Violence against women: Causes and consequences
Violence against women is one of the most frequent human rights violations. It is a threat to women’s lives, it puts their physical and psychological health at risk, and it is a threat to the well-being of their children, with consequences for the whole community. The perpetrators can be found in every social and economic milieu, and the majority of them are male. The reason: In societies shaped by patriarchy, violence against women is an expression of unequal power relationships between men and women. So the causes of this violence are to be found not only at the individual level but also, and particularly, at the structural level. These causes need to be eliminated in order to prevent further violence. Gender justice cannot be established unless misogynist structures are resolved. Only then will women and girls be able to live a life free of violence.
Violence against women is one of the most frequent human rights violations. It is rooted in the power imbalance between the genders. It is a threat to women’s health – and also that of their children – and it restricts their participation in society as well as their opportunities in life. Violence against women and girls is widespread all around the world and can be found in all social classes, whether economically affluent or not.
This violence manifests in various ways: sexualised, physical, psychological, social and financial. Sexualised violence is one form of gender-based violence and an expression of discrimination. However, women are not only discriminated against in a sexist manner: they are also often subjected to additional forms of discrimination, such as racism, homophobia or ableism. The impacts of these interlock, reinforcing and changing each other.
‘Domestic’ or ‘family’ violence, also known as ‘intimate partner violence’, refers to any violence committed by people within close social relationships. This is an internationally recognised violation of human rights. The aim of this violence is to exercise control and power. Although the term ‘domestic’ might often refer to a house or household, the violence is often committed within the wider family or by a former partner.
In the majority of cases of partner violence, those carrying out the violence are male, and those affected are female (and frequently their children). Within partnerships, those affected by the violence are almost exclusively women. In terms of the number of killings of women because they are female (feminicide, or femicide), Germany is unfortunately one of the leaders in the EU.
Sexualised violence refers to sexual acts against the will of the other person. This is a crime against the legally protected right to sexual self-determination. Sexualised violence is one form of gender-based violence. It ranges from verbal harassment through unwanted touching all the way to rape. Other forms of gender-based violence include forced marriage, so-called ‘domestic violence’, and female genital cutting.
Sexualised violence is always a way to exercise power, control someone, or oppress the other person. This takes the form of violent sexual actions which are not consensual. In other words, the emphasis is on ‘violence’, and this is sexualised: the primary aim is not sexual satisfaction.
Sexualised violence is a serious violation of human rights. In situations of crisis and war it is commonly used as an instrument of power and its use continues in times of peace, too. It is an expression of patriarchal structures and is widespread around the world in all cultures, religions and societies. Sexualised violence can be found in all social and economic milieus.
In wars, one of the reasons sexualised violence is used against women is to humiliate the men on the opposing side. It is a gruesome, symbolic message with roots in patriarchal ways of thinking. In fact, part of the reason why sexualised wartime violence can be used with these impacts is because all sides in the conflict share this way of thinking. Worldwide, women and their bodies are still treated as the property of their husbands, fathers or families.
If a woman is raped, this is often considered to be damage to the property of the man (i.e. her body), sending a message to the enemy that he was not able to protect ‘his’ woman. Wartime rapes often also involve a combination of sexist and racist motivations: A woman is seen as a symbol of another ethnic group, and raping her demonstrates superiority over that group.
Psychological violence describes actions which lead to emotional and mental injuries of those affected. There are many aspects to this, including intimidation by means of looks, gestures or screaming and shouting. Other aspects include threats and coercion, such as the threat to take away a woman’s children or to commit physical violence against her. This violence can also take the form of derogatory, humiliating or discriminating comments, or public ridicule. Psychological violence is often accompanied by controlling or dominating behaviour, extreme jealousy, or the isolation of those affected. It is frequently committed within close relationships. Psychological violence can also occur online in the form of ‘cyber violence’.
Perpetrators of violence against women can be found in every society, nationality, religion and age group, with all levels of education or wealth. The majority of perpetrators across the world are male, and in the case of sexualised violence they are almost exclusively male. Most come from the close social environment of those affected. It is actually much rarer for a woman to be raped by a stranger at night in the park. The perpetrators bear sole individual responsibility for their actions and need to be brought to justice. It is, however, also relevant to recognise the structural causes of violence and to combat these.
