Gender-Based Violence Worldwide
During the COVID-19 pandemic, while people sheltered at home, communities reported dramatic increases in domestic violence, where many women and girls found themselves in lockdown with their abusers. As many people experienced anxieties about their health, loved ones, job insecurity, financial challenges, and other stressors, survivors of violence lost access to key support systems and experienced greater isolation. In addition, it became more difficult to access support and resources. According to a recent report by the International Rescue Committee (IRC), the risk of gender-based violence has increased during the pandemic, “exacerbating the already pandemic levels of violence women and girls face” (IRC 2020). In fact, reports of violence against women and girls have increased worldwide during the COVID-19 pandemic, including in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, China, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, France, Lebanon, the United Kingdom, and the United States (Benham 2020; Crossette 2020; IRC 2020).
Research demonstrates that crises disproportionately affect women and girls, and the COVID-19 pandemic is no exception. As Hellerstein reports, six months of lockdown could result in 31 million more cases of gender-based violence. The nonprofit Save the Children asserts that COVID-19 could force 2.5 million more girls into child marriage (Hellerstein 2021). Women and girls in conflict areas, crisis settings, and refugee camps are particularly at risk for violence (Benham 2020). In addition, domestic violence during the pandemic has increased in both prevalence and severity, and researchers also report that victims of violence are avoiding seeking medical treatment due to the pandemic (Luthra 2020).
Gendered forms of violence occur within every continent, country, and cultural context, affecting women, nonbinary, and trans people of all racial, ethnic, cultural, religious, socioeconomic, and age groups, including all sexualities. Gender-based violence is one of the most pervasive, yet least prosecuted, human rights violations worldwide. This chapter provides a framework for understanding gender-based violence within families, within communities, and as perpetrated by the state. We will also consider forms of resistance to gendered violence.
Violence against women is normalized in its ordinariness, despite the magnitude of the crimes and their effects on the lives of women and girls. The 1993 United Nations (UN) Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (DEVAW) defines violence against women as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual, or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion, or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life” (UN General Assembly 2006, 48/100). Forms of gendered violence include domestic violence, sexual harassment, sexual abuse, rape, forced prostitution, trafficking, stalking, “honor” killings, dowry-associated violence, female genital cutting, and hate crimes directed at particular groups, including lesbian, bisexual, transgender, Black, Indigenous, and other women of color, and/or women of particular ethnic, religious, or cultural groups. Violence exists on a continuum and may range from sexual harassment in the workplace to mass rapes and even genocidal practices. Recent writings have focused on violence targeting vulnerable groups, including trans women, women in the sex industry, Indigenous women, and Rohingya women.
Many authors, activists, and organizations such as the UN and the World Health Organization (WHO) employ the terms “gendered violence,” “gender-based violence,” “sexual and gender-based violence,” and “violence against women” to describe these forms of violence against women and other minoritized groups, including nonbinary, transgender, and Two-Spirit people. While such terms are frequently used interchangeably in the literature, some authors suggest that “violence against women” is an important term because it stresses the fact that most victims of domestic violence, intimate partner violence, and sexual violence are women and girls, and that these forms of violence, while they may be directed at all genders, are most likely to target women and girls. Others attempt to highlight the ways that “gendered violence” may specifically target women—including trans women—as well as those who challenge or transgress local gender norms within their societies. In this chapter, I use these terms somewhat interchangeably, specifying when I discuss forms of violence against particular groups.
It is difficult to assess the incidence of gender-based violence because such violence is often accepted, seen as normal, natural, harmless, or even deserved. Also, domestic violence, intimate partner violence, and family-based violence are often viewed as private matters to be resolved between intimate partners or family members. Victims of gender-based violence are also deeply stigmatized in many societies, and many survivors feel shame and humiliation, or they may be reluctant to report the violence for fear of additional violence perpetrated by law enforcement officials. Indeed, WHO identifies violence against women as a major public health problem and a violation of women’s human rights, citing the statistic that at least one in three (or approximately 30 percent of) women worldwide has been subjected to physical or sexual abuse at some point in their lifetime (WHO 2021). It is important to recognize that violence against women is not simply a private matter, or the acts of individual men against individual women. Rather, such violence forms a larger social, structural issue, created and perpetuated by social institutions worldwide, serving as a means to maintain control over women and other minoritized groups.
Justice for Migrant Women
by Miranda Findlay
Justice for Migrant Women is an organization that promotes human and civil rights of migrant women in the United States. They were founded in 2014 by Mónica Ramírez, a Latina activist who found connection to the project through her own experience as part of a farmworker family. Justice for Migrant Women seeks to make change through several endeavors, such as policy and administrative advocacy, culture shift initiatives, power-building, education, and international migration and immigration protections. They engage with the community to increase voter turnout, and they also elevate the stories of rural women through the creation of the Rural Women Collective Fellowship and on their podcast series. One of the organization’s latest initiatives is The Latinx House, which seeks to change public perception of the Latinx community by creating spaces to amplify authentic experiences and voices and discuss policy priorities that are brought to the forefront by grassroots organizers, policy experts, and artists.
