HOW SOCIETY HAS GIVEN VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN AND CHILDREN A SEAT AT THE TABLE
Violence against women and children (VAWC) is and has always been a major issue within society however this doesn’t mean that it is a natural flaw fated to humanity, instead it stems from a prevailing force. One that is omnipresent and invisible but still strong enough to sway the trajectory of the state of all human interaction. The roots of violence against women and children lie in humanity’s social and cultural norms; they are what set the conditions for human civilizations and influence everything concerning societal and individual beliefs from politics to parenting.
Social and cultural norms are important; they are the tacit expectations and beliefs within groups of a specific culture or society. They standardize the behavior that is considered acceptable, especially concerning interacting with others. They are the reason individuals are comfortable (or uncomfortable) when someone leans in to greet them with a kiss on both cheeks instead of reaching out for a handshake. They create order by methodizing cultures and society. On the opposite of the spectrum, cultural and social norms can also be the root contributor to many of the issues dealt with by society because of their nature: Norms tend to persist within society because generally individuals like to conform. They fear social disapproval and want to feel accepted, thus adopting these norms (even if they ordinarily would not). With time these norms can become internalized and influence ones attitudes or beliefs consequently making people who subscribe to these norms and values feel shame and guilt if they deviate from them. These norms are then passed on from generation to generation, perpetuating these beliefs.
Women and children often find themselves vulnerable to being marginalized by the worst parts of socio-cultural norms. According to The World Health Organisation approximately 35% of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence at some point (that’s about 818 million women). Additionally, about 1 billion children have experienced emotional, physical or sexual violence in the past year (that’s more than half of all children aged 2–17 years). This includes rape, trafficking, female genital mutilation, forced marriage, maltreatment, homicide and other violent crimes. Physical and sexual violence is also often interlinked and connected to intimate partner violence, mental, emotional and youth violence.
These statistics are alarming however due to the high tolerance within social-cultural contexts for violence against women and children (VAWC) most people are desensitized to these facts permitting even more room for this abhorrent behavior to be woven neatly into the fabric of society on an international scale. It’s a global issue, taking place either pre-eminently or to a lesser extent in all nations, societies and cultures, affecting women and children of all, races and ethnicities and incomes. Violence against women and children is a pandemic.
The issue lies in that while in most contexts violence is perceived as wrong, when violence it is directed towards certain groups it is suddenly seen as acceptable, and it is then justified, defended and excused. For example if an adult were to hit another, it would be seen as aggression/ assault; if one were to hit an animal it would be seen as abuse but when an adult hits a child or a man hits his wife, suddenly the script changes and they are simply disciplining or teaching respect. Essentially these crimes are not a result of random victimization, but are interconnected with the inequality between women and men as well as the inequality between adults and children. Society is implicitly encouraging violence against women and children.
Addressing VAWC requires addressing gender inequality and the inequality between adults and children. To do this it’s important to question the social norms that are perpetuating those inequalities.
Why and How Social Norms Encourage Violence Against Women and Children?
The violence that women and children experience stems from the perception that they have low status in society. Dogmatic gender roles such as “the masculine man” being typically viewed as the provider and protector of the family and/or community, delusions men with a sense of power and authority thus leading most of society into a male dominated environment (aka the patriarchy). Oppositely “feminine women” traditionally are dubbed the role of the “home-keeper” and undertake the more submissive and subservient positions; these roles make women appear weak and as if they contribute less to society than men do, which sanctions them to be perceived as less valuable. So technically speaking, the notions of femininity and masculinity have more to do with power arrangements within society than anything else. Essentially the idea of being masculine is anything that is not feminine because women are associated with weakness and being like a woman is viewed as humiliating. Psychologists Jennifer K. Bosson and Joseph A. Vandello did a study where they found that “Manhood is a precarious status” and that when asked to do “feminine tasks” such as braiding hair; men used aggression (such as punching a punching bag) as a “manhood-restoring tactic.”
As far as children are concerned, it’s generally believed that children are meant to be cherished and loved but it is also generally believed that children have a low status in both society and their respective families. Children are also seen as possessions. People believe it’s THEIR child and they can do what they want with them. This makes children vulnerable to mistreatment and despite its high prevalence; violence against children is often concealed and under-reported.
The consequences of violence for children go beyond physical harm, and can result in communicable and non-communicable diseases, mal-development, metal health issues, increases in educational and vocational underachievement and crime involvement (even for children who are just witnessing violence in their developmental environments such as home, school and in their communities). Children who go on to report such violence are often stigmatized, not believed, or little to no action is taken. Girls are more likely to experience sexual violence “with the prevalence of childhood sexual abuse being 18% for girls, and 8% for boys; while homicide is among the top five causes of death in young people, with boys making up over 80% of victims AND perpetrators. Debated punishments such as corporal punishments are common, this kind of violence is so normalized that even the most progressive of people see it as an acceptable method of “disciplining” children.
Other problematic norms include:
· Male entitlement to females and their bodies.
· The high tolerance for women and girls being the victims of violent behavior and men/ boys being the perpetrators.
· The belief men having the right to “correct” or discipline female behavior with physical violence and the justification of honor killings.
· The idea that female children have less economic potential and are less valuable than male children.
