Efforts to stop violence against women must focus on social, cultural norms

Author: Susan Harris Rimmer, ANU

A United Nations report released in September of this year confirmed what most women’s rights advocates already knew — that violence against women and girls in the Asia Pacific region is occurring at staggering rates with no solutions in sight. Out of the 10,000 men surveyed in Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Sri Lanka, nearly half reported using physical and or sexual violence against a female partner, and nearly a quarter admitted to rape.

Pakistani human rights activists hold placards at a rally to mark International Women (Photo: AAP)

The study was conducted by Partners for Prevention, a regional joint programme of the UNDP, UNFPA, UN Women and UNV programme in Asia and the Pacific. It used some very clever methods, including iPod Touch devices with custom-made apps and audio tracks in local languages, to ask men about highly sensitive behaviour such as rape in a totally anonymous manner, even in communities with low literacy. The male views were contrasted with women’s views.

The study found that in most sites, the prevalence of violence against women was 30–57 per cent, ranging from 26 per cent in rural Indonesia to 80 per cent in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea. It also confirmed that rape within marriage and intimate-partner violence (domestic violence) is a huge issue; in all sites except Bougainville, partner rape was more common than rape of a non-partner. Of the men who had committed rape, 72–97 per cent were never punished.

A key finding of the report was that ‘[p]reventing violence requires the sustained involvement of socializing institutions at the community and state levels, including schools, faith-based organizations, media and popular culture’. The question for governments and donors is how to invest in this process.

At present, demographic and social analysis is often chronically underfunded and ignored by elite decision-makers. Women’s rights advocates have tried a variety of tactics to push the issue into the realm of high politics of economic growth and global peace and security, including calculating the loss of economic productivity from sexual violence. For example, a recent CARE study found that the total cost of domestic violence in Bangladesh in 2010 amounted to over US$1.8 billion. This was the equivalent of 12.7 per cent of government spending that year and close to the total government expenditure for health and nutrition. The majority of this cost is borne by survivors and their families.

Regional advocates have also tried to link so-called ‘private’ violence to the failure of sustainable peace-building efforts in post-conflict states, and to focus regional diplomacy on this issue by lobbying for an Ambassador for Women and Girls. And yet, the clear policy recommendations adopted by external agencies, including Australia’s Agency for International Development, have never been properly funded.

What the survey indicates is that we need more insight into the motivations and social circumstances of men and boys who commit violent acts against women, especially teenage boys. A common motivation of men who have admitted to rape is the belief that they are entitled to sex even without the female partner’s consent. The report also found that perpetrators were more likely to have experienced physical, sexual or emotional abuse as a child. A large proportion of men also suffered from work-related stress, depression and suicidal tendencies.

These findings are particularly important given that current responses from international donors focus on providing services to victims (though not at levels that are remotely enough to meet demand) rather than on preventing structural violence by working with men and boys to change their behaviour. Refuges, counselling and health services are crucial, but it is even more vital to ensure that violence does not occur in the first place and that laws both exist and are enforced by the security and judicial sectors. Legal norms are important but they are moulded by social and cultural practice.

Donors therefore need to apply more pressure to dominant social institutions. But they have so far deferred to the cultural norms expressed by male-dominated governments and faith-based organisations to an extent that would not be tolerated in relation to ‘traditional’ security threats. If the violence outlined in the report instead consisted of men describing the spread of a health pandemic or terrorist network, alarm bells would be ringing in foreign ministries. As it is, the worst and most familiar aspect of this survey is the casualness and seeming inevitability of brutality against women, and the impunity enjoyed by perpetrators.

The global reaction to the culture of sexual violence in India is perhaps finally beginning to shift these issues into the realm of ‘high politics’. In the meantime, it’s worth noting that constructions of masculinity are crucial to understanding but not excusing violence. There needs to be a deep societal conversation about alternate ways to ‘be a man’ apart from using violence against women and girls. Those who care about understanding the region should be focused on gender equality.

Susan Harris Rimmer is the Director of Studies at the Asia Pacific College of Diplomacy, Australian National University.

Graph from The Economist, 10 Septmeber 2013

Graph from The Economist, 10 Septmeber 2013