The person raped should never be held responsible for the violence they are subject to. Neither her behaviour, her appearance nor her clothing can justify the violence. Crimes against sexual self-determination are predominantly committed by men, and it is mainly women who are affected. This fact suggests that there are structural causes as well as those found at the individual level. Examples at the structural level include violence carried out by private and public institutions, or the violence inherent in political measures that discriminate against women. Here, the unequal treatment of women is based on outdated stereotypes and role ascriptions for men and women. The gender of a person is actually constructed socially; there is no exclusively “natural” or “biological” determination of gender. So masculinity is also a social construct, and patriarchal role expectations associate this with aggression. The interplay between these social expectations and structural discrimination makes it more likely that violence will occur against women. In order to confront violence against women at all levels of society and to enact preventive measures, medica mondiale developed its multi-level approach.
Gender-based violence against women does not take place simply at the level of the individual, but is anchored in the cultural and institutional structures of societies. The interplay between discriminating behaviours at all three levels is referred to as ‘structural’ violence. Examples include discriminatory rules, laws, traditions and customs, as well as misogynistic language. These structures have both a conscious and subconscious influence on the way people think and behave. In turn, people who are socialised within these structures go on to preserve them, leading to a cycle which ensures that sexism and its expressions continue to exist, in turn perpetuating the violence against women that results from this sexism. Women can be affected by many forms of discrimination at the same time, including sexism, racism and ableism. These reinforce each other, increasing the risks of women experiencing violence.
The structural causes of violence against women include socialised gender roles with patriarchal roots, clichés about gender, and the resulting power relations. Whereas dominance, power and strength are seen to be masculine, qualities such as submissive, passive or indulgent are assigned to women. Even today these attributions lead to women being excluded from important political decision-making processes and offices. This lack of representation in relevant areas of society then leads to the needs of women being neglected and violence becoming established. Reflections of this can also be seen at the level of legislation: For example, according to the United Nations, only one quarter of all countries have laws relating to rape within marriage. It was only in 1997 that rape within marriage became illegal in Germany. Another example of structural violence is sexism at the workplace. This includes misogynist speech, significantly lower wages and salaries for the same work, and a much smaller proportion of women in positions of management.
Partnership violence – Evaluation of crime statistics. Federal Criminal Police Office (2021)
- 143,604 people were affected in 2021 in Germany by crimes of (attempted) partnership violence. Of these, about 80 per cent were women. The number of unreported cases is surely much higher.
- For 3,618 offences in the area of sexualised violence, the proportion of women among the affected was especially high at about 97 per cent.
- 78.8 per cent of the 118,148 suspects for attempted or committed crimes of partnership violence were male. Of the suspects recorded, 40.4 per cent were former relationship partners, 32.9 per cent were marriage partners, and 30.4 per cent were partners in a civil partnership. 65.6 per cent of the suspects were German citizens.
Police crime statistics. Federal Criminal Police Office (2021, German version)
- In 2021, 9,387 of the total 9,986 survivors of rape, sexual assault and sexual coercion were female and 599 were male.
Life situations of and pressures on disabled women in Germany. Summary. Federal Ministry of Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth (2014)
- Women with disabilities and impairments are 2 to 3 times more likely to be affected by sexualised violence than the average figure for all women in the population. According to the study, 20-34 per cent of them were already affected in their childhood or youth. Between 21 and 43 per cent experienced sexualised violence as adults.
“. . . not as tangible, but just as real” A quantitative and qualitative study on experiences of violence and (multiple) discrimination of lesbian, bisexual women and trans* in Germany (2012)
- More than half of the participants in the study who had been affected by multiple discrimination indicated that they had already been discriminated by close family members or other relatives.
- Trans* people, especially trans* women are affected by violence more often than average. One third of the surveyed trans people indicated they had already experienced sexualised violence.
Health, Well-Being and Personal Safety of Women. A Representative Study of Violence against Women in Germany. Study commissioned by Federal Ministry of Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth (2004).
- 42 per cent of the surveyed women indicated they had already experienced psychological violence.
- 13 per cent of all women in Germany have experienced sexualised violence at least once in their life since they were 16 years old.
- 25 per cent of all women in Germany have experienced sexualised and/or physical violence within a relationship.
- Sexualised violence is carried out 99 per cent of the time by men.
- Furthermore, the study showed that for women who had already been affected by sexualised violence once, the likelihood increases of experiencing this again.
Women as victims of partner violence – Justice for victims of violent crime, Part IV. FRA – European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (2019)
- According to this study, women who turned to the police in the wake of partnership violence were left without any protection from renewed violence in two out of three cases.
Violence against women: an EU-wide survey. Results at a glance. FRA – European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (2014)
- One out of 20 women has been raped since they were 15 years old.
- One in two women in the EU has experienced sexual harassment at least once since they were 15 years old.
- One quarter of the survivors of sexualised violence within a partnership indicated that shame or embarrassment were the reason for not reporting the violence to the police or another institution or another person.
