Gender Matters - Manual on Gender based Violence Affecting Young People
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2. Gender-based violence

2.1 Introduction

What is the difference between violence against women and gender-based violence?

‘Gender-based violence’ (GBV) is still an emerging and developing term. Originally it was used mostly to replace the term ‘(male) violence against women’, because the word woman refers to both individuals of the female sex and to feminine gender roles in society. Those developing the term wanted to emphasize that violence against women is a phenomenon that is related to the gender of both victim and perpetrator. Many definitions continue to focus solely on the fact that women are victims of violence: for example, the UNHCHR’s CEDAW (Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women) committee states that GBV is “…violence that is directed against a woman because she is a woman or that affects women disproportionately”.

However, there is a development towards extending this definition to all forms of violence that are related to (a) social expectations and social positions based on gender and (b) not conforming to a socially accepted gender-role. In this way gender-based violence is increasingly a term that connects all acts of violence rooted in some form of ‘patriarchal ideology’ (see 1.4), and can thus be committed against both women and men by women and men with the purpose of maintaining social power for (heterosexual) men. This evolution of the definition can be observed in the following description:

Gender-based violence is an umbrella term for any harm that is perpetrated against a person’s will; that has a negative impact on the physical or psychological health, development, and identity of the person; and that is the result of gendered power inequities that exploit distinctions between males and females, among males, and among females. Although not exclusive to women and girls, GBV principally affects them across all cultures. Violence may be physical, sexual, psychological, economic, or sociocultural. Categories of perpetrators may include family members, community members, and those acting on behalf of or in proportion to the disregard of cultural, religious, state, or intra-state institutions. (1)

This table summarises the issues addressed in the quotation above:

Gender based violence

What ?

Action restricting a person’s will or freedom

Negative impact on physical or psychological health

Negative impact on the identity of a person

Exploits distinctions between male and female, among males, and among females

Against whom ?

Everyone, but it affects mainly girls and women

How ?

Violence may be:

  • physical
  • sexual
  • psychological
  • economic
  • sociocultural

Who does it ?

Everyone can. Common perpetrators may include:

  • family members
  • community members
  • those acting on behalf of cultural, religious, state, or intra-state institutions, or free to act because of their disregard

Perpetrators benefit in different ways when committing acts of violence. There are two main functions of gender-based violence:

  • In the case of women in general, gender-based violence is a way of assuring women’s inferior position in society. Violence against women, and the threat of it, is a form of gender-based violence that deprives women of their rights socially before the law becomes involved. This is one of the reasons why long-standing laws on equality of the sexes, or general legal sanctions for most forms of violence against women, have not been able to end or even significantly limit the inequality of women and men by themselves. (2)
  • In the case of LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered) people and men who do not act according to dominant masculine gender roles, gender-based violence has the function of correction by example. The severity of the ‘punishment’ for men who do not act according to the demands of male gender roles (whether gay, bisexual or heterosexual) may be related to the perceived danger that their difference presents to normalised and dominant assumptions about gender. Their very lives might collide and appear to contradict the idea that there are natural forms of behaviour and social roles in general for men and women.

2.2 What is violence?

Can victims provoke violence? Should perpetrators of violence always be punished? If not, where would you draw the line? When is violence acceptable / excused in your (cultural, national, community) context?

Violence is something that needs to be recognised. In other words, when we think about violence, we are influenced by socially, culturally and politically constructed notions of violence for example good violence, bad violence and understandable violence. The following definitions suggest a variety of ways to think about violence:

  • Physical violence “…involves acts carried out with knowledge of the likely consequences for the other person including pain and injury.” (3)
  • Violence is “…anything avoidable that hinders human self-realisation.” as expressed by Johann Galtung
  • “Violence is a means of control and oppression that can include emotional, social or economic force, coercion or pressure, as well as physical harm. It can be overt, in the form of physical assault or threatening someone with a weapon; it can also be overt, in the form of intimidation, threats, persecution deception or other forms of psychological or social pressure. The person targeted by this kind of violence is compelled to behave as expected or to act against her/his will out of fear.” IRIN (UN Office for the Constitution of Humanitarian Affairs) (4)

Violence is an issue of responsibility towards others and ourselves. The issue of personal responsibility is crucial for effective prevention and intervention, particularly – and here we could look at our own reactions to any everyday act of violence, including gender-based – as there is a tendency to place some or even most of the responsibility on the victims of violence. ‘Victim-blaming’ exists to a certain degree with all forms of violence and is at least partially an obvious psychological reaction. In order not to question the safety of the world around us when we hear of a violent incident, we may examine the behaviour of the victim and assure ourselves that if we avoid such risks and behaviour (e.g. being out late alone, going into certain districts, leaving our door unlocked, dressing in a ‘provocative’ way) we will avoid violence. This natural act of psychological self-defence, however, focuses our attention on the perceived responsibility of the victim, and may neglect to fully question the conduct of the perpetrator.

Furthermore, there are many common ways in which gender-based violence is specifically excused, just as with any other occasion of violence, where an oppressive social structure is involved, and the violence is committed by somebody from the ‘power-group’ against somebody from the ‘group with less power’. Many factors – difficult childhoods, psychological factors, or the perceived complicity of victims – are used to explain the occurrence of gender-based violence. Nevertheless, if preventing violence involves a responsibility to ourselves and others, it is important that these factors are not used in general social discussions to lessen the responsibility of perpetrators.


- Develop a list of the different forms of gender-based violence you know of in society. Try to list a concrete example for every form identified.

- What are the most typical reactions that you have experienced regarding the different forms of violence and gender-based violence listed?

- Do these reactions involve victim-blaming and forms of mitigation? Do other forms of interpersonal violence evoke similar reactions?

