Gender equality and violence against women

What’s the connection?
ACSSA Research Summary No. 7 – June 2014

How did we get here? Establishing gender inequality as a determinant for violence against women

It has been acknowledged that there is a lack of information about causal factors for violence against women at the societal level of the ecological model compared to the individual and community levels (Krug, Dahlberg, Mercy, Zwi, & Lozano, 2002; WHO, 2010). Indeed, the lack of research data about societal risk factors makes comparison between settings within countries or between countries difficult to explore.

Cross-cultural studies provide important clues to understanding the ways in which social norms in different cultures affect levels of gendered violence. The work that has been done in this area finds a correlation between cultural social roles and levels of violence (Archer, 2006).

However, establishing the underlying causes of violence against women has been the subject of varying theories. The most prominent of these was the feminist model of causation that came out of the feminist movement of the 1970s. This held that patriarchy and men's indisputable power and oppression of women were the underlying causes (WHO, 2010). More recently, extended models of explanation have been incorporated to develop the theory of gender inequality further and to explore the effects of social roles, attitudes and other cultural factors. The one currently most in use is the ecological model. Heise (1998) advocated for a conceptualisation in an ecological model that could take feminist theory further, incorporating other societal and community factors influencing individual perpetrator behaviour and explaining why some but not all men perpetrate violence.

The work of feminist activists in raising the profile of intimate partner violence and other violence against women enabled the issue to be seen as a significant public health problem. This has facilitated an approach that aims for prevention of the problem. However, one of the key factors in public health prevention is identifying the societal factors of the problem at hand and working to change these. This is more difficult where the problem is not just physical or biological but has a social dimension as well, as is the case with violence against women. This requires investigation of social elements at various levels of the ecological model.

The role of social norms and gendered expectations

An important aspect of thinking about gender inequality in this societal sense is to understand the role of social norms and social organisation in situating groups into a hierarchical structure based on certain features such as gender, race or class (Ridgeway, 2014).

Such structures result in social status being conferred upon those with the most advantageous position. In terms of power and access to resources, these structures sort groups into a perpetuating pattern of inequality as the higher status groups retain their hold on power and resources. Ridgeway observed that social status or status in relation to other groups is therefore a central consideration in entrenched inequality. Entrenched differences in status lead to "status beliefs" and expectations about the social difference, for example that males are more competent, that then become autonomous beliefs which continue to reproduce the differences by perpetuating patterns of inequality (Ridgeway, 2014). This conceptualisation of status explains the widely shared cultural status beliefs at the societal level that impact on ordinary social relations at the community, organisational and individual levels, and work to legitimate the inequality of the social structure (Ridgeway, 2014). An important aspect of viewing inequality as a relational aspect between social group classification is that it can bring in additional components of social inequality such as race, disability and class.

Summarising the evidence around gender inequality as a determinant for violence against women, one of the key features of sexual and family violence is the reality that such violence is disproportionately experienced by women as victims and perpetrated by men (WHO, 2005).

Socio-cultural theories about causes of violence are based on the consideration of power and its relation to social structures such as institutions, political and economic systems as well as shared beliefs and attitudes that may be influenced by these structures. Such shared attitudes and behaviours can be considered to be cultural factors that underlie behaviour in a particular group (Nayak, Byrne, Martin, & Abraham, 2003). In assessing causation of violence against women, interventions that address these specific factors to achieve attitudinal and behaviour change will be most relevant. It is therefore important to look at specific differences cross-culturally and take into account influences such as religion, history and political factors in assessing differences (Nayak et al., 2003). By examining the attitudes across diverse countries and cultures, it is more likely that themes relating to causation of violence against women can be gleaned. It has already been established by research that gender is important in relation to attitudes, for example gender differences in attitudes towards sexual assault and domestic violence have been noted between men and women, with men more likely to endorse violence against women (Fanslow, Robinson, Crengle, & Perese, 2010; Nayak et al., 2003; Victorian Health Promotion Foundation et al., 2006).

Many current models of primary prevention use the ecological model developed by Bronfenbrenner as a conceptual frame by which to understand causes and risk factors of public health issues such as violence against women (WHO, 2010).1 This approach to gender-based violence enables an understanding of multiple causality and influences at different levels, including the individual, interpersonal or relationship level, community level and societal level. The societal level relates to larger, structural factors such as cultural beliefs and societal norms that create or sustain gaps or tensions between groups of people. It is at this level that gender inequality influences social roles and impacts most profoundly to create structural power differences that filter down to the other levels to create power and resource imbalances that affect gender interactions at the community, relationship and individual levels (WHO, 2010).

Gendered social scripts (that prescribe how each gender should behave) and inequality between the genders are two prominent factors that feature in the evidence base around violence against women (WHO, 2010). They are influences from the societal level of the ecological model but there is an acknowledged lack of research around them and their link to violence against women (WHO, 2010). The power structures also maximise male access to social and political power at the expense of female contributions to decision-making. With this background of social inequality, power differences in particular relationships between men and women and the use of violence as a way of resolving conflicts have been identified as more specific risk factors for gendered violence (WHO, 2010).

In her early work on the ecological framework of violence, Heise (1998) argued for the adoption of this framework with a particular emphasis on the ability of societal factors such as the socialisation of masculinity to be linked to aggression and dominance. She argued that various lines of research supported the suggestion that adherence to rigid gender roles correlates highly with interpersonal violence. Heise's arguments support the need for a more complex and nuanced analysis that is necessary for an understanding of individual and community variations in violence against women. The ecological framework provides a strong basis for a public health approach to prevention of violence against women by enabling theoretical consideration of the diversity of factors that influence inequality at the broadest level.


1 For a more detailed discussion of the ecological model see: What is Effective Primary Prevention in Sexual Assault? Translating the Evidence for Action (Quadara & Wall, 2012).