Justice for Migrant Women works to build power through multi-ethnic and multi-sector partnerships to create issue-focused organizing that reaches multiple workforces, many of which employ migrant women workers. They also work closely with leaders and allies to provide education and tools to advance the policy and advocacy goals that have been established by migrant women for their communities and for themselves. More recently, Justice for Migrant Women founded the Always Essential national campaign to join the “essential work” narrative sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic. Through this work, they aim to catalyze public opinion to support policy change that will raise standards for low-wage workers’ health and safety, as well as their income.
The passing of DEVAW by the United Nations General Assembly in 1993 represented a turning point in international discourse on violence against women. For the first time, the international community explicitly recognized gendered violence as not simply a private issue, but a human rights concern requiring state intervention. As a result, the Commission on Human Rights adopted Resolution 1994/45 in March 1994 and appointed Radhika Coomaraswamy as the first special rapporteur on violence against women. Coomaraswamy was charged with collecting and analyzing information about violence against women, particularly its causes and consequences, in order to recommend measures to eliminate such violence at national, regional, and international levels.
In her investigation, Coomaraswamy focused on three areas of concern in which women are particularly vulnerable: (1) the family, in which women and girls may experience domestic violence, sexual abuse, marital rape, and practices such as infanticide, female genital cutting, and dowry-related violence; (2) the general community, in which women may be subjected to rape and sexual assault, sexual harassment, labor exploitation, and trafficking; and (3) the state, in which women and girls may experience violence perpetrated or condoned by the government and other agencies, including violence associated with reproductive health, detention, and the criminal justice system. In considering these categories, it is important to emphasize the effects of the processes of economic and cultural globalization that include increasing militarism in many regions of the world, and to remember that these categories are overlapping and interconnected. Women and girls particularly vulnerable to violence include members of ethnic minority groups; Indigenous, displaced, and refugee women and girls; migrant women, including migrant women workers; women and girls in the sex industry; those living in poverty and/or on the street; women in detention; women and girls with disabilities; elderly women; and those in situations of armed conflict. Such an extensive list encompasses millions of people around the world.
Over the past several decades, gendered forms of violence have received increasing international political attention. For example, the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action document, which emerged from the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women, asserted that violence against women constitutes not only a human rights violation but also a direct obstacle to achieving equality, peace, and development. A decade later, a ten-country study suggested that domestic violence remains just as prevalent, representing both a public policy and human rights issue that affects women and the children who experience and/or witness such abuse (WHO 2005).
Violence against women has profound and long-term consequences. For women and girls ages 15 to 44 years, violence is a major cause of death and disability. Forms of violence may lead to additional health problems, including a wide range of physical issues and disorders and reproductive health problems (injuries, HIV infection, unintended pregnancy, trauma to the reproductive tract), as well as emotional distress, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse, and suicide attempts. Unfortunately, many survivors of violence are unable to report the assault because of shame, stigma, fear of rejection by one’s family and/or community, and even the risk of further violence or death. It is therefore likely that there are many more incidents of violence than are currently reported. In addition, many scholars and activists note the fear and insecurity that results from threats of violence. Such fear severely limits women’s movement and basic activities, as well as access to resources. Violence or the threat of violence creates barriers to women’s and girls’ full participation in society, and represents a serious obstacle to women’s empowerment, gender equality, reproductive justice, and human rights.
Economic and social costs associated with violence against women are also considerable. Women who experience violence often experience isolation and are unable to work, participate in regular activities, or care for their children (WHO 2021). Additional social costs associated with violence against women include stigma and rejection by partners, husbands, families, and communities (WHO 2005, 2021). Alongside the inability to work and loss of wages on the part of individuals, gender-based violence severely affects economic development for nations. A report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2003 estimated the costs of intimate partner violence in the United States to exceed $5.8 billion in productivity losses.
Of central importance in this discussion of gender-based violence is consideration of the ways western paradigms shape discourse on violence against women worldwide, particularly how they may produce stereotypes and misunderstandings about women and communities in the Global South. For example, cultural relativism, the idea that individuals should be understood in the context of their particular society, is often used to suggest that “culture” can explain or rationalize violence against women. Feminist scholars including Uma Narayan, Chandra Mohanty, and others have asked why “culture” is so often invoked as an explanation for violence against women in the Global South, and/or in communities of color in the Global North, but not in discussions of forms of violence that affect mainstream white, middle-class communities (Narayan 1997). These scholars critique the colonizing tendencies of constructions of a monolithic “Third World woman” within a universal patriarchal framework. Such constructions often result in women in the Global South and Black, Indigenous, and other women of color in western contexts being stereotyped, frozen in time, decontextualized, and seen as always already victimized by male violence, family, religion, and culture (Mohanty 2003). In fact, women negotiate oppression and resistance in distinct ways, in various contexts. An intersectional, transnational feminist analysis helps us understand the necessity of focusing on social, historical, and political explanations and contexts that shape women’s lives across multiple differences. Categories of violence often referred to as “traditional” should be understood in relation to shifting cultural, socioeconomic, and political processes.
This chapter explores the realities of gender-based violence worldwide and is organized around the categories discussed above from the Commission on Human Rights. The first section addresses gender-based violence in the family and between intimate partners, with a focus on the consequences of gender-based violence. This is followed by a section on violence against women and girls in communities, focused on sexual harassment and assault, hate crimes, trafficking, and militarized forms of violence. The third section addresses violence perpetuated or condoned by the state and discusses violence against women and girls by law officials, health and reproductive issues, armed conflict, and globalization. This chapter concludes with a focus on movements to address and resist gender-based violence worldwide.