2.2.1 Aggression and violence

Is violence natural? Is violence an issue of sex or gender? Are violence and aggression the same? What is the relationship of these two words to each other in your language? Is a physical attack always considered as violence? Is there a difference in judging violence depending on the identity of the perpetrator and the victim?

The words ‘aggression’ and ‘violence’ are often used interchangeably, yet they do not mean the same thing. ‘Aggression’ is something we can experience in situations that are physically or emotionally threatening to us. The ‘fight or flight’ reactions that we experience in such situations have a biochemical background and are closely related to the self-preservation instinct of most species, including humans. In anger-management training courses and programmes for violent offenders, it is advised that it is possible to exercise control over our aggressive potential. In a matter of seconds we can assess whether it is ‘appropriate’ to use violence in a certain situation or not. In developing a gender perspective on violence, many practitioners argue that violence is the decision to use one’s aggressive potential to hurt another person’s integrity.

This definition is not the only possible way to look at violence, however. Manuela Martinez, who has researched violence and aggression in both humans and animals, points out that “it is very difficult to differentiate between aggression and violence in humans”. She uses the word ‘aggression’ to refer to the behaviour of animals, “as in this case this behaviour has a very specific purpose (survival of the individual and the species) and it is, in general, very well controlled and ritualised”. In the case of humans, however, she considers the same behaviour to be violence “…as there is no relation between the harm caused in the victim and the objective of the behaviour”. (5)

As the example below suggests, there are tangible differences between a sudden aggressive action that is the result of an immediate threat to physical or mental integrity, and a violent action that results from the desire of (in this case male) privilege to ‘punish’ behaviour found to be unacceptable.

“Everybody envied me for my boyfriend. He was very popular at school, a charming and handsome young man, always polite with teachers, respectful to his and my parents. But sometimes, when we were on our own and I did something he did not like (like going out with the girls), he would shout at me. Later came the kicks and shoves. I could not tell anybody I knew because all my friends, my parents, and his parents were so impressed with what a nice a guy he was.” (6)

If our aggressive potential is an evolutionary development, designed to aid self-preservation, then this impulse is present in everybody, whether male or female. As chapter one outlined, however, expressions and behaviours are gendered, and our societies demand very specific responses in certain situations. An aspect of the socialisation processes discussed in the previous chapter is that from early childhood boys and girls may come to feel that they are supposed to react differently to their anger or fear, feelings that typically trigger aggressive reactions. You can think about this again by examining again the discussions of masculinity in section 1.4. Apart from handling our aggressive potential according to our gender and gender experience, we also learn about other limiting factors, such as the age group we belong to. For example, corporal punishment of children and young people by parents or teachers is allowed in many legal systems either by the word or practice of the law, whereas a similar slap between adults is judged differently both by the courts and by the public.


This short reflection works through perceptions of violence in our surroundings.

1. Think of several situations when you were angry with different people such as friends, teachers, parents, or a trainer. List the different ways in which you have reacted in each situation. Can you recognize certain patterns in the ways you have reacted to frustrating situations in the past?

2. Think of your grandparents and others of their generation and the treatment of violence in their time (if you know anything about it). Think of your parents and their attitudes to violence, and what is considered acceptable and unacceptable. Think of your own approach to violence today. Has this changed from one generation to the next?

3. Try to find out about the criminal statistics for violent crimes in your country. The Ministry of Justice, the central police headquarters, statistical office or attorney general’s office are usually obliged to publish such data. As they all act in the name of citizens, these statistics are public data and should be freely accessible to everyone. Look for figures on murder, manslaughter, serious bodily injury, sexual crimes and also on crimes related to child neglect (parental neglect). Check whether the official statistics record the sex of offenders and victims. If they do, create a table showing how commonly men and women become victims or perpetrators of different crimes. Based on the previous discussions related to gender and socialisation, discuss whether participants can recognize connections between gender socialisation and criminal statistics.

4. Find out about the legal provisions in your country or countries for parents ‘disciplining’ their children with the use of violence. Is it different from what is allowed between strangers, whether adults, or an adult and a child?

2.2.2 Abuse and violent incidents

What constitutes abuse? Yesterday I shouted at my boyfriend/girlfriend: does that mean I’m abusive? I’ve done or experienced something from the lists of violence: am I an abuser, or am I being abused?

Abuse is something ongoing; therefore it requires some form of relationship between the abuser and the abused. This relationship can initially be wanted by both parties (as in the case of an intimate relationship), but it can be relationships initiated by one party only (child-parent relationship), or something that is a result of social factors (such as teacher-student or neighbours). Just as with differentiating between ‘violence’ and ‘aggression’, separating ‘violent incidents’ and ‘abuse’ can be challenging. Some of the differences between ‘violent incident’ and ‘abuse’ can be highlighted as follows:

Violent incident in a relationship

  • occasional and irregular
  • both parties can initiate
  • it can be discussed between the parties; the discussion changes the behaviour of the person who caused the conflict
  • as the partners know more and more about each other, conflict probably lessens
  • the instigator-causer of the conflict feels responsible
  • it is an issue of two people who take into account the views of both
  • spontaneous, often a reaction to outside factors (frustration, tiredness, being afraid of something)
  • what was done can be compensated for
  • solution is within the relationship

Abusive relationship

  • regular incidents
  • the roles are always the same
  • it escalates: a series of more and more serious one-sided conflicts
  • it cannot be discussed successfully; there are no changes after discussion
  • the perpetrator often prepares consciously
  • the perpetrator does not take responsibility, and holds victim responsible
  • one-dimensional issue: acknowledges the views of only one
  • what was done cannot (should not) be excused
  • the abuse is done with the support of power imbalances (gender roles, physical power, economic influence)
  • the feelings of the victim: helplessness, fear, self-blame
  • solution can only come through outside means (divorce, police intervention, separate therapy / self-help)

These lists contain probabilities, and for a relationship to be seen as abusive - rather than just containing violent incidents - typically several items on the list have to be relevant. Some actions present on the ‘abuse list’ hurt the psychological and physical integrity of the other to such an extent that even one instance entails abuse. As a general guide, abuse is an ongoing and imbalanced system of oppression, committed by groups or individuals against groups or individuals.

