Gender Equity

You are to blame! Tracing the root of violence against women and girls

Has violence against women and girls become a norm? Not a week passes by on social media and the internet without reports of girls sexually violated or women physically abused. I recently came upon a news alert on social media that had my stomach churning. Citizen TV Kenya reported that a 17-year-old girl from Meru had been defiled, and her eyes gouged out at Meea Forest. Surprisingly, a simple search on Google will show you several news reports of girls from ages 4 to 16 who have been raped, and their eyes gouged out, and, in some cases, hands chopped off. These cases have been reported mostly in Kenya and India, but violence against women and girls happens globally, albeit others go unreported. Having identified that violence against women and girls is common, brutal, and damaging, society needs to address its root and structural causes to end it.
Violence against girls and women is a prevalent human rights violation that hinders gender equity and equality. Ending violence against women and girls starts with preventing it from happening in the first place by addressing its root and structural causes. Countries such as Kenya and Uganda have no proper systems to report and prosecute domestic violence, making it easier for women and girls to suffer and die at the hands of men. Sexual and physical abuse are types of violence against women and girls, but others include psychological, emotional, and economic violence. In Sierra Leone, economic violence is rampant among women as some men bar their wives from working while other men have totally abandoned family maintenance to their wives. Types of violence against women and children are wide and diverse, but their root and structural causes are almost always similar.
Understanding the root and structural causes of violence against women and girls increases knowledge that can help society alleviate this problem. The United Nations notes that violence against women and children is rooted in gender stereotypes, social norms, and gender-based discrimination that enhance the cycles of violence. Violence against women and girls can not only be addressed by providing support for survivors of violence but also by preventing violence before it even occurs. These structural and root causes protect perpetrators of violence against women and girls while putting the victims in harm’s way.
Gender-based discrimination facilitates violence against women and girls as it promotes unequal access to determinants of peace and safety. When girls and women face gender-based discrimination, they cannot access housing, good quality healthcare, unemployment, and education, which places them in vulnerable positions. In Nigeria, girls seeking education have experienced violence in the hands of the militant Islamist group Boko Haram. In 2014, this militant group attacked and kidnapped 100 girls in a government secondary boarding school in Chibok, Borno state, Nigeria. Unequal access to these determinants of peace and safety creates conditions where violence occurs, causing girls to miss education and experience physical and sexual violence. Gender-based discrimination makes it hard for women and girls to acquire good quality healthcare and education, ensuring they easily face violence.
For example, In El Salvador, women are afraid of seeking medical help when having complications in pregnancy as they are accused of attempted abortion, which is punishable by up to 50 years in prison. These women need a healthcare sector that will take their health issues seriously during their pregnancies without medical professionals dismissing them and assuming they are terminating their pregnancy. Society also needs to be educated on prejudices that automatically have them assuming that women having complications in their pregnancy are attempting abortion. Punishing pregnant women who seek medical help denies them good quality healthcare and allows society to create conditions for women and girls to be unjustly persecuted, denounced, prosecuted, and imprisoned.
Social norms deeply embedded in society, systems, and institutions also create sustainable conditions for violence against women and girls to thrive. Social norms are collective social expectations of appropriate behaviour for women and girls. It is essential to note that these appropriate behaviours are shared beliefs and unspoken rules that women and girls are expected to follow without question. Women and girls who do not adhere to these social norms are often sexually or physically assaulted and accused of bringing the violence upon themselves due to their ‘wayward actions’. When a husband physically or sexually assaults his wife for cooking late or having a side hustle, the violence is justified by social norms and seen as a means to discipline a ‘stray wife’.
In some communities, social norms are so deeply ingrained that women support barbaric acts that set the basis for violence against women and girls. For instance, Fulani women in Mauritania view ‘wife beating’ as an act of honour as they take pride in being beaten by their husbands. Salimata, a woman from Mauritania, was told by her mother to walk with pride because she is the daughter of a woman whose husband broke her hands. In this society, domestic violence is not frowned upon but is seen as an act of love and accepted practice. These incidences show that social norms convey the idea violence against women and girls is normal and acceptable, especially if they do not adhere to society’s shared beliefs and unspoken rules.
Social norms are closely linked to gender stereotypes that increase the perpetration of violence against women and girls. Gender stereotypes such as all women should become mothers, and women experience violence because they are dressed ‘provocatively’ enhance sexual and domestic violence. Girls and women who do not become mothers are not valued as human persons and experience violence and abuse from men who find them uncompliant. The bodies of girls are often seen as goods that should be married before their value depreciates. Still, even girls who submit to gender stereotypes and get married are likely to experience abuse perpetrated by the husband or the society. In cases of sexual violence such as rape, it is common to see society shift the blame to the actions of women and girls to justify and promote male sexual entitlement and abuse. Gender stereotypes not only enhance the male perpetration of violence against women and girls but it also stigmatizes those who have experienced sexual violence as the survivor is blamed for the abuse.
It is clear that prevention is a key step to stopping violence against women and girls because it occurs. Understanding the root and structural causes of violence against women and girls is pivotal to eliminating violence completely. The task is immense but critical and will require the joint efforts of societal bodies and systems. Political systems need to be committed and invested in implementing laws that address gender-based discrimination. In turn, social systems should invest and work with organizations that dismantle social norms and gender stereotypes, which enhance multiple forms of violence women and girls face daily. Prevention will ensure everyone all over the world stops thinking violence against women and girls is normal.

About author

Osongo D. Akinyi is a digital journalist and a creative storyteller who is vocal about gender equality, equity, feminism, femininity, and sexual and reproductive health and rights. She has worked as a writer, digital storyteller, social media manager, and sub-editor. Akinyi believes in the power of writing to stir change and promote action from her target audience as the right words have the ability to inspire, motivate, and even change history. She enjoys reading fiction, hiking, watching movies, and meditating to decompress. Akinyi is a Cohort 31 Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) East Africa Alumnus. YALI equips young African leaders with skills, leadership tools and diversity of thought to help them impact the world positively. She is also a Youth Correspondent for the Commonwealth, where she tells stories of women who are making huge footprints on earth and venturing into careers such as politics, science, and engineering. She also writes about other issues that impact humanity, including politics, sex and relationships, mental health, social justice, human rights, and democracy on Commonwealth Youth Blog and her Medium channel. Most importantly, Akinyi encourages women and girls to own and tell their stories and not let society put them on the sidelines.
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