Picture all the women you ever dated, or all the women you knew from high school, or the women in your family. Take a minute. No rush.
Now count off by threes.
Chances are, those one-in-three women – those women you know – have experienced gender-based violence. In fact, fully 35% of women experience it at some point in life. Gender-based violence does not discriminate by race, ethnicity, marital status, religion, or socio-economic position. It does not just target women who are poor, vulnerable to trafficking, or in far-off countries.
Physical violence is common, encompassing everything from hairpulling to that extra tight restraining grip on the arm, to beatings and rape. Emotional violence takes the form of control and abuse: verbal hostility, control over a woman’s behavior or speech or dress, or control over finances.
But the problem remains hidden. Women are socialized to feel responsible, to feel ashamed, to feel they need to “protect” violent men, not report the incident or press charges. The cost to individual women is devastating, but society as a whole pays, too. Medical and mental health care, lost wages, and criminal justice expenses all add up.
In the United States alone, annual costs of intimate partner violence were estimated at $5.8 billion in 2003. That’s billion, with a B. In India, women lose up to five days of paid work for every violent incident; in Uganda, women lose approximately 11 wage days per year, affecting their children, households, and the local economies.
Clearly, change is in order. But to change we need to understand the real causes of this violence. It is not caused because a man has a temper, or too much to drink, or lost his job. It is not caused by men in criminal trafficking rings, though those do exist. And it is not caused because a woman doesn’t have dinner ready on time or wears a short skirt.
The real root causes of violence against women are three-fold:
First, a widespread belief in the superiority of men. This includes social conditioning that masculine authority is natural.
Second, the lack of consequences for violence.
Third, acceptance of economic and legal inequality for women. When women are paid less for work of equal value, or are treated differently under the law, it sends a message that they are inferior and subordinate.
Are these deep-seated social norms? Absolutely. Can they be changed? Absolutely.
For the past 10 years, the Gulf Coast Chapter of UN Women USA has held a Walk to End Violence to raise awareness about the problem and funds to combat it. We’ve walked on Siesta Beach, in Payne Park, and in our neighborhoods. We have invited community groups such as SPARCC, the Police Department, and local high school clubs to shed more light on the issue.
This year our walk continues, virtually. We kick off our campaign on Nov. 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, and end on Dec. 5, with activities every day. We invite you to register for this year’s walk. But even if you can’t join us, here’s what you can do:
Engage men. Women are overwhelmingly victims, not perpetrators. Stop viewing this as a women’s issue to solve. Men need to change and grow to understand that healthy masculinity does not require control, violence, and the denigration of women. (There are certainly cases of men and trans people who are targets of gender-based violence, but their numbers are extremely small compared to female victims.)
Insist on equal wages and laws. Without equal treatment in workplaces and the justice system, women remain dependent and vulnerable. Men benefit from systemic privileges that validate a position of control.
Start early and sweat the small stuff. Children absorb behavioral norms. Seemingly small things, such as off-hand sexist comments, joking references to domestic violence, or gross disparities in household chores, set the stage for problematic attitudes and behaviors later in life. Grandparents and teachers matter too. We are all models for the next generation.
Violence against women is not immutable. Our generation can change our understanding of what it means to be a man, advocate for human equality in workplaces and legal systems, and raise our children with intention.
E Scott Osborne of Sarasota is a lawyer, teacher, international development professional, and gender equity advocate. She has lived in seven countries on four continents. She is is president of the Gulf Coast Chapter of UN Women USA, a nonpartisan nonprofit that works for global gender equity year-round. Learn more and register for the walk at unwomenusa.org/gcc.