Violence within Families and by Intimate Partners
Violence affects women of all ages throughout the life cycle, and harm against women and girls in family contexts is all too common. Some researchers suggest that violence begins even before birth through a preference for sons, which may lead to sex-selective abortions. But while prenatal sex selection in Global South contexts has been denounced as an act of violence against women by the international community, Rajani Bhatia discusses the contradictions that arise when sex selection practices occur in the United States through assisted reproductive technologies, described as “family balancing” (Bhatia 2018). In many cultures, sons are expected to take care of aging parents, whereas daughters are seen as marrying into other families and therefore may be perceived as financial burdens to their parents. After birth, girls may also be vulnerable to neglect in terms of food, education, and basic health care, as well as multiple forms of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse that include infanticide (Plan International 2018). Son preference may also lead to child marriage in some countries, particularly within sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and parts of the Middle East. Children are often married at young ages for economic reasons, and parents may justify the practice as a means of escaping poverty and securing a better future for their children and themselves. Also, in contexts of armed conflict, parents may marry their daughters off early to protect them from sexual violence or kidnapping. For example, a recent report published in Ms. suggests that approximately 41 percent of displaced Syrian girls in Lebanon were married before the age of 18, as they were viewed as “an extra mouth to feed, a vulnerable body to protect and an economic liability” (Ladly 2021). Early forced marriages often result in young girls’ increased risk for gender-based violence and exposure to HIV/AIDS and limit their ability to obtain an education. Girls who marry early also tend to have less economic and household power, less mobility, less exposure to media, limited social networks, and greater reproductive health risks. It is estimated that at least 12 million girls under the age of 18 are married each year, and there are currently more than 650 million women in the world who were married as children (UNICEF 2021).
by Sadaf Farooq
Child marriage, defined by the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) as the marriage or formal union between two people in which one or both parties are younger than 18 years of age (ICRW 2012), occurs in many different parts of the world. It is widely practiced in the Global South, including parts of Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and South Asia. Based on different socioeconomic factors and gender disparities, women and girls are more commonly compelled to marry at a younger age than their male counterparts (Chowdhury et al. 2013). Estimates by the United Nations Fund for Population Activities and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNFPA-UNICEF) reveal that one in three women aged 20 to 24 in the Global South is married before 18 years (UNFPA-UNICEF 2018). However, a decline in child marriage has been observed in various countries owing to increasing education enrollment and changing gender roles in the labor market (Karamat 2016).
Various socioeconomic factors such as poverty, lower level of education, cultural and regional traditions, place of residence, ethnicity, conflict, age of puberty, and religious practices increase the risk of early marriage of young girls (Wodon et al. 2016). Studies in South Asian countries have shown that patriarchal structures, gender disparities, and prevailing cultural taboos are associated with women’s and girls’ early marriage, affecting their personal and social development (Edmeades and Hayes 2014). Child brides experience multiple negative consequences, including the deprivation of education, a loss of social and economic freedom, poor health, less personal development, and a lower standard of well-being. Child marriage also increases the risk of early childbearing, maternal and infant mortality, female genital cutting, HIV/AIDS, marital rape, domestic violence, little or no education, low decision-making power, and limited access to social services, thus affecting women’s and girls’ physical and socioeconomic capabilities.
Notably, reduction of child marriage coincides with Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) such as universal education, poverty eradication, gender equality, better health, and prevention of HIV/AIDS. Treaties have been signed under the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women to discourage and prohibit the harmful practice of child marriage in different parts of the world. But child marriage is permitted and practiced in different countries based on parental consent or religious or customary laws. Therefore changes are required to end this harmful practice and to ensure gender equality and a safer future for girls.
Chowdhury, Abdul Hamid, Mohammad Nazmul Hoq, Mohammad Emdad Hossain, and Md. Khan. 2013. “Factors Affecting an Age at First Marriage among Female Adolescents in Bangladesh.” Research on Humanities and Social Sciences 3, no. 9.
Edmeades, Jeffrey, and Robin Hayes. 2014. Improving the Lives of Married, Adolescent Girls in Amhara, Ethiopia. Washington, DC: International Center for Research on Women.
ICRW. International Center for Research on Women. 2012. Child Marriage in Southern Asia. Washington, DC: ICRW.
Karamat, Kelani. 2016. “Perceptions on Implications of Delayed Marriage: A Case Study of Married Adults in Kuala Lumpur.” International Journal of Social Science and Humanity 6, no. 8, 572.
UNFPA-UNICEF. 2018. United Nations Fund for Population Activities and United Nations Children’s Fund. 2017 Annual Report for the UNFPA-UNICEF Global Programme to Accelerate Action to End Child Marriage. New York: UNFPA-UNICEF.
Wodon, Quentin, Minh Cong Nguyen, and Clarence Tsimpo. 2016. “Child Marriage, Education, and Agency in Uganda.” Feminist Economics 22, no. 1, 54-79.
By far the most common form of violence against women globally is domestic violence, or “intimate partner violence.” Intimate partner violence, according to WHO, refers to “behavior by an intimate partner or ex-partner that causes physical, sexual or psychological harm, including physical aggression, sexual coercion, psychological abuse and controlling behaviours” (2021). A 2013 study conducted by the World Health Organization in collaboration with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the South Africa Medical Research Council found that worldwide, one in three (or approximately 35 percent of) women has experienced physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner (WHO 2021). As many as 38 percent of murders of women are committed by a male intimate partner (WHO 2021). The US Department of Justice defines domestic violence as “a pattern of abusive behavior in any relationship that is used by one partner to gain or maintain power and control over another intimate partner” (2011).
