Monday 19 March 2012

A "must read" on preventing partner violence

The UK Department for International Development (DFID)  has published a study by Lori Heise: "What works to prevent partner violence?" - click on the title to download it. It is a hefty document - don't be discouraged if you can't find time, just read the short and clear executive summary!
The study draws on evidence from all kinds of places, but it is meant to inform chiefly work in low and middle-income countries. It concludes that the following types of interventions work best to prevent partner violence:

  • changing gender norms, especially norms related to male authority, acceptance of violence against women (VAW), and female obedience
  • reducing childhood exposure to violence, as there is a well-established link between violence experienced in childhood and violent behaviour in adult life 
  • curbing excessive alcohol use - even though alcohol abuse is not a root cause of violence, it increases the frequency and severity of partner violence
There is no clear evidence that law and justice reform prevent partner violence. Women may hesitate to denounce abusive partners; police and justice officials often display "victim-blaming" attitudes; and good anti-VAW laws are of little use in contexts where justice and security systems are deepy corrupt. That does not mean we should stop advocating for better laws. Effective justice systems can serve as a deterrent. Ending impunity is a key piece in strategies to eliminate other forms of VAW, such as trafficking, human slavery and mass rape perpetrated by military personnel. But advocating for law change is not enough - we also need to advocate for proper law enforcement, and work on root causes of violence, such as child abuse and unequal gender norms. By the way, we acquire our gender norms mainly during our childhoods - so maybe that is really where VAW prevention needs to start. We can contribute to today's children growing up in gender-equitable, violence-free ways.

Evidence on women's economic empowerment is mixed - as Heise put it, "the role of economic factors on women's risk of violence appears to be complex, context-specific and contingent on other factors (such as partner's employment or education). Current research suggests that economic empowerment of women in some situations can perversely increae the incidence of partner violence, at least in the short term." That is where the gender norms come in again! 

With that in mind, I tend to disagree with statements of the type, "support to victims helps only one woman at a time". VAW is not a disease that affects a single individual, a tumor that you can remove from someone's body. It is an essential piece in complex societal systems that are built on men's domination over women. Changing just one piece in a system can affect the whole system. Services for VAW survivors are effective if they understand the role of oppressive gender norms, and support women to take their lives into their own hands. An empowered VAW survivor can serve as an inspiring role model for friends and relatives; if she has children, she can educate girls and boys in a gender-sensitive, supportive way that prevents violent behaviour in adulthood. She can influence her entire community, wittingly or unwittingly, simply by having changed her own life. A handful of empowered VAW survivors can generate a whole movement for change, as evidenced around the world: many of the women's rights activists I know have been driven by their own personal history of violence. Neglecting support to women who have survived VAW would deepen the marginalisation of VAW survivors - about one-third of the world's female population. Their sons and daughter would continue to be taught violence unless their parents learned to live without violence. That is where "prevention" and "cure" meet.

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