Insights and Analysis

The Persistent Gender Gap and How It Perpetuates Violence Against Women

December 2, 2015

By Barbara Rodriguez

November 25 marked International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and we are now in the midst of a global 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence. (Tune in next Thursday, December 10 at 11am EST to our live #GBVChat Tweetchat relay on Promising Approaches to Ending Gender-Based Violence.)


Earlier this year, the UN found alarmingly high levels of violence against women and girls, with one in three women across the globe experiencing violence in their lifetimes. Worldwide, most violence against women is committed by a current or former intimate partner, leading some to warn that there is in fact no place less safe for a woman than in her own home.

These rates vary by region and country but they all add up to a disturbing picture. A UN study on why some men use violence against women (VAW) collected data from Bangladesh, China, Cambodia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Papua New Guinea, and found that between 25-68 percent of women reported experiencing physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime. Recent National Demographic and Health Surveys show that in the Philippines, one in four women and girls (ages 15-49) have experienced some form of violence by a current or former spouse; in Cambodia it is one in three, and in Pakistan it is nearly two in five. Gender-based violence does not only affect adult women. In 2012, violence was the second leading cause of death among adolescent girls (ages 10-19), with the highest levels of violent death found in South Asia, where almost 30,000 girls died as a result of violence.

In addition, seven percent of women worldwide have experienced sexual violence by someone who is not a partner, and between 100 and 140 million women and girls have undergone female genital mutilation. Acid crimes remain a serious problem in some countries, and women are now also facing new forms of cyber violence.

The consequences of VAW are wide-ranging and far-reaching, affecting individuals’ physical and psychological health, as well as overall family and societal well-being. In addition to the physical injuries that might result from abuse, women who experience violence also face higher rates of mental illness, sexual and reproductive health issues, substance abuse, and missed opportunities for social, economic, and political participation. Children in households where women or girls are abused are more likely to have lower birth weights, face challenges in school, and to perpetrate or experience violence as they grow up. There are also direct economic costs related to health care, missed school and work, legal fees, and indirect costs to the economy. In Vietnam, for example, out-of-pocket expenses related to violence are estimated to be roughly 21 percent of a woman’s monthly income. And in both Bangladesh and Vietnam, when these expenses are combined with the costs of missed income and productivity, the figure jumps to almost double what the government spends on primary education.

Given these costs and consequences, as well as the stigma and social isolation related to VAW, it is no surprise that underreporting is widespread. Only two percent of women in India and East Asia and 10 percent in Central Asia formally disclosed their experience of violence, and an analysis of 30 Demographic and Health Surveys found that while 40 percent of women exposed to violence reported seeking help, only six percent sought help from official channels such as police, doctors, lawyers, or religious leaders.

So what needs to happen? While several risk factors are associated with men’s perpetration of violence – such as alcohol consumption, witnessing or experiencing violence as a child, and low levels of education – gender inequality is widely understood to be the root cause. The 2015 Global Gender Gap Report shows persistent gender gaps and slow progress in achieving equality in education, economic participation, political representation, and health outcomes. Efforts to prevent VAW must first and foremost address gender inequality, and the social norms that perpetuate it.

Over 35 population-based studies from Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East show how women’s and men’s attitudes that condone wife abuse and other forms of intimate partner violence are predictive of perpetration rates and heighten women’s risk of experiencing violence. A growing evidence base suggests that changing expectations and norms around gender roles and behaviors – including around controlling behavior and the acceptability of violence – can have a positive effect on reducing levels of physical and sexual violence against women.

The Asia Foundation has decades of experience working to challenge and change harmful social norms and gender roles, and to strengthen access to justice and psychosocial services for survivors of gender-based violence. Recent initiatives include identifying creative ways to leverage new technology to raise awareness and improve responses to violence in Cambodia, engaging men as allies to end violence in Nepal, and conducting research to challenge assumptions and improve understanding of domestic violence in Timor-Leste.

To learn more about our efforts to end violence against women, remember to tune in December 10 for the live Tweetchat.

Barbara Rodriguez is assistant director of The Asia Foundation’s Women’s Empowerment Program. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation.


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