Measuring abuse and violent incidents in society…

When an ongoing violent relationship and individual incidents of aggression are both counted as violence, it is very easy to come to the false conclusion that women and men experience similar levels of violence in intimate relationships. This can be seen, for example, in an article published in The Guardian (7): the article gives an overview of the findings of the 1999 UK Home Office Research Study on domestic violence (8), which stated - on the basis of a self-completion questionnaire included in the British Crime Survey - that the percentage of male and female population to have experienced any type of physical assault from a partner or former partner in the previous year was the same (4.2%). Just one paragraph later, the research summary mentions that ‘women were more likely to have been assaulted three or more times’. However, the title of the article reads: ‘Both sexes equally likely to suffer domestic violence’, thereby equating one-time physical assaults of any type with the ongoing process of domestic violence.

This headline equates one-off violent incidents with ongoing abuse, and does not give information on the power and psycho-social relations. A later Home Office research study by Sylvia Walby and Jonathan Allen (9) for example, pointed out that it was more typical for men to have experienced only one incidence of violence, whereas it was more typical for women to experience repeated acts of violence by the same person, ‘with women constituting 89% of all those who suffered four or more incidents’. As Myra Marx Ferre, a U.S. researcher put it when discussing studies on violence against women and men, “[t]he ability to discern and analyse the differences between simple acts of violence and patterns of domestic terrorism are crucial”. (10)

2.2.3 Violence in the public and private sphere

Does the government have a say in something that happens in the home? Do men / women experience violence in the same way?

The ethical, moral and legal frameworks of the Council of Europe member countries have historically been concerned with violence as something existing in the public sphere, whereas the private (domestic) sphere was idealised as a space apart from society, ideally untouched by society’s influence. Civil and political rights (the so-called first-generation rights)[4], for example, are mainly concerned with violence in the public sphere and with limiting the state and its representatives in perpetrating violence as a means to abuse power. This has meant that specific forms of violence against women have gone unnoticed, or have only been gradually addressed. For a long time in history, the inferior position of women or certain ethnic or racial minorities was considered natural. Therefore acts that are now considered human rights violations were not widely condemned because the victims of these violations were not acknowledged by those in power in society to have those rights.

Although reliable, gender-sensitive statistics are still rare in most Council of Europe member countries, there is evidence to suggest that women and men experience violence in different ways[5]. The World Health Organisation’s World Report on Violence and Health notes that whereas men ‘…are much more likely to be attacked by a stranger or an acquaintance than by someone within their close circle of relationships…one of the most common forms of violence against women is that performed by a husband or male partner’ (11). In other words, women experience more violence in the private sphere, whereas for men it is more likely to occur in the public sphere.

An extreme case in point is the issue of rape in war: it has only recently been ‘recognised’ as a war crime, despite the fact that the concept of war crimes has existed since the Second World War (and mass rape was perpetrated throughout that conflict). The Balkan wars of the first half of the 1990s marked a turning point: pressure from women’s rights activists and media coverage resulted in rape being included in the list of war crimes[6]. A European Community fact-finding team estimates that more than 20,000 Muslim women were raped during the war in Bosnia (12).

It is important, however, not to approach gender-based violence in conflict situations as something separate or different. Some women’s organisations in the Balkan region organised themselves primarily to support women victims of war, only to find out that the ‘war on women’ was there in peacetime as well: “Violence against women in wartime is a reflection of violence against women in peacetime, as long as violence against women is pervasive and accepted; stress, small arms proliferation and a culture of violence push violence against women to epidemic proportions, especially when civilians are the main targets of warfare.” (13)

Similarly, recognising the forms of violence that lesbian women, gay men, bisexuals and transgendered people face is a recent and slow process. This is hardly surprising given that LGBT issues are still marginalised in many countries, and LGBT often lack explicit representation in structures and institutions that frame human realities and our responses to issues. Including violence against LGBT has been influential in moving to an understanding of gender-based violence that is broader than a sex-based definition of violence against women. Gender-based violence against LGBT individuals is usually known as ‘gay bashing’, which is the physical, psychological or verbal assault of a lesbian or homosexual on account of his or her sexual orientation.

2.3 Types of violence

Is violence only physical? What forms can violence take? Are all forms of violence criminalized?

We are used to associating violence predominantly with physical violence. According to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, for example, violence is ‘physical force exerted for the purpose of violating, damaging, or abusing’. To understand gender-based violence, however, we need to broaden our associations. As Johann Galtung defined, violence can be seen as anything avoidable that obstructs human self-realisation. Victims of verbal attack, of sexual violence, of systematic economic deprivation by a partner or of threatening behaviour would identify themselves also as victims of violence.

Violence is a difficult and complex issue, and categorising different ‘types’ of violence can never be exact. For discussion purposes, however, it is useful to start with a framework for discussion (which may also prove useful during group work). In this publication we will distinguish five inter-related types of violence: physical, verbal, sexual(ised), psychological and socio-economic. In reality, some or many forms can be present at the same time, particularly in abusive relationships. All forms can occur both in the private sphere (in families and intimate relationships) and in the public sphere, committed by unknown individuals in public space, or by organisations, institutions, and states. It is also important to stress that although some forms of gender-based violence are considered to be typical for (married) couples and generally adults, studies and experience show that young women and men are similarly affected[7].

a) Physical violence

Physical violence includes beating, burning, kicking, punching, biting, maiming or killing, the use of objects or weapons, or tearing out one’s hair. Some classifications also include trafficking and slavery in the category of physical violence because initial coercion is often experienced, and the young women and men involved end up becoming victims of further violence as a result of their enslavement.

