Gender-based violence is usually defined as violence against a person because of their actual or perceived gender. Discriminatory social norms, attitudes and practices promote notions of male privilege, dominance and violence, leading to widespread acceptance of GBV, but also to its invisibility. The global tendency towards victim blaming fails to recognise power dynamics and conveys a patriarchal view of gender relations, which not only contradicts the Istanbul Convention.
The WHO estimates that one in three women worldwide experience physical or sexual violence during their lifetime. Most of this violence is committed by an intimate partner. Violence against women and girls is a serious human rights violation that effects women and girls in both high and low income countries.
The term violence against women and girls is often used interchangeably with the term gender based violence (GBV) – violence that is inflicted on a person because of their factual or perceived sex or gender – since GBV affects women and girls disproportionally. But, also LGBTQI+ people suffer from violence based on their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. And, while statistically significantly less, boys and men can be affected by GBV, for example, sexual violence directed against men and boys in conflict, displacement or detention settings.
The key root cause of GBV is widespread gender inequality and power imbalance. Societal norms, attitudes and practices that discriminate women, girls and LGBTIQ+ people promote ideas of male privilege, dominance and violence not only lead to pervasive acceptance of GBV, but result also in its invisibility. GBV remains largely underreported.
While GBV exists in all socio-economic groups, not all groups are equally protected against violence. Intersecting forms of discrimination and marginalization expose e.g. people with disability, with refugee or migrant status, intersex or trans women or people without secure residence to higher levels of violence and hinder their access to care and support. In Germany for example, reports suggest that women with disability and in particular those living in residential institutions, are two to three times more likely to be exposed to violence than other women.
Gender based violence has many shapes: from physical, sexual or psychological abuse and/or the deprivation of social or economic opportunities within the family or by an intimate partner to sexual harassment, exploitation or abuse at the workplace or other forms of violence in the public including the online space. The consequences of gender based violence can range from emotional harm and suffering, social stigmatization and isolation, to life threatening injury and death. While GBV affects primarily women and girls, this form of violence is destructive for families and communities at large.
While women and girls in high and low income countries are affected by violence, there are considerable differences between regions and countries. Women in the Pacific (excluding Australia and New Zealand), Southern Asia and sub-Sahara Africa are at greatest risk of violence and women in Europe are comparably at lower risk. Looking at countries with comparable data, the proportion of women and girls experiencing intimate partner physical and/or sexual violence in the past 12 months ranged from 3.5 percent in Armenia (2015-2015) to 46.1 percent in Afghanistan (2015).
In many countries legislation and judicial authorities still consider intimate partner violence as a private matter, which leads to GBV remaining largely unsanctioned. Only 27 percent of countries have laws on marital rape. Underlying patriarchal views in legislation and verdicts also become apparent in judgements on femicide, the killing of women and girls because of their gender. The German judiciary, for example, considers femicide in the context of separation often as manslaughter, without base motives as in cases of murder, which implies a lower threat of punishment.
International legal instruments are key to setting standards and holding states accountable for (un)action against gender based violence. The Istanbul Convention, the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, is widely recognized as the most far reaching legal instrument to prevent and combat violence against women and domestic violence. States that ratified the Convention have to take a comprehensive set of measures to combat all forms of violence against women. These include preventive measures, assisting and protecting survivors and ensuring that perpetrators are brought to justice. The Convention requires states party to the Convention to criminalize and legally sanction acts such as domestic violence, stalking, sexual harassment and psychological violence. The Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (GREVIO) monitors the implantation of the Convention. The Istanbul Convention, is signed by 40 and ratified by 34 European states. Turkey had ratified the convention, but withdrew from it in 2021 sending a devastating signal in times of rising rates of violence against women in the country.
Beyond the regional level, the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) is one of the key international treaties combating sex based discrimination and protecting women´s rights. The Convention that was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1979 has been ratified by 189 states. The CEDAW Committee has interpreted GBV as a form of discrimination and therefore requests states to take specific measures and to report on them. And, while legally non-binding, declarations such as the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (1993), the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (1995), and also the Sustainable Development Goals 2030 (Goal 5) have been crucial in re-affirming, strengthening and in monitoring the international communities´ commitment to gender equality and freedom from GBV.
GBV increases in situations of conflict and disaster when there are increased risk factors and stressors including the breakdown of law enforcement, protective norms and mechanisms, increased impunity, vulnerability and dependence etc. Sexual violence is also being used as a weapon of war by conflict parties. Various UN Security Council resolutions – including the landmark UN SC resolution of 1325 – have recognized the risk of sexual and gender based violence in conflict, the impact it has on women and girls and have called for increased protection and participation, inclusion and empowerment of women in all peace and security efforts. The resolution 1325 also acknowledges the crucial role that women play in peacebuilding – making peace and security more sustainable when women are equal partners in prevention and resolution of conflict.
There have been achievements in recent year: in 2020 more than 80 percent of countries reported that action to implement and enforce violence against women laws had been achieved in the previous 5 years and 87 percent of countries reported introducing, or strengthening services for survivors of violence Nonetheless, levels of GBV remain alarmingly high. The Covid pandemic has increased many of the risk factors and unequal power structures prevail. As the example of Germany showed, deep rooted drivers of abuse remain and preventive action is insufficient. Yet, many women and girls are ending the silence, there have been movements calling for an end to impunity and accountability in every region. Let´s join in to end gender based violence!
See e.g. Human Rights Watch, https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/05/03/men-can-experience-sexual-violence-war-too, and Security Council Resolution 2467 https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N19/118/28/PDF/N1911828.pdf?OpenElement
See Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, Concluding observations on the combined seventh and eight periodic reports of Germany, 2017 (https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=CEDAW/C/DEU/7-8&Lang=en)
General Recommendations adopted by the committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women No 19, (https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/Treaties/CEDAW/Shared%20Documents/1_Global/INT_CEDAW_GEC_3731_E.pdf)