“I am not free while any woman is unfree”
Even in the year 2020, hundreds of millions of women and girls around the world continue to suffer from gender-based violence. To mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, the United Nations is launching a 16-day campaign of activism against this scourge. In the last year alone, 243 million women and girls experienced physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner. Horrifying though it may be, this figure accounts only for “domestic violence”—just a fraction of this complex reality—and excludes other types of gender-based violence.
In the last year alone, 243 million women and girls experienced physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner
In every country around the world, women and girls experience various types of violence —symbolic, economic, institutional and occupational, not to mention the better-known categories of physical, mental and sexual violence—just for being what they are: women and girls. This gender-related issue has a brutal impact on the health and quality of life of millions of women all over the world. In high-income countries, gender-based violence is the third most common cause of death in adolescence; it is also a major cause of death across all age groups and countries.
Rape and femicide, the most extreme forms of gender-based domination and violence, are just the tip of the iceberg. Women endure a continuum of violence exercised progressively to maintain the prevailing social order. As Dr. Margarita Bejarano Celaya explains, it is impossible to understand violence without understanding the asymmetric relationships produced by the hegemonic, androcentric social system in which we live. The “microaggressions” situated on the more subtle end of this spectrum are no less effective at undermining the rights of women to live a full and dignified life.
All forms of violence have a disproportionate impact on mental and physical health —including morbidity and mortality—as well as long-term economic and social consequences. Although violence against women and girls takes multiple forms—forced marriage, street harassment, cyberharassment, unwanted sexual advances, female genital mutilation, intimate partner violence, family violence, etc.—let us turn our attention to two less-understood types of violence that also pose a growing public health problem.
All forms of violence have a disproportionate impact on mental and physical health—including morbidity and mortality—as well as long-term economic and social consequences
Although slavery was abolished more than a hundred years ago, it still exists and is closer to us than we might think. The trafficking of women for sexual exploitation is 21st-century slavery and one of the most widespread violations of human rights. Nearly two million girls and women worldwide are victims of sex trafficking —the most lucrative business on earth, after arms dealing and drug smuggling.
Spain is one of the main destinations for sexually exploited women and girls, since the country ranks third in the world in demand for prostitution. This issue is difficult to face—and largely neglected by international agencies, researchers and society at large. Nevertheless, it is imperative that we expose this reality, even if it strikes close to home.
Spain is one of the main destinations for sexually exploited women and girls, since the country ranks third in the world in demand for prostitution
Another less-discussed type of gender-based violence is obstetric violence —a legal term encompassing the mistreatment of women during pregnancy or childbirth and after delivery. In 2014, the World Health Organisation (WHO) found that thousands of women are treated with disrespect—including humiliation, coercive medical procedures and abandonment—both during and after childbirth, and that such treatment constitutes a violation of human rights. In 2019, the United Nations issued new warnings about this “widespread and systematic phenomenon of violence”. Despite the social and legal recognition of the term obstetric violence, much work remains to be done. The WHO recognises the issue as a health problem that violates women’s rights to respectful care, but stops short of using the term outright, referring instead to “disrespect and abusive treatment in childbirth”.
This is another awkward and neglected issue, since it raises questions about common clinical practices (routine episiotomy, the Kristeller and Hamilton manoeuvres, excessive use of unnecessary caesarean sections, induced labour etc.), as well as the infantilisation of women throughout the process and criticism of their reproductive decisions. It also touches on the tendency to stigmatise or blame pregnant women for acquiring infectious diseases such as HIV.
This is not an isolated problem. A cross-sectional study of 899 women in Spain found that two out of three women reported having suffered violence during pregnancy or childbirth. In another much larger study, which surveyed more than 17,000 women in Spain, nearly 40% of respondents reported obstetric violence.
A study of 899 women in Spain found that two out of three women reported having suffered violence during pregnancy or childbirth. In another much larger study which more than 17,000 women, nearly 40% of respondents reported obstetric violence
The Rise of Gender-Based Violence in 2020
To make matters worse, due to the lack of a gender perspective and a failure to adequately plan the measures taken against COVID-19, gender violence has increased significantly across the globe this year. Mandatory quarantine, restrictions on movement, and the shrinking of social and family support groups—plus the fear, tension and stress of the past few months—have put women and girls at increased risk of violence. When women are confined to the home with their abusers day after day, violence increases in both frequency and severity.
Reports of gender-based violence decreased during lockdown, but this was because women were living with their abusers 24 hours a day, seven days a week—and limited in their ability to leave the house and report their abuse.
Due to the lack of a gender perspective and a failure to adequately plan the measures taken against COVID-19, gender violence has increased significantly across the globe this year
However, internet searches for anti-violence assistance and calls for support for victims multiplied exponentially during the same period. Between 1 March and 15 April 2020, there was a 650% increase in the number of online consultations submitted via Spain’s hotline for victims of violence. Subsequent studies have shown that calls and reports increased as confinement measures were loosened, since aggressors no longer had constant control over their victims.
Violence is not an inherent quality of the male sex, but the consequence of a socialisation process that causes boys and men to acquire misogynistic, violent and aggressive behaviours. This is why it is so important to teach feminism in school, educate children in real equality, eliminate prejudices and gender roles, and raise awareness about new forms of masculinity. Boys and men are also victimised by this patriarchal system, even as they reproduce aggressive stereotypes. These measures, along with the specific recommendations set out in the UN Women Annual Report, can help us end gender-based violence by 2030, as the United Nations has proposed. Much remains to be done. Let’s begin by shedding light on this problem and speaking out against it!