How gender violence emerges and develops in our society

It is always reassuring, in the face of yet another femicide, to circumscribe the causes to "madness", to a pathology, or to some individual features that deviates from the norm. By doing so, we protect the belief that we are living in a safe society, in which few people represent an exception, due to their individual characteristics and stories being completely different from the rest of the population. To solve the issue, it’s enough to "correct" these individuals, or to teach women how to recognize and protect themselves from them. But is this really the case

In line with the feminist theory of violence against women, it is much more complex to achieve and accept that our societies play a crucial role when considering violence against women, because of the way they are structured and organized: it is therefore crucial to recognize that, living in this type of society, each person is not only exposed to the risks that this structure entails, but is also part of the overall problem (and its solution). This partly explains why, within the debate on violence against women, people rarely focus on "distant" factors from the individual - such as the characteristics of the national contexts in which gender violence takes shape.

An aspect that according to literature has a central role in influencing violence against women has to do with gender inequalities on a national level, defined as “the extent to which men have a better status than women in the context of the social, economic, and political arenas”' (United Nations Development Program, 2015). Many studies have analyzed the relationship between gender inequalities and violence rates against women, showing how in countries with greater gender inequalities the prevalence of gender-based violence episodes is higher. The first evidence in support of this connection date back to the 80s, and show how the higher gender inequalities are (assessed through different indicators measuring status differences between men and women in economic, educational, political and legal contexts), the higher the rates of domestic violence and rape are. However, one of the first studies to empirically test the feminist theory of violence against women in a cross-national perspective was carried out by Yodanis in 2004, which showed how the higher status differences between men and women are (calculated by integrating data concerning employment status, educational level and political participation of women compared to men within a particular nation), the higher the rates of sexual violence and levels of fear experienced by women towards men are. In other words, the greater the educational, working and power equality between women and men, the lower the probability that men commit sexual violence against women, and the less women tend to experience high levels of fear of being victims of violence perpetuated by men. This is confirmed by more recent studies using several indicators of gender inequalities and analyzing different forms of violence.

So what does research tell us about this relationship? How can it be explained? To provide a complete response, a multidimensional approach should be adopted. Such strategy allows for an evaluation of the role of different components involved in gender inequalities, keeping in mind both their structural (that is, the opportunities for access to certain resources and roles by women ) and the ideological components (the system of rules, stereotypes, values and beliefs that develop around the role of women in society).

When considering the working environment, women living in a country high in gender inequality are structurally more penalized by selection processes, which favor people who are considered stereotypically more competent (that is, men), and are therefore more frequently relegated to a role of economic dependence. This in turn can increase women’s vulnerability to abuse and violence by partners or family members, because of the lower economic resources available in order to possibly escape situations of violence. Similarly, women are underrepresented in the different decision-making roles, and thus have less power in the political domain. Therefore, it is less likely that laws protecting them from gender-based violence are either proposed or implemented.

Despite the ample evidence connecting national gender inequalities to gender-based violence, in some studies such connection is either weak or not detected. These conflicting results can be partially explained by methodological choices, such as what form of violence investigated by the study, or the specific indicator of gender inequalities used. At the same time, this evidence also reminds us of the complexity of the issue, the wide amount of factors influencing it, and the importance of analyzing how the national socio-economic context interacts both with individual characteristics and proximal contexts with which the person has direct contact - such as family, friends, school, the working environment, and so on.

It is also important to discuss about how this relationship is evolving over time. While gender inequalities are decreasing worldwide, there are considerable differences between countries, or within countries themselves. For example, a recent study involving 25 developing countries shows how the pace with which these changes occur could represent a central element: the study highlights how only in countries where the path to equality is faster a decrease in violence rates against women is also occurring. According to the authors, it is possible that a fast reduction in gender inequalities on a national level is more effective in creating the critical mass in which the rules can be spread in different social contexts, increasing social pressure to join you.

Violence against women does not take place in a void, but it is the result of a complex intertwining of characteristics of the contexts in which we live. Family, friendships, school, workplace, and media can influence the probability of violence occurring, and they can do so via shared norms and practices. In a country where women have less opportunities than men to access certain resources and roles (consider how the International Women’s Day was born as a women's female factory workers revolution), each of these contexts will reflect this disparity, and strengthen it. This imbalance of opportunities creates a society in which the lower presence of women in the world of work or in the political sphere becomes the norm, promoting and strengthening beliefs and stereotypes that justify this disparity with alleged differences in knowledge and skills (an aspect that will be deepened in the next article of this column).

Every act of violence against women is “neither madness nor sickness, but the healthy son of the patriarchate”. Only by addressing the most rooted causes of gender inequalities, for example through multilevel interventions involving various life contexts, will it be possible to thwart violence against women effectively and in the long term.


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