Physical violence in the private sphere

Physical violence is an act attempting to or resulting in pain and / or physical injury. As with all forms of violence, the main aim of the perpetrator is not only - or may not always be - to cause physical pain, but to limit the other’s self-determination. Physical violence sends a clear message to the victim from the perpetrator: “I can do things to you that you do not want to happen.” Such violence demonstrates differences of social power, or may intend to promote particular demands through coercion. Gender-based violence in intimate relationships, often referred to as domestic violence, continues to be a distressing phenomenon in every country. According to the Council of Europe, domestic violence is the major cause of death and disability for women aged 16 to 44 and accounts for more death and ill-health than cancer or traffic accidents (14). Amnesty International quotes a Russian government estimate which states that ‘14,000 women were killed by their partners or relatives in 1999’ (15).

Physical violence in the private sphere affects young people to a great degree. Both common sense and international studies show that witnessing the abuse of one parent by another results in serious psychological harm to children. Often, children and young people present during an act of spousal abuse will also be injured, sometimes by accident and sometimes because they try to intervene. Young men often commit criminal offences against the abusive parent (mostly fathers) in order to protect their mothers and siblings. Children regularly become the victims of a revenge of the abuser on the mother. In fact, for many mothers a prime motivation to stay in an abusive relationship is that the abuser threatens to harm or kill the children if she tries to leave.

“No one thinks enough of the kids – or thinks what effect it has on them. It doesn’t just affect the mother – it’s the kids ... because they’re the ones that have got to see it and hear it.” (17-year-old girl) (16)

Physical violence also appears in the intimate relationships of young people: couples do not necessarily have to share accommodation or have children for physical violence in the relationship to take place. Because of this assumption, however, young people may feel there is a difficulty in talking about it. As the above quoted Council of Europe data shows, women as young as 16 die regularly as a result of domestic violence; dating relationships can even end with the death of the abused when the victim is in their early teens[8].

Physical violence in the public sphere

Gender-based violence in public is often related to assumptions and expectations concerning gender-roles. Verbal abuse, name-calling, threats and attacks may take place, and it is common that LGBTs or those perceived to be gay, lesbian or ‘different’ may become victims of public violence. Violence against LGBTs can be organised (groups going to well known meeting places of gay men to beat them up) or ‘spontaneous’ outbursts of violence, for example, when a lesbian woman is attacked when she walks on the street and holds hands with her partner in public. In this respect it is a safety issue, and research shows that many LGBTs refrain from showing affection in public for fear of being beaten up. This kind of street violence usually remains underreported.

A.-L.H. and three of his friends were attacked on Sunday 11th July, 2004 around 3:30am, returning from a gay party which took place in Belgrade. They came out of the club and were suddenly attacked from behind by at least four hooligans about a hundred metres from the club entrance. The hooligans were hitting them with bats and clubs shouting, “You want a party, Fags? Well here’s a party for you!” They attacked all of them; some were kicking while at least two of them were hitting him with bats. His left forearm was badly cut with an unidentified sharp object. The attackers gave L. the following severe body injuries: a broken tooth and nose, a cut of 7-8 cm long on his left forearm, a cut on his lower lip and swellings under his eyes. (17)

b) Verbal violence

Many cultures have sayings or expressions that state that words are harmless: there is a long tradition that teaches us to ignore verbal attacks. However, when these attacks become regular and systematic and purposefully target our sensitive spots[9], the object of these attacks is right to consider themselves subjected to verbal abuse.

Verbal violence in the private sphere

Contrary to a functional relationship in which partners recognise each other’s sensitive areas in time and take special care not to hurt each other in those areas, one who is verbally abusive will especially aim at hurting with words and tones.

Verbal abuse can include issues that are person-related, such as put-downs (in private or in front of others), ridiculing, the use of swear-words that are especially uncomfortable for the other, saying bad things about the loved ones of the other (family, friends), threatening with other forms of violence against the victim or against somebody or something dear to them. Other times the verbal abuse is related to the background of the victim, such as religion, culture, language, (perceived) sexual orientation or traditions. Depending on the most emotionally sensitive areas of the victim, abusers consciously target these issues in a way that is painful, humiliating and threatening to the victim.

Verbal violence in the public sphere

Most of the verbal violence that women experience because of being women is sexualised, and is listed under sexual violence. Once more, verbal GBV in the public sphere is largely related to gender-roles: they include comments and jokes about the ‘stupidity’ of women or they present women as sex objects (jokes about sexual availability, prostitution, rape). A large amount of bullying is related to the (perceived) sexuality of young people (especially boys). The regular negative use of words such as ‘queer’ or ‘fag’ is often traumatising for those perceived as gays and lesbians. This is very likely one of the reasons why many gays and lesbians only ‘come out’ after secondary school.

c) Psychological violence

All forms of violence have a psychological aspect, since the main aim of being violent or abusive is to hurt the integrity and dignity of another person. Apart from this, there are some forms of violence which are communicated through conducts that cannot be placed in the other categories, and therefore can be said to achieve psychological violence in a ‘pure’ form. This can include isolation or confinement, withholding information, disinformation, and threatening behaviour.

Psychological violence in the private sphere

Psychological violence can be, for example, threatening conducts which lack physical violence or verbal elements. They can be actions that refer to former acts of violence, or purposeful ignorance and neglect of the other.