Globally, the term “domestic violence” is used interchangeably with “family violence,” “intimate partner violence,” and “wife abuse.” Domestic violence includes physical violence, sexual violence, and psychological, emotional, and economic actions that influence another person in the home, within the family, or within an intimate relationship. It may include verbal or emotional abuse, threatening behavior, intimidation, insults and put-downs, shaming, humiliation, harassment, isolation, confinement, manipulation, coercion, and the control of physical, economic, and other resources. It may also include threats to take custody of children, or the use of a woman’s racial, ethnic, cultural, religious, or sexual identity against her by threatening to withhold legal documents, for example. Given the fact that domestic violence is often underreported because of survivors’ feelings of confusion, shame, and self-blame, as well as fear of public reprisals and the fact that domestic violence has long been considered a private matter, it is likely that actual incidence rates are much higher than reported. Additional studies indicate that women are more likely to be injured or killed by their own partners than by anyone else.
Domestic or family violence may be so extreme that some researchers liken it to torture (Coomaraswamy 2002). Domestic violence cuts across national, geographic, socioeconomic, racial, ethnic, and cultural lines, and occurs in heterosexual and same-sex relationships, though most reported victims of domestic violence are women who have experienced violence by male perpetrators. In the United States, for example, domestic violence is one of the leading causes of injury to women (US Department of Justice 2011). Between 22 and 35 percent of US women’s emergency room visits result from domestic violence. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately one in four women and one in ten men experience some form of intimate partner violence in their lifetime, and Black and Indigenous women are at greater risk of death from intimate partner violence (Luthra 2020). Injuries associated with domestic violence include bruises, broken bones, cuts, burns, knife wounds, permanent injuries such as partial loss of vision or hearing, damage to joints, miscarriage, physical disfigurement, extreme trauma, and death (Kirk and Okazawa-Rey 2004). While a growing number of countries are attempting to strengthen legislation against violence against women, in some parts of the world there are no laws or social sanctions against domestic violence. Even where laws do exist, there is a greater need for their implementation and enforcement. And even in contexts where there are resources for survivors of domestic violence, members of marginalized communities, such as ethnic minorities, generally face additional barriers and more difficulty accessing available resources. Because they often do not fit into mainstream strategies for addressing domestic violence, marginalized groups of women are often more reluctant to report such violence, as they are aware that they may face additional forms of violence, including state regulation and surveillance within their communities.
Rape and sexual violence are also widespread within families and between intimate partners. Sexual assault is defined as sexual contact or behavior that occurs without consent, whereas rape is forced sexual intercourse that may involve vaginal, anal, or oral penetration (US Department of Justice 2011). Rape is a form of sexual assault, although sexual assault can occur without incidence of rape. It is estimated that one in three women worldwide experiences sexual assault in their lifetime (Marshall 2006). Women everywhere face the risk of sexual assault from perpetrators who are more likely to be friends, family members, or acquaintances than strangers.
Approximately one in four women experiences sexual violence by an intimate partner, and between one- and two-thirds of all victims are aged 15 years or under (WHO 2005; Plan International 2018). In the United States, research indicates that a woman is raped every six minutes, with the majority of rapes committed against women by male acquaintances, dates, or partners (US Department of Justice 2011). Girls and young women may also experience forms of control, surveillance and stalking, threats, and intimidation from boyfriends, sometimes classified as dating or courtship violence (Larkin and Popaleni 1997; Kirk and Okazawa-Rey 2004). Sexual assault may also specifically target children—of all genders—within families, and childhood sexual abuse is most commonly perpetrated by male family members.
While forced sex within marriage—marital rape—is considered a crime under international law as defined by DEVAW, it is still not taken seriously in many places, and men are frequently seen as having a legal right to unlimited sexual access to their wives. Many countries in southern Africa, for example, have no explicit legal provisions criminalizing marital rape (Ali 2008). In the United States, marital rape was legal until 1976 and is still considered a lesser crime in several states.
Violence within Communities
Within all communities, women are at risk for violence that includes physical violence, sexual harassment and assault, homophobic and transphobic violence, hate violence targeting particular groups of women and girls, trafficking for forced labor or sex, and forced prostitution. In each of these cases, violence is used as a tool of control and domination, and in some contexts, as a tool of terror. As discussed later in this chapter, forms of gendered violence that occur within communities can also be initiated or regulated by the state.
Sexual Harassment and Assault
Sexual harassment consists of unwelcome sexual advances that occur in public spaces, in the workplace, and in educational settings. It includes any unwanted verbal or physical contact of a sexual nature, as well as intimidation and pressure for sexual favors. In the workplace, sexual harassment may involve a hostile work environment through an abuse of power by those in authority as well as coworkers. Worldwide, women and girls in educational settings report high rates of sexual harassment that affects their ability to learn. Applying an intersectional lens, we can also understand the ways that sexual harassment may be racialized. Asian and Asian American women, for example, are often negatively affected by converging racial and gender stereotypes that assume they will be receptive to sexual advances (Cho 1997). This results in higher levels of sexual harassment from employers who may become increasingly violent when their advances are rebuffed.
