Text by Elena Palaiorouta

Gender-based violence (GBV) is a phenomenon deeply rooted in gender inequality and continues to be one of the most blatant human rights violations. It is a type of violence that is directly related to or justified by using the gender of the victim or survivor. Having said that, both women and men experience gender-based violence but the majority of victims are women and girls.

It is important to use the ‘gender-based’ aspect because it highlights the fact that many forms of violence against women are rooted in patriarchal values such as power inequalities between women and men. The term ‘patriarchy’ is commonly described as “a system of social structures and practices, in which men govern, oppress and exploit women”. Patriarchal violence is any kind of violence that creates or maintains men’s power and dominance, or retaliates for the loss of their power.

Patriarchy perpetuates the beliefs that girls and women are of less value, and in patriarchal societies GBV is often widely accepted. In patriarchal societies, women often internalise patriarchy, and are unable to perceive their partner’s behaviour as abusive and a violation, and instead, they believe that he is exercising a right that serves their interest.

The occurrence of gender-based violence worldwide is mainly due to the systemic gender inequality that disempowers women, girls and other minorities, and suffocates their voices. By doing so, their stories cannot be heard, and consequently their human rights are more easily striped away from them. Nonetheless, speaking out, besides being liberating, can lead to further violence than that which has already been experienced. The shame and fear of not being heard or believed are great obstacles for women and girls. This is why the victims and survivors of gender-based and sexual violence, regardless of their background, largely remain silent.

The cycle of violence is further preserved by the lack of justice, of available resources or of economic opportunities, which lead to the victim, survivor being dependent on the abuser. For instance, in the United States around only two percent of rapists are likely to face imprisonment and perpetrators of “Honour” killings around the world are rarely persecuted.

According to Human Rights Watch, “Honour” killings of girls and women by their male relatives as a way to restore their or their family’s dignity remain among the most prevalent physical threats to women. It is the most extreme form of domestic violence, a crime based in male privilege and prerogative and women’s subordinate social status.

Despite the fact that the absolute number of murders is not high (albeit the numbers are very likely under-reported), the effects are felt throughout society. Even though “Honour” killings are the most tragic consequence and graphic illustration of deeply embedded, society-wide gender discrimination, violent individuals continue abusing their power without consequences.

Male dominance seems to be upheld primarily through violent means. GBV can manifest in many different forms and it is important that we identify what qualifies as gender-based violence (physical, psychological, sexual and economic violence). GBV can happen in the private or public sphere, in kitchens, bedrooms and streets, markets or in refugee camps. It can include street harassment (i.e. groping, whistling, or unwanted attention in public spaces), marital rape and intimate partner violence (IPV).

The reason for the invisibility of this type of violence cannot simply be attributed to the fact that it usually takes place inside private spaces. Rather, it is related to its widespread social acceptance. The implicit acceptance of certain social norms and behaviours serves as the basis for other forms of patriarchal violence as well. For instance, there are patriarchal systems at the macro level such as bureaucracies, government, laws or religion, and there are patriarchal relations at the micro level (interactions, families, organisations).

Power and decision-making rights give greater access to, and control over resources, which consequently allow men have more power than women. This power and control over resources and decisions are institutionalised through the laws, policies and regulations of formal social institutions. Given these circumstances, this is why explicit recognition of GBV is essential when developing health care policies, laws and legislations against the deeply rooted systemic gender inequalities, because when something is unnamed it is less likely to be supported.