Violence against women and girls is sustained by a net of harmful attitudes, assumptions and stereotypes Photograph: (Others)
Social norms are fundamental in allowing violence against women to flourish
Today marks the 25th anniversary of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against women. Historically, the date is based on the date of the 1960 assassination of the three Mirabal sisters who were political activists in the Dominican Republic protesting against the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo. In 1981, activists marked November 25th as a day to combat and raise awareness of violence against women more broadly and, later in 1999, this day was officially adopted by the UN General Assembly as a day to raise awareness of this issue, which still remains largely hidden.
That was many years ago and yet the same struggle endure. Twenty-five years on, the global crisis of violence against women and girls is endemic. Around the world, one in three women will experience domestic abuse, sexual violence or some other forms of violence in her lifetime. In India, this number is even higher—around 40 per cent of women say they are subject to domestic violence.
Around the world, one in three women will experience domestic abuse, sexual violence or some other forms of violence in her lifetime
Violence happens everywhere, across social groups and classes. Women and girls in poverty suffer most. From sexual harassment to child marriage or 'honor killing', violence devastates the lives of millions of women and girls around the world and fractures communities. It is both a cause and a consequence of women’s poverty.
There are many complex causes driving this violence against women and girls. But it is ultimately rooted in the reality that women and men are not treated equally.
When communities share expectations that men have the right to assert power over women and are considered socially superior, violence against women and girls increases. It creates a reality whereby men can physically discipline women for ‘incorrect’ behavior, one where sex is men’s right in marriage.
These are examples of 'social norms', the unwritten rules which dictate how we behave. They are fundamental in allowing violence against women to flourish.
Let me explain. Most people, most of the time, conform to social norms. We continuously absorb subtle messages about what is and isn't appropriate to do, say, and think from our family, our friends, our colleagues, from education, culture, the media, religion, and law. These sources are not neutral. They are informed by long histories of inequalities and prejudice, and by economic and political forces.
Our world is one in which social norms grant men authority over women's behavior. They encourage men’s sense of entitlement to women's bodies, spread harmful notions of masculinity, and enforce rigid gender roles.
These norms are insidious and powerful, often transmitted through throwaway comments or casual actions: telling a woman who was raped that ‘she was out late at night, drunk or traveling alone and was therefore responsible for the violence’ – or brushing off harmful misogyny as ‘locker room banter’.
Formal laws may not reign here. Attitudes like these create an environment in which violence against women and girls is widely seen as acceptable, even where laws call them illegal. Studies from India, Peru, and Brazil have linked the acceptance and approval of wife beating from individuals and communities with rates of actual violence. One UN study found that, on average, men with gender discriminatory attitudes were 42 per cent more likely to abuse their partners.
The same study examined men’s reported motivation for rape. In most countries, 70–80 per cent of men who had ever forced a woman or girl to have sex said they had done so because they felt entitled to have sex, regardless of consent.
We must be aware of how social norms operate before can we change how we respond. Violence against women and girls is sustained by a net of harmful attitudes, assumptions and stereotypes. It’s a net which so many are caught in: not always felt, but as strong as steel.
We can break free. We can change the harmful beliefs at the core of this problem. What was learned can be unlearned. Our rallying cry in India is #BanoNayiSoch (roughly translated as ‘be the change’).
Oxfam is taking a step in this direction and launching the #BanoNayiSoch campaign in Bihar to recognise and appreciate a state where domestic violence has declined significantly from 59 per cent to 43 per cent during the last decade.
All of us can play our part to End Violence Against Women and Girls. It starts with challenging and changing our own behaviour and then engaging our our families, friends, neighbors and colleagues about unequal power between men and women. Governments and public institutions – and the private sector too – must ensure their policies tackle, not accentuate, harmful social norms.
India, along with all other countries in the world, has recently committed to the Sustainable Development Goals to be achieved by 2030. Goal number 5 (or SDG 5) is the following: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. One of the targets of this goal is the following: Eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation.
India needs to work to make sure that in 2030 it can stand proudly and declare that we have achieved this goal. The violence that women and girls face is not inevitable. Nor will it naturally disappear. We must speak out! We must act! Not another girl or woman should have to suffer. This must be an urgent imperative for all of us.