Is women’s empowerment, or lack thereof, the best explanation for domestic violence?

Domestic violence is a huge problem globally with 1 in 3 women experiencing physical or sexual violence typically by an intimate partner at home.[i] It is important to note that domestic violence also affects men as victims, but this is less common and I will focus on violence towards women. In Australia domestic violence has been hitting the headlines as a major health crisis with statistics seeing domestic violence as the leading cause of death, disability and ill-health in Australian women aged 15-44 the issue is so prevalent that is has become a huge strain on the economy. As a result a documentary is airing this week called ‘Hitting hard’ with Sarah Ferguson reflecting on a 6 month investigation into the problem.

One thing I found particularly interesting was this quote of Ferguson: ‘I don’t think people understand control being a part of it and once you know that, the rest of it begins to make a lot more sense.’ I think that control is perhaps one of the most useful tools in understanding empowerment and domestic violence, as empowerment can be defined by the processes whereby one takes control of one’s life.[ii] The question that often surrounds abused women is ‘why doesn’t she leave?’ The truth is that abused women often can’t leave, they are stuck in a complex relationship of control and dependency. Domestic violence occurs in intimate relationships where lives are intimately interlinked, often with the sharing of property, finances, responsibilities and children. Moreover those who do leave often are killed; figures show that staggeringly over half of domestic violence homicides happen at the point of, or after the victim leaving. Victims of abuse cannot always leave and frequently return to their abusive relationships, due to this complex relationship of dependency, power and control.

Physical abuse is thus just part of it, there is much more to the story than just bruises, most of the damage inflicted is psychological. Control can affect every aspect of a victim’s life, they can be limited and dictated in areas such as their social life, sex, finances, work and family relations. Their choices to leave are directly affected by this control as they may have limited or no access to work, money or property, the abuser often has full control over the economic and social standing of the family. This is a result of the lasting patriarchal nature of our societies, the impact from men being seen as the ‘breadwinner’ and women as the ‘housewife’, has resulted in many women’s dependency on their partner which in turn constrains their resources to change this.

Although perhaps the most characteristic situation, the control issue is not as straight forward as men governing resources and leaving women dependent. Likewise empowered women whether that be socially or economically, can frequently be seen as a threat to male dominance which increases their susceptibility to violence from men.[iii] Women who improve their economic circumstances may be especially vulnerable, as men seek to validate a notion of ‘masculinity’.[iv]

These gender roles place men in a superior position relative to women which also creates pressure for men to fulfil their masculine role expectations.[v] Research in Vietnam suggests that empowerment is an issue for men as well as women. In in depth interviews with perpetrators about the causes of their violence, it was revealed that violence was often a response to tension caused by a feeling of lack of control typically with money that made them feel weaker and less ‘manly’ than other men. Although perpetrators often feel their violence is justified within socio-cultural norms, there is arguably a notable distinction to be made with being proud of violence. The Responsible Men’s Club in Vietnam revealed that most men were not proud and were ashamed of their violent behaviour,[vi] which I would argue displays hope for a change in the acceptance of domestic violence.

As aforementioned women are often left without mechanisms for change, the control men typically have reinforces gendered norms and the resulting violence, as male dominance within society can influence principal institutions that shape societal views.[vii] Conversely the limiting of women to domestic roles such as caring for children and denying them full access to political participation, education, the workforce and finances, maintains hierarchical structures that entrap many women into potentially violent environments at home and at work.[viii] Violence can often become a normal part of a family life, an accepted method of dealing with problems and conflict and therefore abusers and even the abused feel it is justified. The historical expectation of men to be empowered, and the more recent empowerment of women has provided a power dynamic crisis, which I think is a key reason for the prevalence of domestic violence globally.

[i] World Health Organisation, Department of Reproductive Health and Research, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, South African Medical Research Council. 2013. Global and regional estimates of violence against women; Prevalence and health effects of intimate partner violence and non-partner sexual violence. World Health Organisation: Geneva. Pg. 9.

[ii] Strandberg, Nina. 2001. Quoted in Tu-Anh Hoang, Trang Thu Quach & Tam Thanh Tran. 2013. “’Because I am a man, I should be gentle to my wife and my children’: positive masculinity to stop gender based violence in a coastal district in Vietnam.” Gender & Development. Vol 21(1): 81-96.

[iii] Heise, Lori, and C. Garcia-Moreno. 2002. “Violence by Intimate Partners.” In World Report on Violence and Health, ed. Etienne G. Krug, Linda L. Dahlberg, James A. Mercy, Anthony B. Zwi, and Rafael Lozano. Geneva: World Health Organization

[iv] Anwary, Afroza. 2015. “Construction of hegemonic masculinity: Violence against wives in Bangladesh.” Women’s Studies International Forum. [Online] Vol 50: 37–46.

[v] Martin, Carol Lynn. 1995. “Stereotypes about children with traditional and non-traditional gender roles.” Sex Roles. Vol 33(11/12): 727-51.

[vi] Tu-Anh Hoang, Trang Thu Quach & Tam Thanh Tran. 2013. “’Because I am a man, I should be gentle to my wife and my children’: positive masculinity to stop gender based violence in a coastal district in Vietnam.” Gender & Development. Vol 21(1): 81-96.

[vii] Agarwal, Bina. 1994. “Gender and Command over Property: A Critical Gap in Economic Analysis and Policy in South Asia.” World Development. [Online]  Vol 22 (10): 1455–78.

[viii] True, Jacqui. 2012. “What has poverty got to do with it?” In The political economy of violence against women. New York: Oxford University Press.


About School of Politics and International Relations

This blog has been set up for the students of PO665, Advanced Topics in Politics and International Relations: Global Gender Justice, which is a course for final year Honours students in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent. As part of their participation in the course, students submit blog posts that examine issues pertaining to gender justice within the family, the community, the state and global society. We aim to explore the extent to which gender inequality within the state has an impact on state behaviour, with a specific focus on state development and state security, and further aim to analyse the effectiveness and limits of international organisations, international human rights instruments, NGOs and activists to bring about greater gender justice.
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