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Gender Trouble

Aug/06/2023 / by Lindsey Galloway

A new United Nations report shows an international bias against women remains stubbornly high and unchanged—an attitude that all too often results violence at home and within institutions. 

Nearly nine out of 10 people still have a bias against women—a number that has remained stubbornly unchanged over the past decade. That is according to the UN’s 2023 Gender Social Norms Index, which measures attitudes of all genders towards women in terms of their role in politics, education, culture, and their physical bodies across 91 countries. 

The study found almost half of people believe men make better political leaders than women, and two in five people believe men make better business executives than women. These attitudes prevail regardless of a country’s GDP, region, culture, or income. 

In particular, experts remain concerned about the attitudes around the physical integrity part of the study, as it serves as a proxy for both reproductive rights and intimate partner violence, which results in the deaths of more than 45,000 women and girls every year according to the UN. “The UN Report is disheartening and a clear, troubling message that efforts to address gender-based violence [GBV] need to be redoubled,” says Ritu Gairola Khanduri, Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology at the University of Texas, Arlington. “The fact that it is a chronic and global crisis shows that systemic patriarchal interests worldwide sustain each other.”

Understanding Gender-Based Violence 

Gender-based violence includes any form of violence or harm that’s inflicted on individuals or groups based on their gender or perceived gender roles, explains Khanduri. “It encompasses acts of violence, discrimination, and oppression that are specifically directed at individuals or groups due to their gender identity or the social expectations associated with their gender,” she says.

This can include multiple forms of violence, which includes physical, sexual, verbal, emotional, and psychological abuse—as well as threats, coercion, and economic or educational deprivation, which is based on a person’s gender identity or biological sex, explains Sameena Mulla, Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Emory University. And while gender-based violence has become short-hand for violence against women and girls, she notes that it’s important to broaden policies combating GBV to include protection for trans women and people with non-normative gender identities. 

Gender-based violence isn’t always experienced solely in the home either. Social norms and power imbalances can cause it to occur within families, communities, and workplaces as well.  “For example, one could look at Obstetric violence, the violence women encounter during pregnancy and childbirth in the institutional space of medical care,” says Gairola Khanduri. “Similarly legal systems can be the sources of GBV, rather than the sources of relief, redress and justice.”

This kind of discrimination and damage can also intersect with other forms of discrimination, like racism, casteism, ableism, and heterosexism, which can often increase the vulnerability to experience GBV. 

A Path Forward

While acknowledging how widespread gender discrimination and violence remains across cultures, policies need to be put in place at the systemic level in order to provide women with the practical means to escape violence. 

Economic-based interventions are often the most powerful and potent first-step, as it enables women and those suffering from GBV to escape situations where they may feel trapped due to their finances. 

“Economic independence helps people achieve safety,” explains Mulla. “This can include de-linking your financial future from an abusive partner for example or from a dangerous job.” For women, this also often means having the economic resources to support their children and give them stable housing. 

Providing women equal access to education and employment opportunities also ensures that they can continue to have the economic empowerment needed to escape or avoid situations with GBV. In the US in particular, GBV can all too often turn into a homicide, especially when a gun is present in the house. Many counties across the country have instituted protective orders, which require a household to surrender all their firearms while the order is in place. More comprehensive reform around guns may also be an effective intervention in preventing GBV-related deaths. 

Mulla also worries that the changes in reproductive rights legislation across the US will have a negative impact on GBV, as states pass more harsh abortion restrictions. 

Power in the Public 

All too often, this kind of violence can happen behind closed doors or not talked about with friends and family, which makes the problem seem more hidden or less widespread. Those experiencing GBV may not even see themselves as victims at first.

“Few people see themselves as a domestic violence or intimate partner violence victim because the victimization comes with all kinds of manipulation,” says Mulla. In her work in communities in Milwaukee, she saw that violence had to escalate to a fairly serious level before people wanted to come forward for advocacy and resources, especially during Covid lockdowns (See “Resources for Help” on page TK for more specific resources to help if you or a loved one is experiencing GBV or intimate partner violence). 

Social stigma, especially in the South Asian community, can also keep people from coming forward. “Your partner might be a well-respected professional within your community,” explains Mulla. When women do come looking for guidance within a religious institution, religious leaders can be more or less likely to believe them based on their own biases, which can compound the problem. Immigration status and other factors can also stop women from reaching out to the police or other authority figures — even though laws protect undocumented women when they may be suffering from interpersonal violence. 

Bringing this issue to the public eye will continue to be an important way to address this kind of violence and stigma moving forward. “We need to ask ‘How does this harm everyone?’ says Gairola Khanduri. “Making those harms visible and giving it a name is a starting point.” By discussing these issues and making it part of public conversation, we can intervene within cultures of violence and create a world where women are valued and respected in equal measure.  

Resources for Help

If you or a loved one is experiencing gender-based violence or intimate partner violence, the following organizations have specialized advocates to help. 

Sakhi for South Asian Women

Helping over 15,000 survivors since 1989, Sakhi was built to represent the South Asian diaspora in the movement for gender justice. The site offers its resources in translation, and trained advocates who speak eight South Asian languages.

South Asian SOAR

SOAR was founded recently with a mission to grow survivor and collective power to transform the culture and systems that lead to violence in order to bring joy, healing, and justice for all South Asian survivors and communities. Survivors and allies can access tools and training for leadership and advocacy.

National Coalition Against Domestic Violence

In addition to providing immediate options for texting, calling, and establishing a plan for safety, this coalition also provides resources and connections to local communities that can help.

A 2021 study of South Asians in the US found that: 

48% experience physical violence

38% experience emotional abuse

35% experience economic abuse

26% experience immigration abuse

source: SOAR

One NY-based study found that 85% of South Asians aged 18 – 34 experienced some form of sexual assault.

Common Signs of Abuse

According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, even one or two of these behaviors is a red flag that abuse might be present in a relationship. 

  • Telling you that you never do anything right.
  • Showing extreme jealousy of your friends or time spent away from them.
  • Preventing or discouraging you from spending time with others, particularly friends, family members, or peers.
  • Insulting, demeaning, or shaming you, especially in front of other people.
  • Preventing you from making your own decisions, including about working or attending school.
  • Controlling finances in the household without discussion, such as taking your money or refusing to provide money for necessary expenses.
  • Pressuring you to have sex or perform sexual acts you’re not comfortable with.
  • Pressuring you to use drugs or alcohol.
  • Intimidating you through threatening looks or actions.
  • Insulting your parenting or threatening to harm or take away your children or pets.
  • Intimidating you with weapons like guns, knives, bats, or mace.
  • Destroying your belongings or your home.

Is Climate Change Making Gender-Based Violence Worse? 

A recent study published by JAMA Psychiatry found that a 1 degree celsius increase in average annual temperature resulted in a 6.3% increase in physical and domestic violence incidents in India, Pakistan, and Nepal. 

This year is proving to be one of the hottest on record across the globe, with India already reporting temperatures surpassing 45 degrees celsius (113 degrees fahrenheit). These conditions can put pressure on food supplies, infrastructure, and trap people indoors—all stress factors that can lead to extreme stress and resulting violence. 

More research and data is needed on the subject, as deaths caused by this correlation isn’t currently linked to existing heat-based fatalities, but likely should be in order to better understand and prevent this kind of heat-related violence — especially as global temperatures continue to rise. 

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