- Across the EU an estimated 3.7 million women aged between 18 and 74 had experienced sexualised violence in the 12 months before the survey date.
Domestic Violence Against Women. Special Eurobarometer 344 (2010)
- One in four people surveyed in the EU knows a woman within their circle of friends or their family who has been affected by family violence.
- 78 per cent of Europeans consider family violence to be a widespread problem.
Different systems – similar outcomes. Tracking Attrition in Reported Rape Cases in Eleven European Countries. Country report, Germany. EU DAPHNE Project (2009)
- The assumption that false accusations of rape are widespread is a problem which makes people more sceptical about the issue of violence against women. In fact, false accusations of rape are marginal, transnational at just 1-9 per cent.
Second European Union Minorities and Discrimination Survey – Migrant women. Selected Findings. FRA – European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (2019)
According to the study, twice as many women as men indicated they had experienced violence motivated by hate from a person known to them. Similarly, twice as many women as men reported being afraid of revenge or reprisal from the perpetrator of violence if they report the incident to the authorities.
Violence Against Women and the Girl Child. United Nations (2020)
- Approximately one third of all women around the world have experienced physical and/or sexualised violence from a partner.
- Every day, an estimated 137 women are killed by members of their own family.
- Only 27 per cent of all countries have laws relating to rape within marriage. And even the existence of a law does not mean it is actually enforced.
- Of all victims of homicide committed by relationship partners, 80 per cent are women.
- 13 per cent of all police officers worldwide are women.
- Some 20 per cent of all women worldwide have experienced sexualised violence in their childhood or youth. For men, the figure is 8 per cent.
- 35 per cent of all women worldwide have experienced physical and/or sexualised violence at some point in their life.
- Around the world, 15 million girls between the ages of 15 and 19 have experienced sexualised violence.
- 38 per cent of all murders of women are committed by a partner.
- 42 per cent of all women who experience physical and/or sexualised violence from a partner suffered physical injuries as a result.
- In 75 per cent of cases where women were forced to experience physical or sexualised violence after the age of 15, the perpetrator was a partner.
- The most frequently named reasons for not seeking help were either considering the violence to be normal or not too serious, or a fear of consequences such as further violence, losing their children, or bringing shame to the family. Some respondents were afraid that nobody would believe them, or that they would receive no help.
- For women with a disability, the risk of experiencing violence within a relationship is two to four times higher than for women without a disability.
For the women affected, violence can result in physical, psychological or social consequences, or even death. This also applies to sexualised violence. They include physical injuries, infertility or sexually transmitted diseases, and also trauma, depression, anxiety or panic attacks. One of the reasons for psychosomatic complaints is the suppression of the experience of violence - something many women see themselves as being forced to do. Women are then frequently blamed for provoking the violence, or they are not believed, or they are stigmatised in their social environment.
Violence against women is always also violence against their children, even if these are not directly attacked. Just witnessing the violence, for example, can be enough to lead to sleep disturbances, developmental disorders, aggressiveness or anxiety. Furthermore, another very serious aspect that needs considering is the passing down of both violent behaviour and trauma to subsequent generations. Children who experience or witness violence and its consequences learn to accept this violence as a way to solve conflicts. Women who have experienced sexualised violence can pass on the traumatic experience to their children and grandchildren subconsciously as transgenerational trauma in the form of anxieties, stress and defensive responses. This can have an adverse effect on bonding within families.
“There needs to be a change of thinking here, then we will see governments and civil society showing more solidarity with women and girls in conflict areas.”
Violence against women has far-reaching consequences for society. Transgenerational trauma, which can be handed down from survivors of sexualised violence to their children, negatively affects the psychological health of whole families. Particularly in the case of violence experienced collectively, such as sexualised wartime violence, the adverse effects can be felt by the whole social network for generations. Patriarchal structures, based on sexism and other forms of discrimination, directly create a climate of violence in which women do not feel safe to move around in public spaces or to fully live their lives. When women are restricted from accessing education or choosing their profession, a society is losing out on the potential contribution from half of its population. Furthermore, many women cannot help secure the livelihood of their family, or only in a minor way. Poor educational opportunities for girls and women then correlate directly with poverty, child and maternal mortality, and even the climate catastrophe.