Although rape and sexual assault are perpetrated most often by men in intimate relationships with women, stranger assaults also occur. Youth living on the streets may be particularly vulnerable to sexual violence by strangers. Youth who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, or intersex plus (LGBTQI+) experience homophobic and transphobic bullying and violence within schools and in public spaces. Other vulnerable groups include Indigenous women, girls, and gender-nonconforming people, members of racial and ethnic minority groups, people with disabilities, and those who are held in detention, are refugees, or live in conflict areas (Plan International 2018). In India, Nepal, and other parts of Asia, Dalit (lower-caste) women and girls face extreme rates of violence. In the United States and Canada, Native American and First Nations women and girls have experienced high rates of sexual violence. According to a recent study by the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, Native American women are twice as likely to experience sexual assault as members of other groups, and one in three Native American women reports having been raped (US Department of Justice 2011). Rape, according to Sarah Deer (2015), is “a fundamental result of colonialism, a history of violence reaching back centuries,” and “is experienced at such high rates in some tribal communities that it becomes ‘normalized’” (x, 5), with subsequent impunity for perpetrators. The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) movement draws attention to the extreme rates of violence against Indigenous women and girls across North America, frequently referred to as a human rights crisis.
Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls
by Renea Perry and Patti Duncan
Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG), sometimes referred to as Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two-Spirit People (MMIWG2S), or #MMIW on social media, is a movement to raise awareness and address the crisis of violence against Indigenous women, girls, Two-Spirit, nonbinary, and trans people in the United States and Canada.
In the United States, Native women are more than twice as likely to experience violence as other groups, and the US Department of Justice has reported that Indigenous women face murder rates that are more than ten times the national average. In Canada, thousands of Indigenous women, girls, Two-Spirit, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, or intersex plus (LGBTQI+) people have been reported missing or murdered in the past several decades, prompting the government to establish the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in 2016.
In the United States, President Biden signed the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act in March 2022, after several years of delay, owing to disputes between liberal and conversative legislators over issues such as inclusion of same-sex couples and undocumented immigrants, as well as federal and tribal jurisdictional issues regarding the prosecution of non-Natives for crimes committed on tribal reservations (which have treaty rights that were established in the 1800s and are part of US constitutional law). Originally passed in 1994, the act had been reauthorized in 2000, 2005, and 2013, but it had expired in 2018 and was briefly re-funded in 2019. The newest version of VAWA contained an amendment that sought to change the language to include Native American women and Alaska Native women living in urban areas and those in the states of Alaska and Maine, who under previous versions of VAWA had no legal protections from violence committed against them. Out of the 573 federally recognized tribes, 227 are Alaska Native villages. The final bill includes expanded language about circumstances of abuse and perpetrators, as well as inclusive language for protections of immigrant women and trans women.
Violence against Indigenous communities is rooted in a long history of colonialism and conquest, continuing today with settler colonialism and ongoing state violence against Indigenous people. The disproportionate violence against Indigenous women, girls, and Two-Spirit people is compounded by a lack of reporting, a deeply flawed justice system, and institutional racism.
Activists have organized many responses to the violence against Indigenous women, girls, and Two-Spirit people, including public marches and protests, vigils, and arts-based responses. For example, the REDressProject, a public art installation featuring red dresses, and Walking with Our Sisters, a community-led art project featuring moccasin vamps, are two responses created to remember and honor the lives of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. For more information, visit the Indian Law Resource Center and the National Congress of American Indians websites.
As examples in the previous section demonstrate, some forms of violence target specific groups. In South Africa, for example, Black women faced numerous forms of violence both during and after apartheid. “Curative rape”—sexual violence targeting queer women for the purpose of “curing” them of their sexual identity—has been directed specifically at Black queer women in townships. Often there are multiple perpetrators, and many women report more than one rape. This situation, reflecting the ways sexism intersects with homophobia and heterosexism, as well as racism and classism, is so critical that activists like Wendy Isaack have declared a state of emergency. They suggest that high rates of hate crimes against Black lesbians and transgender women in South Africa can be likened to torture as defined by international law, illustrating the ways they are systematically abused within the community and by the state (Gqola 2006). Isaack discusses the ways state actors such as police and judges perpetrate a secondary victimization by not investigating these cases and by not recognizing the human rights of Black lesbian and transgender women.
According to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), in the United States and elsewhere, trans and gender-nonconforming people encounter violence often driven by transphobia and frequently linked to other effects of transphobia, including poverty, unemployment, homelessness, and/or engagement in survival sex work (HRC 2020a). Approximately 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQI+, an indication of a lack of family support and acceptance. A 2015 US survey of transgender people indicates that nearly half of respondents reported being verbally harassed in the past year because of being trans, and 9 percent reported being physically attacked in the past year (VAWnet, n.d.). According to the HRC Foundation’s report Dismantling a Culture of Violence, more than two hundred transgender and gender-nonconforming people have been killed in the United States since 2013, and “this epidemic disproportionately impacts trans women of color,” with Black and Latinx trans women particularly at risk. Worldwide, over thirty-six hundred trans people have been killed over the past decade, according to Transrespect versus Transphobia Worldwide (HRC 2020a). Anti-trans violence is linked to the dehumanization of trans people, intertwined with racism and sexism, as well as other systems of oppression. HRC reports that 40 percent of trans people held in state and federal detention in the United States experience sexual abuse. Furthermore, it is likely that many cases of violence against trans women are not reported or underreported, and victims are frequently misgendered in the media.