Psychological violence in the public sphere

A common form includes the isolation of young women or men who do not act according to gender roles. Isolation in the public sphere is most often used by peer groups, but responsible adults, such as teachers and sports coaches, can also be perpetrators. Most typically it means exclusion from certain group activities. It can also include intimidation in a similar fashion to psychological abuse in the private sphere.

d) Sexual(ised) violence

The term ‘sexualised’ is increasingly used to stress an important aspect of this type of violence, namely that of using sexuality as a terrain for attack is merely another tool to inflict damage, rather than anything related to the sexuality of either perpetrator or victim. Sexual violence has often been related to the behaviour of the victim (explicit sexual behaviour or dressing in the public sphere, denial of sexual availability in the private sphere) or related to the sexual needs of the perpetrator (sexual frustration). This is called ‘relativisation’, and is one of the methods through which different players in society try to ignore the seriousness of gender-based violence. Relativisation means that the criminal act of rape, for example, is not judged as an act on its own, but relative to the perceived behaviour of the victim. It may also include misguided attempts to consider factors on the perpetrators’ side which make their action ‘understandable’.

As more and more data has become available on the true circumstances of sexual violence related to both victims and perpetrators, it has become clear that sexual(ised) violence, as with every other form of violence, is related to the power structure between abuser(s) and abused. Sexual(ised) violence includes many actions that are equally hurtful to every victim and are used similarly in the public and private sphere; examples include rape (sexual violence including some form of penetration of the victim’s body), marital rape and attempted rape. Other types of forced sexual activities include being forced to watch somebody masturbate, forcing somebody to masturbate in front of others, forced unsafe sex, sexual harassment, and, in the case of women, abuse related to reproduction (forced pregnancy, forced abortion, forced sterilisation).

Sexualised violence in the private sphere

Some forms of sexual(ised) violence, which are related to the particular victim’s personal limits, are more typical of the private sphere: the perpetrator violates these limits on purpose, such as date rape, forcing certain types of sexual activities, withdrawal of sexual attention as a tool of punishment, forcing the other(s) to watch (and sometimes to imitate) pornography.

Sexualised violence in the public sphere

The different forms of sexual(ised) violence appear without exception in both the private and the public sphere. There are however three forms of sexual violence in the public sphere which need to be noted because of their impact on victims and potential victims: sexual harassment at the workplace, sexual violence as a weapon of war and torture, and sexual violence against (perceived) LGBT as a means of ‘punishment’ for abandoning prescribed gender-roles.


Rape: The invasion of any part of the body of the victim or of the perpetrator with a sexual organ, or of the anal or genital opening of the victim with any object or any other part of the body by force, coercion, taking advantage of a coercive environment, or against a person incapable of giving genuine consent (International Criminal Court)

Sexual exploitation: Any abuse of position of vulnerability, differential power, or trust for sexual purposes; this includes profiting momentarily, socially, or politically from the sexual exploitation of another (United Nations Inter Agency Standing Committee)

Sexual harassment: Any unwelcome, usually repeated and unreciprocated sexual advance, unsolicited sexual attention, demand for sexual access or favours, sexual innuendo or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature, display of pornographic material, when it interferes with work, is made a condition of employment or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment (United Nations High Commission for Refugees)

Date rape: a rape that is committed by the person with whom the victim is on a date. The term originated in the 1980s, when the phenomenon became widely discussed.


Consider the definitions offered in the box above.

What are the relevant definitions in the criminal code of your country? Are there differences? Which definition do you prefer? Why?

In what context do these issues come up in your/a group of young people?

e) Socio-economic violence

This form of violence can be both a means to make the victim more vulnerable to other forms of violence, but can also be the reason why other forms of violence are inflicted. Whereas world economic figures clearly show that one of the results of neo-liberal globalisation is the feminisation of poverty[10] (making women generally more economically vulnerable than men), economic vulnerability is a phenomenon that exists on a personal level as well. It has been recognised in a vast number of abusive relationships as a distinct phenomenon, and that is why it has merited a category of its own. At the same time, a woman’s better economic status in a relationship does not necessarily eliminate the threat of violence because this can also lead to conflicts about status and emasculation in abusive relationships.

Socio-economic violence in the private sphere

Most typical forms of socio-economic violence include taking away the earnings of the victim, not allowing them to have a separate income (‘housewife’ status, working in the family business without a salary), or making her or him unfit for work through targeted physical abuse.

“We got married right after high-school, and I got pregnant at 19. I stayed at home for the next three years on maternity leave. He started to beat me regularly after our child was born, but he always took great care to hit me on places where it would not show: on my torso or where my head was covered with hair, so that our friends and family would not see it and ask questions. I would not have said anything to anyone because we are a middle-class family, and nobody would have believed that things like this happen outside poor ethnic families. After the three years were over, I wanted to study and get a part-time job. That was when he also started to beat my face. I missed my oral entry exam, and I started to miss whole weeks from work because I could not have gone to work with black eyes, or a swollen nose. It would have been so shameful! Eventually I was fired, as the company could not afford to have an employee missing work week after week with no plausible explanation.” (18)

Socio-economic violence in the public sphere

Socio-economic violence in the public sphere is both a cause and an effect of dominant gender power relations in societies. It can include denial of access to education or (equally) paid work (mainly to women), the denial of access to services, exclusion from certain jobs, the denial of the enjoyment and exercise of civil, cultural, social, political rights, and, as is sometimes the case for LGBTs, results in criminalisation.

Some public forms of socio-economic gender-based violence contribute to women becoming economically dependent on their partner (lower wages, very low or no child-care benefits, or benefits tied to the income tax of the wage-earning male partner). This in return gives a person with a tendency to be abusive in his relationships the chance to act without any fear of losing his partner.


Who are the most vulnerable groups to socio-economic violence in your environment?

In your experience does the state inflict this kind of violence?

2.4 Gender-based violence in a human rights framework

Is there a need for a special convention on women’s rights? What does the UN term ‘harmful traditional practices’ mean? How do we distinguish between cultural respect and cultural relativism, and who should decide about it?

In our contemporary world human rights conventions and declarations have become important symbolic and legal instruments for a variety of issues. This is a relatively new development; a widespread acknowledgement of human rights was basically absent from international relations until the Second World War; however, the Shoah (Holocaust) served as the catalyst “…that made human rights an issue in world politics”.(19).

