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Understanding Gender-Based Violence Against Women

Today we are here to discuss a very important topic that impacts all women across the globe, and continue the conversation about gender-based violence.

Disclaimer/Trigger Warning: This week’s topic is a heavy hitter as we discuss topics including violence against women, women’s rights, discrimination and other related subjects. Please be cautious as you continue reading; take a break and come back if you need to. Our purpose is not only to educate people on these important matters that impact women everywhere, but also to let you know you are not alone.

Let’s dive in…

Yesterday, Thursday, November 25 was the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (designated in 1999 by the UN General Assembly). This date was chosen to commemorate the lives of the Mirabal sisters from the Dominican Republic who were violently assassinated in 1960. Yesterday was also the first day of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence; an annual international campaign that goes until December 10th, World Human Rights Day. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the campaign. The 16 day campaign is an opportunity for people around the world to come together, to call out and speak up on gender-based violence and to uphold our commitment to ending violence against women, girls, 2SLGBTQQIA+, and gender diverse individuals.

If you haven’t experienced it yourself, you probably know or have heard about other women who have experienced some form of gender-based violence in their lifetime. From domestic abuse and sexual assault, to honour killings and armed conflict, gender-based violence exists at all levels, from individual citizens to governments, in public and private life.

So, what is gender-based violence and/or violence against women?

According to the Government of Canada, gender-based violence is violence that is committed against someone specifically because of their gender, gender identity, gender expression or perceived gender. Gender-based violence disproportionately affects women and girls; and certain intersectional populations experience higher levels of violence including Indigenous women and girls; Black and racialized women; immigrant and refugee women; 2SLGBTQQIA+; people with disabilities, and women living in Northern, rural, and remote communities.

The United Nations defines violence against women as "any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual, or mental harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life."

And, what is “femicide”?

Femicide is “the most extreme form of violence against women and the most violent manifestation of discrimination against women and their inequality.” The UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, has defined “femicide, or the gender-related killing of women,” as “the killing of women because of their sex and/or gender.” It is applied specifically to intentional killings of women and girls, but more broadly applied to any killings of women and girls.

*It is worth noting that although men are in most cases the main perpetrators of gender-related killings of women and girls, women can also be the perpetrators of violence against other women.

Where do gender-based violence and femicide crimes happen?

At home:

137 female victims of intentional homicide were killed by a family member each day in 2017 – UNODC

In 2017, 87,000 women were intentionally killed. While this figure represents less than one-fifth of all victims of intentional homicides that year, it is quite revealing that more than half of all female victims of intentional homicide were killed by an intimate partner. Domestic abuse between intimate partners or family members is a massive, ongoing issue that affects women and girls everywhere.

In the public sphere:

Violence against women also happens in the public sphere and is perpetrated by the very people meant to “protect us”. Take the case of Sarah Everard this past March in the United Kingdom. Sarah was walking home when she was kidnapped, sexually assaulted, and murdered by a police officer. Sarah’s case adds to the unease many women feel, undermining confidence in those whose job it is to protect us. It sparked a worldwide debate about victim blaming, sexism and misogyny, policing, and women’s safety.

We also have to mention the pervasive sexual assault and violence against women that happens on college and university campuses across North America. Notably the case of Chanel Miller who was assaulted by privileged white male Brock Turner at a Stanford University house party; and more recently and closer to home, the 30+ women at Western University here in Ontario, who were drugged and assaulted during their freshman orientation week. In the US alone, the campus rape crisis is symptomatic of a broader rape crisis; that is, prevalence rates among college students (19 percent) is similar to that of women in the general population (18.3 percent).

*A very chilling, eye-opening and must-watch documentary about sexual assault on college campuses is The Hunting Ground.

Another example (here in Canada): The École Polytechnique Massacre - December 1989

The Polytechnique Massacre was an anti-feminist mass shooting in Montreal at an engineering school, in which 14 women were murdered and 10 women were injured. After separating the women from the men, he opened fire on the women while screaming, “You are all feminists.” The shooter blamed feminists for ruining his life. In his suicide note he added a list of 19 “radical feminists” who he claimed would have been killed had he not run out of time. It included the names of well-known women in Quebec, including journalists, television personalities and union leaders.

In the wake of the massacre, many stated that it revealed a profound unease about the place of women in society. Many suggested that the tragedy was indicative of deep-rooted and widespread anti-feminist sentiment. In 1991, the Parliament of Canada declared December 6th to be a National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women.

On a national and international level:

It’s also important to understand gender-based violence and femicide happens on a state and international level. Governments, state-actors, terrorist organizations, armed conflict, and more have all been and continue to be perpetrators of this violence against women. In 1994, violence during the Rwandan genocide took a gender-specific form when, over the course of 100 days, up to half a million women and children were violently, sexually assaulted and murdered. In 2014 it was the kidnapping of 276 female students aged from 16 to 18, carried out by the Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram from the Government Girls Secondary School at the town of Chibok in Borno State, Nigeria.

Why is gender-based violence so pervasive? What are the causes?

A common denominator among gender-based violence? Misogyny. According to the Femicide Advocacy Guide, the intentional killing of women and girls globally is driven by the prevalent cultures of misogyny, machismo, patriarchy, toxic and violent masculinity, male entitlement, the misuse of religious texts, rigid traditional and cultural stereotypes of gender, and the miscued construction of honor, among other things. In addition, women and girls’ lives are shaped by misogyny and sexism from childhood to adulthood. All across the globe, women and girls are forced to live in fear of violence just because they are women and girls. Gender inequality and norms on the acceptability of violence against women are a root cause of violence against women. Any woman who dares to stand up for herself and stand against gender inequality subjects herself to violence. This is a problem.