· Certain cultural groups adhering to harmful traditional practices such as genital mutilation (which include dangerous and unnecessary cuttings) or child marriage.
· The impression that sex is a man’s right in marriage thus denying the existence of marital rape.
· The belief that sexual activity (including rape) is an indication of masculinity.
· Sex and sexuality are taboo subjects and reporting abusiveness is disrespectful and would ruin the reputation of the family/ community.
· The assignment of women and children to be responsible for controlling a man’s sexual urges as opposed to teaching men and boys not be sexual predators. In addition, questioning the behavior of survivors implying that they caused their own victimization instead of calling out offenders.
Progressing the attitudes that contribute to socio-cultural norms is the most fundamental part of addressing violence against women and children. Some people understand that it would do well to focus on the legal reprimands of perpetrators; however that can only do much in a world where the victims are stigmatized and would prefer to hide their experiences. This cure over prevention approach only results in a painfully slow and minimal rate of reductions in VAWC. It would be significantly more beneficial to transform the norms and behaviors that have been deeply ingrained into many cultures and society.
Approaches towards transforming norms and examples of new norms to adopt:
· USING MASS MEDIA CAMPAIGNS TO CHALLENGE VAWC: Mass media campaigns endorsing information that reduces undesirable behavior through tv, radio, newspapers, magazines, social media mediums and edutainment (education through entertainment) are effective in raising awareness about existing norms that support violence, challenging them and helping communities unlearn them by teaching ideas that strengthen anti-violent beliefs.
· ENCOURAGING PRO- SOCIAL BEHAVIORS THROUGH THE EDUCATION SYSTEM AND COMMUNITY CENTERS: Creating opportunities for individuals to pick up the life skills that ensure healthy interactions with others is necessary to reduce violence within communities. Schools are excellent spaces for facilitating pro-social behaviors. Teachers, parents/ guardians and students can learn to adopt conduct that aids the prevention of violence within the school and in the community. This means learning to improve communication and conflict management. Social skills like this can also be taught in other settings such as family households, community institutions, refugee camps and religious establishments.
· ADDRESS GENDER, CULTURAL, SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC INEQUALITY: If the main reason why socio-cultural norms that support violence persist is because of inequality; then the most obvious approach to address the existing power structures is by increasing the participation of women into roles of power in cultural, social and economic contexts. Women with a higher household wealth index have 45% lower risk of experiencing violence. Which means bringing awareness to gender inequity within relationships, work environments, school and the household is paramount. Challenge the ideas that insist violence is sign of masculinity and that women should be “put in their place” by eliminating patriarchal gender roles is necessary.
It’s also important to accept that children are people equally deserving of respect and freedom from violence and are not the possessions of adults. Educating adults and parents on the long term effects of violence and eradicating misinformation about hitting children will also radically slow down the cycle of violence because children will seize to learn violent behaviors from them. It’s also important to remove the frustrations that communities with high violence rates deal with by terminating the wealth gap and ensuring equal access to opportunities and good and/or services.
· COMMUNITY MOBILIZATION PROGRAMS: Community mobilization programs such as Men Stopping Violence and Mentors in Violence Prevention correct misinformation about norms and teach bystander intervention. A program in the US called Coaching Boys into Men noticed a reduction of 38% fewer incidents of physical or sexual intimate partner violence perpetration 24 months after the intervention.
· LEGISLATIVE AND POLICY FRAMEWORKS: Legislation and policy play a huge role in the transformation and progression of cultural and social norms regarding gender based violence and violence against children because the consequences signals its unacceptability the issue lies however in that different countries vary in major things such their legal definition of who is actually considered a child, what constitutes as women or children’s sexual abuse and exploitation, and the degree to which these laws are actually enforced. For instance even though almost all territories have legislation prohibiting statutory rape, according to the Global status report on violence prevention (which reflects data from 133 countries) those laws are only completely imposed in less than 66% of countries and even less enforcement for laws against contact sexual violence without rape and non-contact sexual violence. This of course lessens the impact of the message about women’s and children’s rights and reinforces the idea into society that some types of violence are acceptable.
· OTHER APPROACHES: Sometimes simple things like having conversations with other individuals about these issues can have a lot of impact in getting people to think about the things they may not even realize they have been unknowingly complicit in supporting. Most people don’t want women and children to be victims of violent crimes but that doesn’t mean they aren’t actively supporting certain norms that implicitly support VAWC. If society as a whole were to reflect on the behaviors they’ve normalized then begin to create dialog between genders, parents, adults and children, there would be shift in societal norms and consequently a massive reduction in VAWC.
Society exists in a patriarchal civilization that disadvantages women and children systemically and normatively. Their safety is threatened because society insists on worshiping harmful traditions that are outdated and should have never existed in the first place. However a glimmer of hope shines for the moment society collectively redefines what is considered appropriate behavior for and towards women, men and children. Eliminating dogmatic gender roles and putting women and men in equal positions will do good to change the general socio-cultural norms that perpetuate violence against women. Similarly changing the perception of children from low status individuals to respectable human beings deserving of respect and care will greatly decrease the rate of violence at which they currently experience. Violence, abuse and exploitation have been thriving off silence and implicit acceptance but if humanity wants, there’s opportunity for change.