One of the most important international human rights documents dealing with women’s rights is the United Nations ‘Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women’ (CEDAW) (20). This Convention prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex. It defines discrimination against women as:

Any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, social, cultural, civil or any other field. (21)

States that are parties to the Convention are obliged to adopt all necessary measures to ensure that women enjoy equality with men, meaning that they should adopt necessary legislation combating discrimination and advancing women’s rights. This, however, does not mean that women can be denied special protection by a state in relation to maternity.

CEDAW reviews compliance by states with the Convention. States have to submit periodic reports on the measures undertaken to implement the Convention. The CEDAW Committee monitors states’ compliance; however, its implementation mechanism is regarded as weak, and it relies on the force of moral persuasion. Another flaw is that there are many reservations and exceptions negotiated by states that have been added to this document[11].


Where does your country stand?

Find out whether your country has ratified the convention, and, if it has, whether there are any official reservations relating to the CEDAW convention.

Violence against women – unlike other issues such as suffrage (the right to vote), equality, or discrimination – is a more recent focus of international human rights agendas. CEDAW, which dates back to 1979 and came into force in 1981, mentions ‘discrimination’ twenty-two times, ‘equal’ or ‘equality’ thirty-four times, ‘human rights’ five times, but makes no mention of violence, rape, abuse or battery (22). However, in 1992 General Recommendation 19 was issued by the CEDAW Committee, recommending that violence against women should also be reported on by the state parties. The CEDAW Convention has recently added an individual complaint mechanism, whereby individuals, after exhausting domestic remedies, can file a complaint as to the State’s compliance with provisions of the Convention.

In 1993 in Vienna the United Nations General Assembly adopted the ‘Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women’, where violence was defined as

Any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life. (23)

This Declaration was significant in that it made violence against women an international issue, and not subject to arguments about cultural relativism. There are many ways of understanding and discussing cultural relativism, but in the post-World War Two international arena it developed as a way of countering racist and fascist ideologies of cultural, racial or civilisational superiority. Influential anthropologists such as Claude Lévi-Strauss, and institutions such as UNESCO argued that “…racism could be overcome by recognising the problem of ethnocentrism, by promoting the benefits of cultural diversity in enriching society and by encouraging greater knowledge of other cultures among western societies” (24). While understandable in this context, the belief that racism and oppression can be eradicated through greater knowledge and tolerance has encountered many problems. This is especially the case when cultural difference is used to explain or justify the human rights abuse of women. Therefore, this Declaration included a variety of what have been termed harmful traditional practices such as female genital mutilation, rape and torture, domestic battery and female sexual slavery. This was an important statement from the UN and it placed individual rights to physical integrity above cultural rights. It also recognised that national or cultural support for such practices are not representative of the wishes of women, and that, indeed, many voices in supposedly homogenous cultures are also opposed to these practices.

Another aspect of the Declaration is that it recognises the need to rethink apparently common sense boundaries between public and private, a challenge long advocated by feminist groups. The UN Declaration prohibits both state violence against women and private violence, including ‘…battering, sexual abuse of female children in the household, dowry-related violence, marital rape, female genital mutilation and other traditional practices harmful to women, non-spousal violence or violence related to exploitation’ (25). The Declaration also prohibits violence against women based on cultural practices. Although it is not a binding document, the Declaration contributed to breaking the wall of silence and recognising violence against women as an international human rights violation.

The ‘European Convention on Human Rights’ does not have special provisions relating to women’s rights or gender-based violence. It does stipulate, however, that private and family life should be protected (Article 8), men and women of marriageable age should have the right to marriage (Article 12) and that spouses should have equal rights in marriage (Article 5, Protocol 7). The Convention has a strong and well-known enforcement mechanism, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which receives individual as well as state vs. state complaints.[12]


Visit the HUDOC database on the European Court of Human Rights website and find out about judgements and dismissed cases related to gender-based violence involving your country / state.

Violence against women is no longer a private issue: it has been recognized as a human rights violation, and as a violation of an individual’s psychological and physical integrity. Yet recognition and legal measures are not enough. Violence prevention is a priority, and effective mechanisms and processes for violence prevention and gender mainstreaming also need to be in place. Apart from the international human rights bodies already discussed, other important mechanisms are:

  • National committees for gender advancement with a clear plan of action
  • An equality Ombudsman
  • Effective legislation implemented to ensure legal and substantive equality
  • Quotas for women in education and employment (for example, affirmative action measures)
  • In civil society, women's NGOs and women's studies in universities have important critical and lobbying roles

2.5 Gender-based violence against LGBT

Is violence against LGBT gender-based violence? What examples can you think of to explain your answer?

Violence against lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders (LGBT) is often neglected when gender-based violence is discussed. However, as we have seen in 1.3.4, gender and sexuality are two closely interconnected concepts. It is not unusual, for example, for perpetrators of violence against LGBTs to ‘justify’ their actions through expressing disgust at gay sexuality or gay masculinities. This neglect of gender-based violence against LGBTs partly reflects the lack of information we have, and the lack of legal and other forms of protection for LGBT in many countries in Europe and the rest of the world. There is no universal legal document that deals with or protects sexual minorities; LGBTs face “…continued exclusion from the full protection of international human rights norms” (26). The recent inability of the UN Human Rights Commission to adopt a document that would explicitly recognize homosexuals highlights how LGBTs suffer from an unequal situation in comparison to heterosexual citizens[13].

2.6 Domestic violence and violence in intimate relationships

What is the content of current public discourse in your country in relation to domestic violence? What are the human rights arguments most often quoted in relation to domestic violence?

Domestic violence, or intimate partnership violence, is the most common type of gender-based violence. It also requires special consideration because it is a relational type of violence, and the dynamics are therefore very different from violent incidents that occur among strangers.

