Gender equality and violence against women

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

A public health approach to considering gender inequality and violence against women

Although the types of violence against women cross over and are linked, having similar underlying determinants, there will be differences in the causes of perpetration of intimate partner violence and sexual violence perpetrated outside of an intimate relationship. Therefore, the following information should be considered together and separately when analysing the evidence of underlying drivers of violence against women.

Gender inequality and intimate partner violence

In a review of studies, including cross-cultural studies, Jewkes (2002), the prominent violence against women researcher, considered various theories of causation and risk factors for intimate partner violence against women. Issues such as poverty, power and gender roles were all considered in this review. It was concluded that two factors seem to be necessary for intimate partner violence against women. First is the unequal position of women within particular relationships, and second is the normative use of violence in a conflict. These factors then interact and are enhanced by societal norms about gender roles and ideologies of male superiority and legitimise demonstrations of power against women. Jewkes also noted that the effects of factors contributing at other levels of the social ecology, such as alcohol and women's poverty, are interconnected and dynamic.

Jewkes (2002) noted that where there were higher levels of female empowerment, this seemed to have a protective effect against intimate partner violence. However, the sources of this female power varied and had different levels of effect. For example, education or income may be sources of power for women but may have different impacts depending on cultural values or need. Education was consistently noted as conferring social empowerment for both men and women but the relationship between education and women has more complex effects as it can increase the risk factor for violence. Showing an inverted U-shape, education only offers a protective element at the highest and lowest levels. This means that a low level of education can be protective, a very high level of education can be protective but there is potentially a backlash effect with a moderate level of education (Jewkes, 2002).

It is necessary to compare and contrast differences and similarities between the factors relating to gender equality that feature regularly in cultures with higher or lower rates of violence against women. Jewkes also noted that societies with stronger belief systems about male dominance have more intimate partner violence. These beliefs are also more likely to be reflected at a societal level such as in political and economic systems.

The earlier work of researcher David Levinson (1989) is widely cited as providing a cross-cultural observation of physical violence against women. It looked at different aspects of female status and its relationship with physical violence against women. His ethnographic studies encompassed 90 societies and analysed cultural features that might be related to "wife-beating" (as it was termed in his work). Levinson noted that sexual inequality can be represented and measured differently across different societies and that sometimes there were differences in women's status in private compared to public spheres. His work considered differences in status and power as multidimensional. Status and power were defined and measured in relation to the control of wealth and property, dominance in the household, restrictions on sex and marriage, separation of the sexes, the value of female human life and male dominance in kinship relationships. Levinson's studies showed that "wife-beating" was likely to occur more frequently in societies where men have control over finances and domestic decision-making, divorce is difficult for women to obtain, the husband's kin group controls the wife's ability to remarry, polygamous marriage is permitted and women do not band together in exclusively female work groups.. Levinson's work pointed out that the relationship between physical family violence and sexual equality is very complex but that the presence of all-female work groups provides women with social support and economic independence from men.

Gender inequality and sexual violence against women

The World Association for Sexual Health has noted that even though gender-related behaviour, including sexual behaviour is influenced by culture and social role expectations, despite cultural diversity across the globe, heterosexual sexual activity is notably consistent in the gendered power imbalances that prevail (World Association for Sexual Health, 2008).

In order to study the drivers of perpetration of rape, it is necessary to study men as well as women in relation to this gendered crime (Jewkes, 2012). In the introduction to this review the author noted that there has been very little research done in the form of population studies, and for the purposes of prevention, cross-sectional and longitudinal studies are really required to measure environmental and individual factors to understand how these interact with societal factors to lead to perpetration. The highly gendered nature of sexual violence, however, in that most perpetrators are men and victims are more likely to be women, means analysis of gender structures as a basis for enabling sexual violence is necessary.

Jewkes (2012) noted that it is gendered inequities in social roles that appear to enable sexual and physical violence against women. This study was used for considering whether attitudes play an important role in the greater environment as enabling factors for perpetration in general, without them specifically working to differentiate men who have not perpetrated sexual violence (Jewkes, 2012). Included in this are ideas around men's authority over women and beliefs about sexual entitlement that saw men's motivations to rape include entitlement, "fun" (i.e., rape as entertainment) and punishment. In a multi-country study of factors associated with non-partner rape perpetration, a key finding was that a sense of sexual entitlement was a frequently given reason from men who had raped a non-partner woman (Jewkes, 2012).

The idea that rape is associated with the exertion of power is not new, but quantitative findings that link rape perpetration to certain behaviours, such as having a higher number of sexual partners, having sex with sex workers and using physical violence against a partner, appear to tie-in with a conceptualisation of masculinity that emphasises heterosexual performance and the use of that power over women (Fulu et al., 2013).

An ongoing difficulty with research in the areas of sexual violence and intimate partner violence is the limitations on comparability between settings because of variations such as data availability or definition, as well as rates of disclosure, which can be affected by various factors including cultural differences and interviewing techniques.

The importance of attitudes about violence against women as an indicator of gender inequality

Attitudes about the legitimacy of violence against women are an important indicator of widespread societal acceptance or otherwise of violence against women (Fanslow et al., 2010). This is particularly relevant in a cross-cultural context because variations in attitudes can indicate a variation in acceptance of violence against women and could be considered against prevalence indicators to gain an insight into the connection between violence and equality. Attitudes that are held about violence can lead to other factors, however, such as a willingness to report violence in societies where violence is not socially acceptable. This could potentially impact on data that uses rates of reported violence.

A VicHealth study that researched factors that influence community attitudes about violence against women included findings that "attitudes to violence against women are inextricably grounded in and intertwined with attitudes towards women, gender and sexuality" (Victorian Health Promotion Foundation et al., 2006, p. 6).

In addition, community judgements about violence against women are influenced by more general attitudes to gender and sexuality (Victorian Health Promotion Foundation et al., 2006). These attitudes vary within different cultural contexts and suggest that socio-cultural factors may be more important than gender alone in influencing attitudes to violence against women These attitudes reflect gender norms and social beliefs about male and female roles and positions in society (Nayak et al., 2003).

As an indicator of equality, attitudes have to form one aspect of measurement because in a society where women are considered of equal status to men, this would have to impact on the societal level of the ecological model in terms of beliefs that support violence against women.

Other perspectives

These considerations of culture and other factors are incorporated into perspectives that challenge gender inequality as the principle underlying factor of violence against women. Sokoloff and Dupont (2005) noted that there are various groups of advocates challenging the traditional feminist view that gender inequality is the key factor underlying family violence. They argue that gendered power is modified by other compounding intersections of power such as race and class. Same-sex intimate partner abuse is sometimes held up as an example whereby gender as an explanation alone is insufficient, however there may be additional power and control pressures on same-sex victims - fear of homophobic responses to reporting the abuse and fear of discrimination or invisibility - leading them to stay in unsatisfactory relationships (Sokoloff & Dupont, 2005).

Another perspective that raises questions about gender as the prime determinant in a family violence sense is that victim survivors may experience additional power deficits in terms of homelessness, economic challenge and racism (Sokoloff & Dupont, 2005). This is one of the key arguments against in debates about gender mainstreaming as policy.