Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Domestic violence, gender violence and human rights in Latin America

In Mexico, the leading statistical resource to measure domestic violence, the National Survey on the Dynamics of Household Relationships (ENDIREH) indicates that in 2011, 47 out of 100 women had suffered some kind of violence in the household. This could either include emotional violence (43.1%), economic violence (24.5%), physical violence (14.0%) or sexual violence (7.3%). In Ecuador and Uruguay, two other countries that conducted similar large-scale surveys, 48.7% and 45.4% of all women respectively had suffered from violence from their partner or ex-partner. A dominant trend in the three countries is the predominance of emotional violence. 

Even if countries monitor the prevalence of domestic violence, the adoption of different methodologies which try to include of a variety of socio-cultural elements as well as different definitions of violence makes the precise measurement of this phenomenon, and therefore its comparability, difficult (Alméras 2004; Castro y Casique, 2012). As Castro says, even if surveys consider violence against women as a social phenomenon, and not just an individual issue experienced by some women, it is difficult to link independent variables (socio-demographic conditions, gender roles and household dynamics, among others) with dependent variables (that measure violence more directly). It is also difficult to separate out the category “violence against women from the intimate partner” from the more general category “violence against women”. The tendency is to return to more individual explanations of violence, due to the specific characteristics of women and their partner at given moments of their lives, and this misses the possibility of explaining violence as more of a social phenomenon, with dynamics and expressions which may change depending on individual characteristics but which share factors that are common to all (2012: 18). 

A first issue when studying violence against women is the scope of the very concept of violence. Is domestic violence the same as family violence? What is the relationship between domestic violence and gender violence? 

Structural violence against women looks at how the entire social order contributes to the oppression of women, and how this dynamic is constantly reproduced over time. The structural nature of violence is also systemic: women are at a disadvantage in terms of the material conditions of life, but are also at a disadvantage in the wider arenas of ideology, norms, traditions, language, religion, science, philosophy, how humour and eroticism are expressed, indeed in all forms of knowledge and expression that exist in a society. Understood in this way, structural violence against women refers to the domination of women in every spheres of social life and is at the origin of all the diverse forms of violence, including physical, sexual, emotional and patriarchal violence. But such an inclusive concept of violence presents difficulties. Where does masculine domination end and violence as such begin? Is it possible to identify the point where mistreatment turns into abuse? When should abuse be called violence?

 The majority of the legal definitions of violence refer to harm that is caused, contrary to the health definition of violence that is much broader and refers to the intention, independently of the result. In most legal definitions, then, harm is considered independently of sex or gender. Women, as well as children and husbands or men can be the victims of violence. The General Law on Women’s Access to a Life Free from Violence, in its article 6 on psychological, physical and sexual violence, is specific on violence against women. For example, it defines psychological violence as “[...] any action or omission that harms the psychological integrity [of women], and that consists of: negligence, abandonment, repeated carelessness, jealousy, insults, humiliations, slights, marginalisation, indifference, infidelity, destructive comparisons, rejection, restriction to autonomy, and threats, which imply for the victim depression, isolation, low self- esteem, and even suicide”. 

Although these definitions of the different types of violence are included in a law that aims to eradicate and sanction violence against women, they can apply as well to children and men since the harm caused does not, ultimately, depend on the sex or gender of the victim. The violence referred to in these definitions in the law is not therefore gender based violence in the sense that these are not forms of violence whose causes are embedded in the sexual or gender identity of the victim.

These questions regarding the definition of violence, as well as what precisely constitutes gender violence and violence against women, are very polemical in the different studies. On the one hand, the family violence approach argues that intimate partner violence must be studied in the broader framework of the other forms of violence that exist inside the family, and it identifies potential aggressors and victims, independently of gender, as equal. The approach, developed in the 1970s to study domestic violence in the US, supports the theory that violence is transmitted from generation to generation. It hangs on the idea that there is a kind of gender “reciprocity” in intimate partner violence, in other words that violence is exercised by men on women but also by women on men. This view clashes with the feminist focus on violence against women. From the feminist point of view, intimate partner violence against women must be studied as a phenomenon related Photo 2: Fist Credit: Marcos Guevara to other forms of violence against women, such as the violence they suffer in the streets, at work, at school, and in their affective relations. It is not something that can be put into the same bag as other forms of family violence. 

This very interesting debate on intimate partner violence against women has been systematised by Anderson (1997) who shows that these approaches are not incompatible nor mutually exclusive, but that they do clearly reflect different agendas. One seeks to identify the determinants of all forms of family violence as the basis for formulating policies and programmes to eradicate it, whereas the other focuses on violence against women as if it were a stand-alone problem.

 But is violence against women the same as gender violence? Are they synonymous concepts or are they different? The United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (1993) states that “violence against women” means any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life (UN, 1993). 

This definition focuses on women as victims, but some studies (Ward, 2002; 2004) show that gender based violence can be directed to men. The change here consists in focusing on the purpose of the violence and not on the sex of the victims. Gender violence is a form of violence exercised on the basis of culturally conditioned differentiations between men and women which it aims to strengthen restore or impose. In theory, such violence can be exercised both by men and women, and victims can also be both men and women. Therefore, in this line of reasoning, not all violence against women is necessarily gender based violence, even if it comes from their intimate partner. Johnson (1995) further proposed that we should differentiate between situational violence and patriarchal terrorism, depending on whether the intention to control women in traditional gender roles is explicit or not. 

These theoretical discussions are still open and important to keep in mind since they influence, explicitly or not, the type of methodologies used to investigate violence against women, and especially how surveys and other studies are conducted to measure and analyse intimate partner violence. They also influence the way domestic violence is discussed in public arenas as a policy issue, at international as well as national levels

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