Considering domestic violence as a private, domestic issue has significantly hampered recognition of the phenomenon as a human rights violation. The invisibility of the phenomenon was exacerbated by the fact that traditionally, international human rights law was believed to be applicable to relations between individual and the state (or the states), and human rights organisations focused only on politically motivated violations (such as torture or the inhumane treatment of prisoners). However, it has gradually become recognised that state responsibility under international law can arise not only from state action, but also from state inaction where the state fails to protect its citizens from violent crimes.


Domestic violence includes “forms of violence that perpetuate and exploit the dichotomy between women and men in order to assure the subordination and inferiority of women and everything associated with the feminine”. Although domestic violence occurs in same sex relationships just as often as in heterosexual relationships (1 in 4), and there are cases of women abusing their male partners, the vast majority of domestic violence is perpetrated against women by men.

Domestic violence (rape, battering, sexual or psychological abuse) leads to severe physical and mental suffering, injuries and often death. It is inflicted against the will of the person, with the purpose being to humiliate, intimidate and control the victim, and very often the victim is left without recourse to any remedies: the police and law enforcement mechanisms are often gender-insensitive, hostile or absent. (27)

A question often asked in relation to domestic violence is ‘why doesn’t (s)he leave?’ There is no simple answer because domestic violence is a complex phenomenon which involves physical, psychological, emotional and economic forms of abuse. It may often cause ‘battered woman syndrome’, where a woman in an abusive relationship starts feeling helpless, worthless, powerless and accepting of the status quo. Yet this term fails to explain many things, including why some women kill their violent partners, and other reasons why women stay in a violent relationship. These reasons include financial dependence on the abuser, social constraints, and a lack of alternatives such as shelters for abuse victims. Domestic violence often involves isolation of the victim from the family and friends, deprivation of personal possessions, manipulation of children, threats of reprisals against her and her children or other family members. Furthermore, common social pressures regarding the nature of the family – ‘some kind of father is better than no father for your children’ - makes getting out of an abusive relationship not only difficult but also extremely dangerous.

A further reason is the much-documented phenomenon of the ‘Cycle of Violence’.

The abusive behaviour involved in this cycle is sometimes instinctive and sometimes deliberate, and aims to keep the abused person in the relationship through promises and denials. The basic cycle consists of an outburst of violence, which is followed by a so-called ‘honeymoon period’ characterised by a sudden positive change in the behaviour of the abuser. It is known as the honeymoon period because victims often describe this period as being very similar to the early part of the relationship. The abuser is typically very apologetic because of the violence inflicted, promises to change, and may even offer presents. However, this period does not last long as its only function is to eliminate the worries of the victim regarding the future of the relationship. The victim her or himself is typically party to this as nobody likes to remember negative experiences, and therefore the victim welcomes the apparent changes and promises made.

Once the victim’s worries have been silenced, the old power structure is re-asserted. The many typical characteristics of domestic violence will again breed the kind of tension that eventually erupts in a further act of violence on the part of the abuser. Early in the relationship the violent incidents can be as far apart as six months or even a year, thereby making it difficult to recognise the cyclical nature. Early incidents are likely to be verbal incidents followed by minor acts of physical violence, which also make it hard for the victim to recognise that the put-downs, the breaking of cups, the shoves, the slaps and finally the beatings are parts of an escalating cycle.

The cycle not only escalates as far as the severity of violence is concerned, but the incidents typically become closer to each other. Eventually the honeymoon phase can completely disappear; in approximately 20% of abusive relationships it does not exist at all. It may be replaced, particularly in social groups where domestic violence and rigid gender roles are less accepted, by minimising or denial.

“The day after he hit me, I showed my boyfriend the marks on my arm and face. He looked at me and asked me what I had done to myself. I tried to explain to him that he had done this to me, to which he said, ‘If I had hit you, you’d be dead.” (28)

In contexts where rigid gender roles are more determining, the batterer has more freedom to deny responsibility. The set of gender roles that we are taught to belong to as women and men contain many contradictions, or demands that cannot be fulfilled. At the same time, part of the hegemonic male gender role is to oversee women and children in fulfilling their roles, and if necessary, discipline them. These two conditions combine to create a common justification for those who are abusive in relationships because they can easily find something or another to (a) blame the woman for the violence committed against her, and (b) to claim the right to inflict it.

Rape is a serious crime in most national criminal codes. However, when it relates to family and intimate relationships, the situation becomes more complicated. Rape by those who were known and trusted by the victim can have more serious and long-lasting consequences than rape by a stranger. Nevertheless, rape in an intimate relationship is very difficult to prove: in domestic courts the defence of consent, the prior relationship of the victim and the perpetrator and the prior sexual conduct of the victim often make the experience of victims resorting to legal action humiliating and traumatising[14].

Domestic violence is cyclical

Physical abuse and emotional abuse, often accompanied by acts of sexual violence, have been perceived in many countries as acts or crimes of ‘passion’, motivated by jealousy or the failure of the partner to fulfil expectations. The influence of alcohol is also often cited as a mitigating factor. This ignores the fact that abuse is perpetrated in a systematic way. As Ronda Copelon remarks, alcohol does cause violence, but “many men get drunk without beating their wives and…men often beat their wives without being drunk. To the extent that alcohol facilitates male violence, it is an important factor in the effort to reduce violence, but it is not the cause” (29).

2.6.1 Domestic violence in LGBT relationships

Domestic violence in LGBT relationships is harder to identify, both for the victims and for the services offering support, because ‘mainstream’ services for domestic violence do not always recognise domestic violence in same sex relationships and are rarely experienced in dealing with its specific aspects. However, statistics show that violence in heterosexual, gay, and lesbian relationships occurs at approximately the same rate (one in four).

The main differences and similarities between same-gender and opposite-gender domestic violence are summarised below (30).

Similarities include the form of abuse, the control the perpetrator has over the victim, the isolation the abused may experience and the dynamics of the ‘cycle of violence’.

