From womb to tomb, girls and women are exposed to male violence in every neighbourhood, everywhere. It is a global ‘pandemic’ as male physical aggression is the largest category of societal violence.
A rogue British policeman was recently sentenced to life imprisonment for the abduction, rape and murder of Sarah Everard. When a specialist commented on how society justified and excused violence against women, her interviewer likened it to “swimming in a soup of male violence”. It is more accurate that women are drowning in a soup of male violence.
Around 1.7 billion children face violence annually. This is often hidden at home, school, and elsewhere. Girls are more vulnerable, including sexually. An egregious form is female genital mutilation impacting more than 200 million.
Of course, sexual assault, abuse, and exploitation are grossly under-reported as many women are afraid or feel it pointless to do so. Or they cannot bear facing months/years of disbelief by courts, police, communities and even family and friends. That is because of common rape myths and victim-blaming.
Rape convictions are falling in many countries, including USA, UK, and South Africa. There are also demographic nuances: American women aged 16-19 years are four times more likely and disabled women twice as likely to be assaulted than the general population. Black and mixed ethnicities are also more likely to be sexually assaulted in high-income countries.
While sexual violence also affects boys and men, most victims are girls and women. The perpetrators are mostly male. Women also face more serious impacts such as pregnancy, disease, and child/forced marriage. Societal norms of male superiority and sexual entitlement are a known factor in sexual assault.
Pornography websites get more visited than Netflix, Amazon, and Twitter combined. A meta-analysis found that it’s desensitising effect has positive association with violence against women. Over 40 years of empirical research shows damaged health of both males and females.
Child sexual exploitation in pornography is increasing with ‘gonzo porn’ easily accessible. With the popularity of videogames that encourage rape, boys are further enmeshed in the virtual and lived world of violence against women and girls, and at younger ages. All this is a travesty by corporations making money off abused women and children.
Linked to this is modern slavery, most commonly (79%) for sexual exploitation and prostitution. Those who are bought and sold for male gratification are mostly female. Most traffickers are men but desperate women struggling for livelihood can be coerced into becoming traffickers of other women.
Prostituted women and girls face increased violence, risking injury and death. Yet it is the prostituted women who are criminalised and penalised rather than the men who buy their bodies, save for the few countries that have implemented the Nordic or Sweden Model.
Pregnancy is no refuge: women’s risk of violence actually increases when domestic abuse often begins or escalates. Then there is obstetric violence through excessive rates of medical interventions that disrespect women during childbirth and over-medicalise or ‘pathologise’ the oldest natural process known to humanity.
Intimate partner violence has significant physical and mental health consequences. They ranges from HIV and sexually transmitted infections to alcohol and substance misuse, physical injuries, chronic pain, depression and suicide, and homicide. Then, there are linked reproductive health consequences that can be life-threatening for the mother, and disadvantage the baby if born premature or low birth-weight.
As a woman’s risk factors accumulate through the societal structures of misogyny, social determinants of health and associated dysfunctional responses, vulnerability to non-communicable diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, and cancers is enhanced.
Often ‘wife-assault’ repetitively targets the head, increasing risk of Alzheimer’s disease. A further vicious cycle is set in motion when male violence causes or increases womens’ mental dysfunction which, in turn, makes them prey to further violence.
Women have long been both weapons of war as well as collateral damage. That is because dominant male values assign women with ‘sacred’ roles derived from their fertility which is seen as symbolic of a group’s propagation and identity. Thus, opposing sides may rape, enslave, or forcibly impregnate their enemies’ women as a low-cost terror-inducing war-tactic. This humiliates and demoralises the ‘warrior’s masculinity’, and sets retaliatory abuses in train.
Whatever the ‘insult’ to the male ego, it is the women – of all sides – who bear the practical brunt. Under these circumstances, bodily violation is hardly just an act of gratuitous sexual pleasure. It is the brutal expression of visceral hatred for a perceived enemy group by striking at its most vulnerable and weakest members – women and girls.
That such violence is a weapon of war or political suppression is also evidenced in male-on-male rape seen in places such as Chile, Greece, Croatia, Iran, Kuwait, the former Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia.
Sexual violence is, therefore, common as a war crime, a crime against humanity, and as one of the constituent atrocities of genocide. One of the co-authors (MK) has witnessed this, at first hand, in genocides in Rwanda, Srebrenica, Darfur, and Cambodia. This is also widely prevalent against the Yazidis in Iraq, the Uyghur in China, and is a hallmark of Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict.
A further betrayal happens when our most trusted saviours – humanitarians and peacekeepers – turn, into perpetrators. The worst part is that no one is surprised when this happens, as in Haiti or in the sexual exploitation of local women by employees of international organisations in DRC’s Ebola operations.
Sexual violence in wars is just the extreme end of the spectrum in wider society. India is one of the world’s most dangerous countries in this regard, where one woman is raped every twenty minutes. Pakistan saw a crowd of hundreds of men and boys assault a woman making a TikTok video. Neighbouring Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers are busy whitewashing the faces of women and girls and denying them basic freedoms.
How did we get to a point where women, once worshipped as goddesses, got burnt as witches; we even celebrate this gleefully at Halloween? It is then a steady path to their objectification, brutalisation, and stripping of humanity. Even the most-venerated medical journal, The Lancet, referenced women as ‘bodies with vaginas’.
Women are not angelic, infallible deities; they are capable of committing terrible acts. However, the dominating patterns of male violence are clear. From childhood, females are taught to keep themselves safe from male violence, wear the ‘right’ clothes, avoid darkly lit streets, seek safety in numbers, and walk with keys clutched between their fists, should an attacker strike. Why should women have to do this? It seems that social norm-setting connives with the ‘normalisation’ of violence against women.
Many progressive legal frameworks exist to promote gender equality and prevent violence against women, thereby also helping men, and improving society. But our systems, structures and institutions are failing to do this, despite years of gender and human rights activism.
As we meander through the echo chamber of feminists, scholars, academics, and lawmakers, activists and apologists – both male and female – the voices of victims may be heard but ignored. This mocks UN Sustainable Development Goal 5.2 on gender empowerment and equality.
Whether it is state-sanctioned gender violence in Afghanistan or soldiers raping by order in Tigray, callous social norms in Pakistan, misguided British courtrooms sentencing children to remain with an abusive parent, or universally prevalent pornography and prostitution, there are many different shades of male violence against women. Making men accountable is a start but must go beyond the #MeToo hashtag.
When well-intentioned social campaigns, awareness and education, and policy and institutional prescriptions are insufficient, what can we do as individuals? The first step is to acknowledge our guilt at denial, minimisation and victim-blaming .
When a woman or girl opens up about their experience of violence, do not disbelieve or turn her away. And when a man or boy commits a violent act, he too is a victim of his own action. Do not shun him but help him to understand why he feels that a woman or girl is lesser than him, and that it is wrong to hurt them.
Neither may be immediately – or always – responsive. But we must never give up. Even worse is to stay a bystander.