Even in countries where violence against protected groups is considered hate violence and prosecuted accordingly, it is difficult to get many people to recognize that violence against women is also a hate crime. For example, in her discussion of hate violence against Asian and Asian American women in the United States, Helen Zia (1997) asks why it appears that most (documented) victims of anti-Asian violence are male. Even while violence against women is the most pervasive form of violence throughout society, gender was not added as a protected category or class in the United States until the 1994 Violence against Women Act. Despite this addition, violence against women has not generally been classified as a hate crime. If it were, hate crime statistics would increase exponentially.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, anti-Asian violence has escalated sharply in the United States, and hate incidents targeting Asian Americans, especially Asian American women, have surged by nearly 150 percent (Duncan, Dutt-Ballerstadt, and Lo 2021). According to a recent report by Stop AAPI Hate and the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF), more than 6,600 incidents of anti-Asian violence were reported between March 2020 and March 2021, and the greatest numbers were reported among Asian American and Pacific Islander women, girls, and nonbinary people (Stop AAPI Hate and the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum 2021).
Forced Migration, Trafficking, and the Global Sex Industry
Today, almost 300 million people live as international migrants or internally displaced people (Luibhéid and Chávez 2020). People migrate for many reasons, for example, to seek economic or educational opportunities, to escape war or unstable political situations, to seek asylum, or to reunite with family members. Sometimes people are trafficked, however, which involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion. It is estimated that 40.3 million people are trafficked worldwide, with the majority trapped in forced labor. According to the International Labour Organization, approximately 25 percent of trafficking victims are children. Most reports indicate that the majority of victims of trafficking are women, and many are trafficked into the informal economy to work in the sex industry, as domestic workers, and/or in agriculture or garment industries. Because trafficked women and girls generally lack legal documentation, they are vulnerable to multiple forms of violence. According to a recent UN global report, trafficking occurs all over the world, including throughout Africa, Asia and the Pacific, the Caribbean, Central America, Europe, North America, South America, and the Middle East. It also occurs domestically. Recent research indicates that people who are LGBTQI+ are particularly vulnerable to trafficking, especially LGBTQI+ children and young adults (UN Office on Drugs and Crime 2020).
The UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, adopted by the General Assembly in 2000, is the main UN entity addressing issues of human trafficking, focusing primarily on the criminal justice element of trafficking. It is supplemented by three protocols, including the Trafficking in Persons Protocol, adopted in 2003, which enables international cooperation, including law enforcement cooperation and extradition between and among countries. At the nongovernmental level, the Global Alliance against Traffic in Women (GAATW) comprises nongovernmental organizations from all over the world, including anti- trafficking organizations, survivors of trafficking, human rights and women’s rights organizations, and self-organized groups of sex workers, migrant workers, and domestic workers. GAATW understands that the trafficking of women and children is deeply embedded in processes of globalization and a globalized labor market, and therefore works for the human and labor rights of all migrant workers.
While the global sex industry is often framed in terms of trafficking and “sex slavery,” scholars like Kamala Kempadoo (2001) suggest that “the global sex trade cannot be simply reduced to one monolithic explanation of violence to women” (28). Rather, we must recognize how specific local histories and contexts—including colonialism, militarization, and globalization—shape women’s experiences of the sex industry. Kempadoo urges readers to recognize the fact that, globally, women of color are disproportionately represented in sex industries, particularly through prostitution around military bases, migrant labor, and sex tourism, often associated with the ways that women of color are sexualized and racialized as exotic “others” and thereby objectified. It is problematic to view sex work within a “voluntary” versus “forced” dichotomy since this model often results in viewing women as either innocent victims or people responsible for their own potential victimization. Such a framework may simply become another method for denying sex workers their human rights (Doezema 1998). Similarly, Jennifer Suchland (2015) critiques the ways that mainstream anti-trafficking discourse frequently frames trafficking in terms of individual victims rather than as a larger, structural problem. By considering trafficking in terms of structural violence, linked to economic and political systems, we begin to see the economies of violence that sustain trafficking and other forms of gendered, racialized exploitation and oppression (Suchland 2015).
Sometimes women leave their homelands voluntarily as a result of processes associated with globalization and structural adjustment programs. For example, many women in the Philippines face great pressure to migrate for employment opportunities at the same time that the Philippines’ national economy depends on remittances sent home by migrant women workers. Scholars like Rhacel Parreñas and Valerie Francisco-Menchavez have described the transnational family arrangements that result from the fact that many migrant workers are also mothers.
Filipina migrants in the United States engage creative strategies to care for children and family members back home in the Philippines, including the use of technology to maintain relationships and create intimacy (Francisco-Menchavez 2018). As domestic workers, women migrant laborers are vulnerable to exploitative working conditions, abuse from employers, sexual harassment, physical and sexual violence, and threats to withhold pay or important documents, including passports, as well as the fear of deportation. They may find their movement and mobility severely limited (Parreñas 2001). Similarly, some women migrate for the purposes of international marriage, sometimes referred to as “mail-order brides.” Vulnerable under the law and subject to the risk of deportation, these women may migrate for economic reasons, and they often experience domestic violence, including marital rape, with few resources for legal protection.
