We can, indeed we must, change expectations

12 10 2011

Violence against women is, I believe, a consequence of the historic and persistent inequality between men and women.

While physical violence is often what makes the headlines, verbal domestic abuse, forced marriage, trafficking of young girls, honour crimes and non-consensual sexual activity within relationships, amongst others, are all manifestations of this basic inequality and should all be treated as violence against women.

We all have a basic human right to live without violence or the threat of violence. We cannot artificially remove the violence from the context in which it is taking place. That is to say that it occurs within a society where women have a subordinate status and it is only by tackling the basic inequality in the system that we can permanently reduce the risk of violence against women and improve the life chances of children adversely affected by exposure to such violence and abuse.

We are all influenced by what is expected of us as a man or a woman. These expectations are subtle and pervasive and lead to the feeling ‘that this is the way that it has always been and will always be’. The challenge is to change those expectations. Young girls see images of women as being glamour models or WAGs and set their sights on instant celebrity, largely through use of their bodies not their minds. We need to create alternative role models for young girls so that they can have different expectations around what it is to be successful as a woman.

We can change expectations; after all it was once acceptable to smoke in a restaurant, now it isn’t. This came through a combination of legislation and a change in what we as a society came to think of as acceptable and the same dual approach needs to be taken to address gender inequality.

Gender inequality has led to an inequality of power within relationships. Physical domination, verbal abuse, degradation and repeated humiliation coupled with the deflection of blame for this behaviour by the perpetrator of the abuse onto the woman being abused, are characteristic of the power and control that men exercise over women. Economic disadvantage and expectations around the care of children and dependants in the family exacerbate this imbalance of power in favour of men. At its worst this lack of power has led to rape being used as a weapon against women in war zones.

To achieve sustainable change gender inequality needs to be addressed. Violence against women is a result of this inequality. The cause and the symptoms both need to be tackled together. Taking steps to end domestic violence will promote gender equality. Taking steps to change expectations about what it is to be a woman will enhance gender equality and reduce the risk that women are subjected to violent and abusive behaviour.

What has been seen as a vicious circle of inequality, abuse of power and violence can be broken by tackling any and all of its component parts.



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