Differences include:

Isolation: The isolation that accompanies domestic violence can be compounded by being LGBT in a homophobic society. Silence about domestic violence within the LGBT community further isolates the victim, giving more power to the batterer. Added to this is the problem of limited community space within LGBT networks: privacy may be difficult to maintain, and leaving made more difficult.

Heterosexist manipulation: A batterer may threaten to ‘speak out about’ a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity to friends, family, co-workers, or a landlord. In addition to this, existing services may require an individual to ‘come out’ against his or her will.

Fear of further oppression: As an oppressed and defamed group, the LGBT community is often hesitant to address issues that many fear will further ‘stain’ the community.

Gender-based denial: The battered women’s movement often avoids the fact that women do batter, and men are victims. This denial is also present among many police, hospital workers, and people in the criminal justice system.

Gender myths: People assume that two men in a fight must be equals. Similarly, Gay, bisexual and transgendered (GBT) men often reject the idea that they can be victims. It may also be assumed, given social assumptions about ‘deviance’, that this violence is part of a sadomasochistic one.

Context of historical oppression: LGBT people often approach shelters, social service agencies, domestic violence service-providers, police, and the courts with great caution. LGBT victims may fear re-victimization through homophobia, disbelief, rejection and degradation from institutions that have a history of exclusion, hostility and violence toward LGBT people.

“I had never been exposed to domestic violence through either experience or education. I am sure I was aware of it abstractly through the media but I never made the logical progression to realize that I, as a gay man, could be a victim. By not recognizing the abuse as domestic violence I never thought to reach out for help” (31).

The organisation FORGE[15] writes that ‘due to the fact that most Domestic Violence shelters and services are constructed around heterosexual women victims, gay (and straight) men who are battered or abused by women or men have no place in many organised systems for helping victims. Often, male victims are told that the only shelter options available to them are emergency housing for homeless people’.

Examples of good practice (where same sex couples are included in the work):

In Amsterdam a special ‘hotline’ for victims and perpetrators of domestic violence was recently launched. In an interview with two of the hotline volunteers, the volunteer used the more neutral term ‘partner’ and gave an example of domestic violence where a same sex couple was involved.

A survivor sharing her encounter with a poster on a university campus: “The first time I saw the poster about violence in gay and lesbian relationships, I just walked by thinking it had nothing to do with my life. On my way to lunch that afternoon, a few of the examples of abuse on it caught my eye. Over the next week I spent more and more time studying the poster. I realized that I was the target of these same behaviors in my relationship with Edie. That’s how I ended up deciding to come to a support group.” (32)

Endnotes for Chapter 2

(1) Source:

(2) MacKinnon, C.A. (1987). Feminism Unmodified. Discourses on Life and Law. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

(3) Christian Spoden quoted in Gavan Titley, 2003, Youth Work with Boys and Young Men as a Means to Prevent Violence in Everyday Life, Council of Europe, p 23

(4) Our Bodies – Their Battle Ground: Gender-based Violence in Conflict Zones. Source:

(5) Source: e-mail exchange with Professor Manuela Martinez on 19 and 25 July, 2005

(6) Testimony of a young Hungarian domestic violence victim – NANE hotline

(7) Travis, A., ‘Both sexes equally likely to suffer domestic violence’ in The Guardian, 22 January 1999. (p.12).

(8) Source:,

(9) Source:

(10) Ferree, M.M., (2004, September). ‘Assessing the science: key issues for research on violence against women’. Paper presented at the Conference Everyday violence and human rights in Osnabrück, Germany.

(11) Source:

(12) Source:

(13) Source:

(14) Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. (2002). Domestic Violence against Women, Recommendation 1582. Adopted 27 September, 2002

(15) Amnesty International. (2004). ‘It’s in our hands. Stop violence against women’.

(16) Source:

(17) Testimony of a man who works for the gay NGO New Age / Rainbow in Novi Sad, Serbia.

(18) Domestic violence victim, NANE hotline, Hungary

(19) Donnely, J., Sovereignty and International Intervention: the Case of Human Rights” in Lions, G., &. Mastanduno, M. (Eds.). Beyond Westphalia? State Sovereignty and International Intervention. Baltimore and London: John Hopkins University Press (p.122).

(20 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), Dec. 18, 1979, 1249 U.N.T.S. 13, 19 I.L.M. 33 (entered into force Sept. 3, 1981).

(21) CEDAW, Article 1

(22) Keck, M.E., & Sikkink K. (1998). Activists Beyond Borders. Advocacy Networks in International Politics. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press. (p.168).

(23) United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (DEVAW), General Assembly Resolution 48/104, 20 December 1993

(24) Lentin, A. (2004). ‘The problem of culture and human rights in the response to racism’, in Titley, G. (Ed.) Resituating Culture. Strasbourg: Council of Europe Publishing. For a full discussion see Lentin, A. (2004). Racism and Anti-Racism in Europe. London: Pluto Press.

(25) United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (DEVAW), General Assembly Resolution 48/104, 20 December 1993 Article 2 (a).

(26) Donnelly, J., (1999). ‘Non-Discrimination and Sexual Orientation: Making a place for sexual minorities in the global human rights regime’, in Baehr, P., Flinterman, C. & Senders, M. (Eds.), Innovation and Inspiration: Fifty Years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Amsterdam: Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. (pp.93-110).

(27) Copelon, R., (1994). ‘Understanding Domestic Violence as Torture’ in Cook, R. (Ed.). Human Rights of Women. National and International Perspectives. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. (p.116- 152).

(28) Nane Hotline, Hungary

(29) Copelon: p.128-129

(30) Excerpted from and LAMBDA Gay and Lesbian Anti Violence Project (El Paso).

(31) Source:

(32) Source:

(33) 3: Mobilising against gender inequality and gender-based violence