Others migrate to escape war or violence associated with political conflict. Globally, international migrants are increasingly criminalized, while borders between nations become militarized. As Luibhéid and Chávez (2020) point out, today’s migration crises involve increases in processes of migrant illegalization, detention, and deportation, in which migrants are frequently scapegoated as dangerous or threatening and blamed for economic and social problems. And queer and trans migrants are particularly vulnerable to violence. As Eithne Luibhéid writes, immigration controls “reproduce the nation and citizenship as sites of inequality, too, by legally admitting migrants who serve white, patriarchal, heterosexual, middle-class norms, while criminalizing, ‘illegalizing,’ and making disposable other migrants” (2020, 20). Queer and trans migrants in detention are regularly subjected to sexual and gendered harassment and violence, as well as lack of medical care.
Militarism in Communities
Finally, violence targeting women in communities may also include forms of violence associated with militarism. As discussed in the next section, while women experience extremely high rates of violence in situations of armed conflict, they also suffer as a result of living and working in militarized communities and especially in communities with military bases (Enloe 2007; Moon 2007). Militarism, defined here as a system and process that often relies on objectification of others, should be distinguished from individuals in the military, who may or may not support a militarized worldview. But militarism as an institution often encourages both violence and misogyny and results in increasing rates of sexual harassment and sexual assault committed against civilians by military personnel, including both local and foreign militaries. For example, US military personnel in South Korea have committed more than a hundred thousand criminal acts (about two per day) against members of the local population, often targeting women and children in the military camptowns surrounding US bases (Moon 2007). Violence against civilian women in this context also includes forced prostitution, trafficking, and murder. Many trafficking routes tend to appear close to military bases, and in the mid-1990s, more than five thousand women were reportedly trafficked into South Korea for the purposes of prostitution in US military camptowns (Marshall 2006). Finally, incidences of violence within military families are also key problems.
The reality of high rates of violence in militarized communities exists despite the rhetoric of “security” linked to military presence and occupation. The US bases in South Korea, Okinawa, and the Philippines, for example, have long been justified in the name of national security for these countries (Fukumura and Matsuoka 2002; Enloe 2007). In recent years, groups such as the East Asia-US Women’s Network against Militarism have challenged this premise, arguing that militarism does not provide security for local civilians, and that women in such environments become more vulnerable to violence. Other scholars, like Anna Agathangelou (2004), suggest that globalization is actually constituted through militarization, with both processes resulting in increased poverty in the Global South, affecting women disproportionately and increasing rates of sexual violence against them.
US Military Bases and Women’s Struggles in Okinawa
by Risako Sakai
Okinawa, in the southernmost part of Japan, is often considered merely as a region of Japan. It used to be the independent Ryukyu Kingdom but was annexed and colonized by Japan in 1879 and turned into the Okinawa Prefecture. During World War II, American soldiers landed on Okinawan islands in what was later known as the Battle of Okinawa. The Japanese military used Okinawa as a breakwater and prolonged the fighting in Okinawa to lessen major assaults on the mainland of Japan. During this battle, one in four civilians died. Right after the Battle of Okinawa, the US military took over Okinawa’s land and built bases, while civilians were housed in transit camps. Local towns formed around the US military bases. The US military occupied Okinawa between 1945 and 1972, and Okinawa reverted to Japan on July 30, 1972. But 70.4 percent of American military bases in Japan are concentrated in Okinawa, which accounts for only 0.6 percent of Japan’s total land territory.
Okinawa’s situation today is sometimes likened to that of “a prostituted daughter” (Takazato and Kutsuzawa 1999). That is, Japan, as a violent father, sells his daughter, Okinawa, to the US military. Japan rationalizes Okinawa’s situation with the US-Japan Security Treaty and “host nation support” called Omoiyori yosan (“sympathy budget”) (Ginoza 2012).
The US military views Okinawa as a geopolitical keystone to surveil Asia Pacific regions while also using Okinawa as rest and recreation (R&R) for US soldiers (Simpson, Broudy, and Arakaki 2013). But the presence of US military bases poses a great threat, particularly to women and children in the region, since women are regarded as “rewards” for male soldiers. During World War II, Okinawan women, along with Korean women, were forced to serve as “comfort women” for the Japanese military (Takazato and Kutsuzawa 1999). After the Battle of Okinawa, many orphaned girls, lured onto bases with food, were sexually assaulted. Hoping to rise out of poverty, some Okinawan women became prostitutes, and many of them were raped or killed by US soldiers. Rape cases are often not reported because of victim-blaming and stigma for survivors. Thus the fear “it could have been me” always sticks in women’s minds.
Victims of rape and murder include not only adult women but also children. In 1955, a 6-year-old Okinawan girl was kidnapped, raped, and murdered, now known as the Yumiko-chan incident after the girl’s name. This incident triggered the first massive protest of US occupation of Okinawa. And on September 4, 1995, a 12-year-old girl was abducted, gang-raped, and dumped on the side of the road. Considering this brutal violence, the feminist movement and organization Okinawa Women Act against Military Violence (Okinawa Kichi Guntai wo Yurusanai Koudousuru On’natachi no Kai) was established in 1995.
