Violence Against Women & Girls – 16 days of activism

November 25 is the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (IDEVAW).Between then and International Human Rights Day on 10 December, the UN is calling for 16 days of activism 1 to raise awareness and seek solutions to this oldest and most pervasive of problems.

Violence against women, by men, is endemic, both globally and very close to home (often literally). In 2020 in the UK, 110 women were killed by men 2 – a level of femicide that has remained consistent over time. In general, a woman is killed by a man in the UK every 3 days, every single year – most commonly a man she knows, or is related to, and most often in her own or someone else’s home. Moreover, rape conviction rates in the UK are at an historic low, and ONS figures show that 73% of UK domestic abuse victims in 2020/21 were female.

You don’t have to be a statistician to recognise that the fact 98% of sexual violence is committed by male people doesn’t mean that 98% of male people commit sexual violence. But if we insist that violence against women is just the sum of horrible but isolated things done to some unlucky female people by a minority of damaged male people, we can’t begin to understand the bigger question of why this violence is so overwhelmingly gendered. Gender, after all, is understood by radical-minded feminists as the means by which patriarchal societies enforce the oppression of female people – by designating women a subordinate class, and using gendered norms to maintain male hegemony.

Male violence, then, commonly functions to enforce gender conformity, ie the subordination of women and the entrenchment of masculine entitlement. Aggression against gay and transgender people, for example, is commonly rooted in the perceived threat of non-conformity. Misogyny itself is deeply entwined with a thwarted sense of male entitlement – many terrorist attackers have a history as domestic abusers, and mass shootings and incel atrocities have often started with the killing of female relatives.

Seen as a weapon of patriarchy, it’s clear that systemic violence against women is not limited to physical abuse, rape and murder. Violence and oppression against female people are also meted out in more insidious ways that are no less effective at keeping women as a sex class disempowered and therefore subordinated. Sometimes the silencing and banishment of women is very literal, if brutal – forced veiling, guardianship and disenfranchisement, for example. But oppression also works through cultural and social mechanisms – two thirds of the world’s illiterate population is female3, and this is linked to the prevalence of child marriage of girls. This isn’t limited to the developing world – five US states have no minimum age for marriage, with a parental or judicial waiver, and marriage to an underage girl is a defence against statutory rape in most US states. 4 Bodily exploitation through prostitution or surrogacy might not be done at knifepoint, but its framing as a commercial transaction makes explicit the status of female bodies as a patriarchal resource.

A woman doesn’t have to be personally attacked or exploited to be a victim of patriarchal violence – throughout history, female people as a class have suffered from the stranglehold of gender norms, which deem brains, spirit and self-determination to be incompatible with being a woman. Some women may have famously slipped the net though a male pseudonym, an amanuensis or even a full male identity, if they could convince enough people to go along with it. But for most women, this wasn’t an option – and yet the gendered expectations placed on female people by patriarchy can be intolerable. When they are, women’s and girls’ distress has been weaponised against them – women have been institutionalised for hysteria, given lobotomies and drugged up on tranquilisers when they have failed to comply with gendered subordination. Girls’ higher rates of dysmorphia, self-harm and eating disorders point to the struggles of growing up in a patriarchal society where a female body can feel like a prison – who wouldn’t want to escape?

So to eliminate violence against women, it isn’t enough to find and stop the minority of individual men who beat, rape and kill. Violence against women describes the systematic oppression and subordination of female people as a class, though its presentation takes many forms. By recognising this, we are better able to challenge it by changing the shape of our societies, rather than tackling one bad man at a time, and wondering why this keeps happening.


See here for our other posts for IDEVAW 2023.

Cover photo by UN Women on Flickr (licence)



Posts from individual SEEN members who need to remain anonymous.

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