This is problematic for many reasons. It leads to widespread victim blaming; allows for excuses and reasons for violence; it allows perpetrators to go free and receive no consequences; and teaches men and women that this is acceptable behaviour. Take the case this past year in Atlanta, Georgia for example: where a white man killed Asian women who were also sex workers. His reason? He claimed to have a “sex addiction.” Authorities said he allegedly lashed out at the spa businesses that he viewed as a sexual temptation, so he believed he was justified in murdering people because of his own impulses. Some officials also defended him as “having a bad day”. 🙄

This case was also a racially motivated act of violence against women. Again, as we mentioned above, intersectionality plays a major role in violence against women. Like many other women of colour, Asian women are grossly fetishized by not just men (particularly by white men though), but also in media portrayals and other outlets. This causes a superiority complex for men and leads them to believe they have control over these women to do as they please.

Other risk factors for gender-based violence against women include:

  • Lower levels of education (perpetration of sexual violence and experience of sexual violence);

  • Harmful masculine behaviours, including having multiple partners or attitudes that condone violence (perpetration);

  • Community norms that privilege or ascribe higher status to men and lower status to women;

  • Low levels of women’s access to paid employment; and

  • Low level of gender equality (discriminatory laws, etc.).

  • Male controlling behaviours towards their partners.

  • Beliefs in family honour and sexual purity;

  • Ideologies of male sexual entitlement; and

  • Weak legal sanctions for sexual violence.

How prevalent is gender-based violence in Canada?

It is no shock that during the COVID-19 pandemic there was an increase in gender-based violence, we’ve touched on this before (here). Lockdowns, restricted mobility, and isolation from regular support systems, have contributed to increased gender-based violence against women globally, as seen in the spike of domestic violence and femicide. Specifically in Canada, gender-based violence service providers reported several changes in demand for services over the course of the pandemic.

  • The Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses (OAITH) reported a 20% increase in demand for intake between March 2020 and September 2020.

  • The Assaulted Women's Helpline in Ontario reported a 65% increase in calls between October and December 2020 compared to the same period the previous year .

  • The Battered Women's Support Services hotline reported a 400% increase in calls between April and May 2020. Early data indicated that 40% of those calls were from people reaching out for the first time.

  • In November 2020, Women’s Shelters Canada released a survey containing responses from 251 shelters and transition houses that serve women and children affected by violence: 61% of shelters reported that calls to the shelter increased between June and October 2020.

  • A sample of 15 police services in Canada show that calls related to domestic disturbances increased at different stages of the pandemic: Between March 2020 and February 2021, there was a 20% decrease in calls for service for sexual assaults when compared to the same time period 12 months prior.

Gender-Based Violence Against Indigenous Women in Canada

As we mentioned above, gender-based violence disproportionately affects certain intersectional populations including Indigenous women and girls, who fare far worse and to a greater degree. Here in Canada, ever since the colonization of Indigenous peoples, and as a result of a long-standing patriarchal government, Indigenous women have been suffering immensely in all sectors of Canadian society, leaving them exposed to gender-based violence on all fronts.

A prevalent gender-based violence issue here in Canada is the ongoing missing and murdered Indigenous women, also referred to as Stolen Sisters. In Canada, if you are an Indigenous woman or girl, the simple fact that you are an Indigenous woman or girl means that you are at least 3 times more likely to experience violence, and at least 6 times more likely to be murdered than any other woman or girl in Canada. As of 2020 there are around 4,000 or more Indigenous women murdered or missing in Canada in the last 30 years. This violence is a national human rights crisis.

Violence against Indigenous women and girls continues to be a prevalent issue because:

  • Racist and sexist stereotypes lead perpetrators to believe that they can get away with committing acts of violence against Indigenous women and girls.

  • The many legacies of colonialism increase the risk of experiencing violence: from impoverishment to the lasting harm from residential schools to the disempowerment of Indigenous women and girls in their own communities.

  • Decades of government and law enforcement inaction to end the violence.

When a woman is targeted for violence because of her gender or because of her Indigenous identity, her fundamental rights have been abused. And when she is not offered an adequate level of protection by state authorities because of her gender or because of her Indigenous identity, those rights have been violated.

What can we do to help eliminate gender-based violence and support women and girls around the world?

We don’t mean to overwhelm you with these real life examples of horrific gender-based violence we’ve shared above. But it’s important to share the data and history of violence against women in order to expose those who continue to perpetrate such violence. This is both a private and public issue; one that impacts individuals and societies as a whole. It is not just on us, mostly women, to stop the violence. It is on everybody, private citizens and governments alike, to not just prevent, but end gender-based violence as a whole.

In the US for example, many solutions for gender-based violence are responsive and carceral; that is, police units and specialized courts respond after intimate partner violence and sexual assault have already taken place. Unfortunately, most other countries follow in those footsteps. Yes consequences and punishments need to be in place (although, arguably, a lot of domestic abusers and perpetrators of violence against women go unpunished). But, what we need most is prevention and proactiveness. It's not about putting fires out as they come. It’s about not letting those fires happen in the first place.

Gender-based violence/violence against women IS preventable.

This blog will be continued next week where we’ll go into further detail about what we can do to help eliminate gender-based violence!

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