|Violence against Women (World Bank, 1994, 84 pages)|
Despite the existence of a worldwide movement against gender-based violence, there is no single definition of violence that guides all activists. The main point of contention is how broadly to define the term. Some argue for a very broad definition that includes any act or omission that causes harm to women or keeps them in a subordinate position (see, for example, the definition in the draft Pan American Treaty against Violence). Under such a definition, any structural feature that perpetuates gender based discrimination could arguably qualify as violence.
The appeal of a broad definition is that it would permit many violations of women's human rights to be addressed under the rubric of violence. But the danger is that in throwing the net so widely, the descriptive power of the term is lost. Calling everything violence- poverty, pornography, trafficking in women, lack of access to schooling-makes it easier to discount the issue entirely and to justify inaction on the more specific forms of abuse, such as rape and wife assault. (It is rather like the justification that since everything causes cancer anyway, one might as well smoke.) This is not to say that unequal pay and lack of access to safe abortion, for example, are not violations of women's human rights, but we must ask what explanatory power is gained by calling these violations violence.
An overly broad definition limits the usefulness of the term for describing such traditional forms of violence as rape and wife assault. We have a word to describe gender inequalities-discrimination. And we have a word that captures much of what activists call structural violence-poverty. But no other term collectively defines those acts of force or coercion, perpetrated by individual men, that cause physical and emotional harm to women. Thus, I would argue for a more limited definition, recognizing full well that violence is just one of many violations of women's human rights.
The United Nations Declaration against Violence against Women avoids making difficult distinctions by offering a tautology in place of a definition. According to the declaration, violence against women is "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 deprivations of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life." It then offers a list of abuses that presumably meet the definition (appendix box B. 1). But the list is not exhaustive, and it leaves unanswered the fundamental question of what constitutes gender-based violence.
The United Nations list of abuses does represent an adequate compromise between a desire to be inclusive and the need to keep the definition specific, however. It includes only acts perpetrated by an individual or the state and excludes laws, policies, or structural inequalities that could be construed as violent (laws against abortion, structural adjustment policies). But the UN definition provides insufficient guidance to determine whether items that are not listed, such as female feticide or restrictive abortion policies, would constitute gender violence
What would constitute an adequate definition of violence? Any definition must have at its center the core concepts of force and coercion, which distinguish between violent and merely oppressive behavior. But to what extent should violence be limited to physical force? Dictionary and public health definitions of violence tend to focus exclusively on physical force. Webster 's Ninth Collegiate Dictionary for example, defines violence as "the exertion of physical force so as to cause injury or abuse." Concentrating on physical force provides a clear demarcation between violence and other acts, but it excludes many behaviors-such as psychological abuse and humiliation-that activists and women generally include in their definitions of violence.
Indeed, studies have shown that battered women often rate emotional abuse by their partners as more injurious than physical assault( Casey 1988). To exclude verbal and psychological abuse would be to deny an important facet of women's victimization.
It remains, however, to distinguish between random violence and violence that is gender-based. Clearly, the notion of violence against women does not include violence directed toward men or directed toward women for reasons unrelated to their sex (for exemple, an assault during a robbery). What distinguishes violence against women is force or coercion (whether verbal or physical) that is socially tolerated in part because the victims are female. At times this force may be consciously applied to perpetuate male power and control; at other times that intent may be missing, but the effect nonetheless is to cause harm in a way that reinforces female subordination.
The case of genital mutilation underscores the importance of arguing for a definition of violence that rests on the notion of physical and psychological harms rather than on the express intent of the perpetrator. Although most parents do not subject their daughters to female circumcision with a conscious desire to harm, the effect of the practice-intended or not-is to physically, psychologically, and sexually maim young girls. Moreover, parents proceed with the operation knowing full well that it will cause pain and suffering, even though this may not be their primary motivation (see the definition offered in Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development 1990, which hinges specifically on the intent of the perpetrator).
In keeping with the above discussion, I propose to define violence against women as:
Any act of verbal or physical force, coercion, or life threatening deprivation, directed at an individual woman or girl, that causes physical or psychological harm, humiliation or arbitrary deprivation of liberty and that perpetuates female subordination.
This definition has a number of important advantages. By referring to acts directed at an individual girl or woman, it helps distinguish between acts of violence and harmful policies that may damage the health of women as a class but are not directed at a particular individual (for example, lack of investment in women's health research). By including life-threatening deprivation along with force or coercion, the definition includes systematic neglect of girl children in cultures that value sons over daughters. This type of deprivation (including with holding of food and medical care) leads directly to death and starvation on a significant scale, and it is perpetrated against individual girls, distinguishing it from other acts of omission that more properly constitute discrimination or structural inequality (for example, lack of access to schooling). Finally, the clause "and perpetuates Female subordination" speaks to the social consequences of the violence and helps distinguish random violence from gender-based violence.
The definition includes the phrase "arbitrary deprivation of liberty" to accommodate such acts as forced isolation or excessively controlling behavior by a batterer -acts that fail to respect women as autonomous, adult human beings. Some men use violence or threats of violence to exert almost total control over their wives' mobility and their access to money and other material resources. Such behavior can reach excessive and dangerous proportions.
Appendix box B.1 Definitions of violence against
Behavior by the man, adopted to control his victim, which results
in physical, sexual and/or psychological damage, forced isolation, or economic
deprivation or behavior which leaves a woman living in fear. (Australia
Any act involving use of force or coercion with an intent of
perpetuating /promoting hierarchical gender relations. (Asia Pacific Forum on
Women, Law and Development 1990)
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 deprivations of liberty,
whether occurring in public or private life. Violence against women shall be
understood to encompass but not be limited to:
Physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring in the
family and in the community, including battering, sexual abuse of female
children, dowry related violence, marital rape, female genital mutilation and
other traditional practices harmful to women, non spousal violence, violence
related to exploitation, sexual harassment and intimidation at work, in
educational institutions and elsewhere, trafficking in women, forced
prostitution, and violence perpetrated or condoned by the State. (UN Declaration
against Violence against Women)
Any act, omission or conduct by means of which physical sexual or
mental suffering is inflicted, directly or indirectly, through deceit,
seduction, threat, coercion or any other means, on any woman with the purpose or
effect of punishing or humiliating her or of maintaining her in sex-stereotyped
roles or of denying her human dignity, sexual self-determination, physical,
mental and moral integrity or of undermining the security of her person, her
self-respect or her personality, or of diminishing her physical or mental
capacities. (Draft Pan American Treaty against Violence against
Any act or omission which prejudices the life, the physical or
psychological integrity or the liberty of a person or which seriously harms the
development of his or her personality. (Council of Europe