in Beijing provided a sound characterisation of VAW to be considered as any act based on gender which results in physical, sexual, and psychological harm to women (CEDAW General Recommendation No. 19: Violence against women, 1992).
Men also engage in problematic controlling behaviour with regard to their female partners. The WHO study (2005) came to the conclusion that a woman is subjected to controlling behaviour if her male partner keeps her from seeing her friends, restricts her contact with her family of origin, insists on knowing where she is at all times, ignores her or treats her with indifference, gets angry if she speaks with other men, accuses her of being unfaithful frequently and without real cause, or restricts her access to health care. These amount to the fact that IPV has the potential to reducing women to an object that must be possessed, cursed, and ceaselessly controlled. This type violence may well arise out of jealousy, constant suspicion and weakness but also it is a clear account of the masculinity instinct of control and absolute domination that always characterised male and female relationships for eons which also constitutes one of the drivers of IPV.
Feminist and norm theories argue that the causes of IPV reside in social, political, cultural and economic structures of our society rooted in patriarchy, masculinity and the division of labour. Despite this precision, it is difficult to establish an exhaustive list of IPV drivers. Nonetheless, in this section, I briefly provide a few factors that influence the perpetration of IPV in particular and GBV in general.
One of the recurrent causes of IPV is due to the fact that societies and communities appear to be organised in patriarchal lines, i.e. a system in which boys and men retain power, and girls and women are largely excluded from exercising it. In this context, the perpetration of abuses on females appear to be the expression of the coercive power and the materialisation of domination by males.
Another factor feeding IPV is gender order and gender inequality both characterised by lack of women emancipation and poor economic rights. To date, owing to the division of labour which originated eons ego, one of the partners (mostly women in heterosexual relationships) is still confined to households and unpaid domestic works whereas male partners are permitted to have a more active role in the community, to find paid employment and ‘provide’ for the family. As a result, both partners enjoy neither the same social status and accumulation of work experience nor the same economic rights and financial independence. Institutionalised gender role and gender inequality result in limited decision-making power, lack of control over financial resources and sooner or later lead to one partner being kept in a state of vulnerability. The current system has made it difficult for women to access formal paid employment, and even when they do find such work, it is almost always more poorly paid than the same or similar work done by men which definitely contribute in fuelling IPV.
A third driver of IPV is connected to religion and culture which insist in putting strong emphasis on masculinity. With regard to most religions, it is striking that God (and not Goddess) is carved into the collective consciousness of humanity as a man. This is supposed to vehicle the idea of the superiority but even more, to the divinity of the male gender compared to the female one. In addition, following the same religious reasoning, a female gender does not have any identity and existence of her own. It is in this sense that in one version of the Judaic and Christian story of creation available in the Bible and the Torah, Eve (the first woman) is not given an individual identity like Adam (the first man), but is brought into being by God essentially derived from one of Adam’s ribs, and in order to serve Adam’s purposes and to be subservient to him.
Another important driver of IPV can be located at the society level where the legal framework to curb IPV remains not only poor but also inexistent. Even where suitable legislation and policies to prevent IPV are available, their implementation remain frequently problematic: rape, kidnapping and murder of girls and women are not always reported to authorities and even where alleged male perpetrators are arrested, the legal processes are cumbersome and often ineffectual, and the perpetrators may still be allowed to walk away free.
With regards to cultural norms, certain societies tolerate wife beating and male ‘right’ to discipline his wife as an efficient conflict resolution mechanism. There are also problematic social practices based on the belief that male honour requires female purity. In such a context, IPV may manifest in response to any assumed wrongdoing by a girl or a woman, who then experiences violence at the hand of her partner for misbehaviour and failing to be a good wife. It is within this context that early exposure to violence in childhood may predisposes individuals to become perpetrator of IPV when they turn adult. Children who witness violence between their parents or who are themselves victims of parental violence are also more likely to employ violence in their own future adult relationships. Denial of women’s property rights and inheritance rights is another important injustice which feeds into IPV. Upon the death of their male partners, women are often deprived of their homes, inheritance, possessions and livelihoods, and sometimes even of their children. The WHO (2010: 53) lists the following examples of such social and cultural norms fuelling IPV:
The above examples of social and cultural norm further prove that IPV has specific causes at the origin of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, rape and harmful practices toward women, a plague that need to be seriously scrutinised.
This reflexion shows that IPV is indeed the most common form of GBV. From a legal, moral and human rights perspectives, IPV amounts to a clear infringement of the rights and freedoms of women guaranteed by various national constitutions and international conventions which seek to protect women. Such rights were reiterated by the UN General Assembly and include among others the right to life, the right not to be subject to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, the right to liberty and security of person, the right to equal protection under the law, the right to equality in the family, the right to the highest standard attainable of physical and mental health, the right to just and favourable conditions of work (UN General Assembly 1993).
At the end of this paper which is an entry point to paying close attention to IPV, it is my contention that the key intervention for reducing the incidence of IPV is to put in place policies and a practical plan of action that discourage IPV, and that lead to a reduction in the incidence of IPV. I believe that as members or employees of organisations engaged in social change, we have the necessary tools and the expertise to address the plague of such gender-based violence through innovative thinking and policies, and through sensitisation campaigns with victims of IPV, communities and law enforcement agencies. A worthwhile initiative, for instance, would be a renewed focus on a rights-based approach which scrutinises gender inequality and the marginalisation of girls and women. In this way the protection and promotion of human rights in general can be made possible, together with protection and advancement of the rights of women in particular. In executing such a policy, existing social constructs regarding gender, as well as legal mechanisms and institutional responses to IPV need to be critically reviewed from a different vantage point.
Convention on the Elimination of all forms of discrimination against Women (CEDAW) available at http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/recommendations/recomm.htm (accessed 27 July 2018).
Garcia-Morena C, Jansen H, Ellsberg M, Heise L, Watts CH. Prevalence of intimate partner violence: findings from the WHO multi-country study on women’s health and domestic violence. The Lancet Vol.368, Issue 9543 (2006).
Ellsberg M, Jansen H, Heise L, Watts CH, García-Moreno C. Intimate partner violence and women’s physical and mental health in the WHO multi-country study on women’s health and domestic violence: an observational study. The Lancet Vol.371, Issue 9619 (2008).
UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), CEDAW General Recommendation No. 19: Violence against women, 1992, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/52d920c54.html (accessed 27 July 2018).
World Health Organization. 2005. Multi-country study on women’s health and domestic violence against women: summary report of initial results on prevalence, health outcomes and women’s responses. WHO: Geneva.
World Health Organization. 2010. Preventing intimate partner and sexual violence against women taking action and generating evidence. WHO: Geneva