The participation of women in many political and economic sectors is severely restricted because of the discrimination against them. This means society does not benefit from the potential of a large part of its population. Studies show that the extent of the participation of women has a direct influence on the stability of a state and on its economic success. Women who have been subjected to violence suffer more frequently from physical and psychological injuries, leading to their absence from the workplace, which reduces the productivity of companies and harms the national economy. Society also bears the costs of violence against women in the form of the costs for women’s safe houses, court cases, police work, and psychological or medical treatments. Furthermore: As is recognised in UN Resolution 1325, sexualised violence is both a serious obstacle to successful peace negotiations and also a threat to peace and stability in the long term. Peace agreements made without the participation of women or consideration of their needs cannot be sustainably successful.
Violence against women should not be treated as a personal issue, but rather as a societal problem that can and must be prevented. However, cases of gender-specific violence, such as femicide, often appear in the media or even court cases under the trivialising term ‘family drama’. This tendency in the use of language is part of the structural problem, making violence against women appear less harmful. It also does not clearly name the causes or those responsible. The state has an obligation to prevent violence against women. It is also obliged to provide protection and support for those affected and to pursue those who perpetrate these crimes. Unless there is an overall coherent government strategy that considers the causes of violence against women, there will be no development of measures that actually have an impact.
Training courses can be offered to staff in the healthcare and legal sectors to raise their awareness of violence against women. In particular, public information work, gender-equitable childcare and education, human rights education, and a zero-tolerance policy on violence are all measures which can prevent violence and help to counteract misogynist attitudes.
Every individual can have an impact and anyone can be a role model for gender-equitable behaviour. Questioning and reflecting on our own behaviour and society’s norms can reveal where we have subconsciously adopted a sexist way of thinking and behaving that was modelled to us by or within our society. Solidarity with women strengthens social cohesion. It also reduces the space available to violence against women. Clearly stating that we are against every form of violence against women and discrimination helps to send the right signals. Another way to make a stand is to boycott misogynist products and criticise discriminatory entertainment formats. This helps to interrupt the perpetuation of misogynist values. People working in sectors such as education, media, culture and advertising, or even the development of computer games, have a particular function as role models and can help to spread the impacts of more gender-equitable portrayals. People who carry out violence do have individual responsibility for their actions, since they themselves can decide against violence. If necessary they can seek out assistance at appropriate contact points.
medica mondiale and our partner organisations raise public awareness of sexualised violence and educate people on the causes and consequences of violence against women. The general public and decision-makers such as politicians are called upon to deal with the issue of violence against women. Our aims include measures against sexualised and gender-based violence as well as discrimination-free assistance for survivors.
As part of our public awareness work we contact a wide range of stakeholders in order to break down the taboo in society on this issue, and to bring about structural transformation. For example, in 2018, our partner organisation in Afghanistan organised a conference against forced virginity tests in order to persuade decision-makers to prohibit them. Our Bosnian partner organisation Forgotten Children of War organised a photo exhibition “Break Free” to draw attention to the situation faced by children born as a consequence of sexualised wartime violence, and their mothers. Our partner organisation medica Liberia speaks on radio programmes to education village residents about women’s rights. Listeners can call in or send their questions to the legal counsellor as a text message. Men are also directly addressed, in order to persuade them to actively support women and girls.
Our partner organisations provide integrated and long-term assistance to survivors of sexualised violence, adopting our Stress- and Trauma-sensitive Approach (STA). Examples of the support include medical and psychosocial counselling and legal assistance or income-generating measures. Our Bosnian partner organisation Budućnost organises horticultural and agricultural training for women and girls so they can secure their own living independently.
“Often I have had to listen to people pointing out that I am doing well or that I am not oppressed. So I always respond: ‘Freedom for me is not enough!’”
“We are not ‘those poor women’. We are strong, active and brave.”
By carrying out political advocacy work, medica mondiale works together with its partner organisations calling on political actors to implement policies that meet the needs of survivors of sexualised violence. We raise awareness among politicians and governments across the world on the issue of violence against women, demanding that they uphold women’s rights and enforce existing laws to protect women. The interests and needs of survivors need to be considered in political decision-making processes. Structures that perpetuate violence need to be broken down so that violence is prevented in the long term. Additionally, we campaign actively to ensure that survivors of sexualised (wartime) violence receive appropriate support and/or compensation.
In Germany, medica mondiale advocates for the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and the Agenda “Women, Peace, Security“. We are demanding that the German government properly implements UN Resolution 1325 in order to ensure that women and girls in conflict areas are protected and have a chance to take part in peace processes. Our partner organisation in Afghanistan was working actively to ensure that the country’s Eliminate Violence Against Women (EVAW) Law was enforced, that family legislation was reformed, and that child and forced marriages were prohibited. In Kosovo, Medica Gjakova contributed to the efforts that led to the awarding of a monthly pension to women and girls who were raped during the Kosovo war.