Ginoza, Ayano. 2012. “Space of ‘Militourism’: Intimacies of U.S. and Japanese Empires and Indigenous Sovereignty in Okinawa.” International Journal of Okinawan Studies 3, no. 1, 7-24.
Takazato, Suzuyo, and Kiyomi Kutsuzawa. 1999. “The Base and the Military: Structural Violence against Women.” Review of Japanese Culture and Society 11/12, 14.
Simpson, Peter, Daniel Broudy, and Makoto Arakaki, eds. 2013. Under Occupation: Resistance and Struggle in a Militarised Asia-Pacific. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars.
In March 2020, Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman and emergency medical technician, was shot and killed in her Louisville, Kentucky home by the police, who had forced entry into Taylor’s home in the middle of the night. Three white male police officers, who were searching for Taylor’s ex-boyfriend, fired thirty-two rounds in her home. After shooting Breonna Taylor multiple times, they left her without medical care for more than twenty minutes. Amid nationwide and international protests, a grand jury finally indicted one of them, Brett Hankison, not with murder but with “wanton endangerment” for firing into Taylor’s neighbor’s apartment. The other officers were not charged. No one was charged for causing Taylor’s death.
Tragically, the murder of Breonna Taylor is one more death in a long history of police brutality and violence against Black communities, highlighting systemic racism and racialized gender violence. Black women including Tanisha Anderson, Sandra Bland, Atatiana Jefferson, Natasha McKenna, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, and many others have been killed by police or died in police custody in recent years. As Kimberlé Crenshaw and other Black feminist scholars and activists have noted, the recurring police violence against Black women rarely gets the attention it deserves. In her talk “The Urgency of Intersectionality,” Crenshaw (2016) discusses the way that police brutality against Black women brings together the issues of police violence against African Americans and violence against women, but somehow this violence against Black women is not adequately addressed in our society.
As Crenshaw states, “Police violence against Black women is very real . . . Black girls as young as seven, great grandmothers as old as 95, have been killed by the police . . . Why don’t we know these stories? Why is it that their lost lives don’t generate the same amount of media attention and communal outcry as the lost lives of their fallen brothers?” To collectively bear witness to the magnitude of police violence against Black women and girls, Crenshaw asks that we say their names. She created the hashtag #SayHerName as a collective social media response and form of public activism that we can all participate in. #SayHerName asks us to remember the lives of Black women and girls who have been killed by the police and state violence (Crenshaw et al. 2015).
Physical, sexual, and psychological violence perpetrated or condoned by the state takes numerous forms that include police harassment and violence, violence against women and girls in detention, violence perpetrated by the criminal justice system (such as by immigration officials and border police), and violence associated with reproductive health. Also, women experience forms of violence associated with poverty, racism, homophobia, transphobia, colonization, and war, among other systems. As mentioned in the previous section, Indigenous women are often subjected to extreme forms of violence, including sexual violence, which can be used as a tool of conquest and even genocide (Smith 2005). The numbers of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and Two-Spirit people in the settler colonial context of North America have reached epidemic proportions. In situations of armed conflict, women and girls are particularly vulnerable to violence, as the political motives underlying war are also often used to justify sexual violence against women and girls. While the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women asserts that states should condemn violence against women, such violence nonetheless continues.
Violence by Law Enforcement and “Justice” Systems
Worldwide, women experience violence, including physical abuse, sexual assault, and psychological and verbal abuse by members of law enforcement and criminal justice systems. In the United States, women of color, poor women, queer women, trans women, disabled women, and women in the sex industry are at greater risk for police harassment and forms of violence by the criminal justice system. This situation influences their willingness to report the violence they experience. Globally, women in the sex industry and women migrant workers experience high levels of police harassment and violence. For example, 70 percent of sex workers in India report being beaten by police, and more than 80 percent report being arrested without evidence (WHO 2005). In Bangladesh, between 52 and 60 percent of street-based sex workers reported being raped by men in uniform in the previous year. In many countries, police also use anti-prostitution laws to harass, threaten, abuse, and sexually coerce or assault women in the sex industry. In South Africa, policies created during apartheid exacerbated structural inequalities, and state-sponsored forces intentionally used gender-based violence as a tool to enforce racial segregation, destabilize communities, and undermine and demoralize the resistance movement (Britton 2020).
As noted above, migrant women lacking legal documentation are also the targets of police harassment and violence. Women attempting to cross into the United States are regularly subjected to harassment, beatings, and assault, including sexual assault by both representatives of the state and members of racist vigilante groups (Falcón 2006). Women migrant workers, usually domestic workers, are particularly vulnerable and report suffering violence when seeking police protection (Amnesty International 2001). Finally, there is widespread violence against women in custody. Women held in prisons or pretrial detention are at risk for physical and sexual assault.
Amnesty International reports that women held in custody by police routinely endure rape and torture. In Lebanon, for example, women detainees have reported widespread abuses, including rape and attempted rape, beatings, torture, forcible stripping, constant invasion of privacy by male guards, and lack of adequate facilities for pregnant women (Amnesty International 2001).
At the Mexico-US border, many national media outlets have reported systematic sexual assault of women held in detention. In addition, more than forty-five hundred children reported sexual abuse in US Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention and immigrant youth facilities between 2015 and 2019 (Wilson 2020). And as noted above, queer and trans migrants are particularly vulnerable to sexual and gender-based harassment and violence (Luibhéid 2020). As women’s presence in prisons increases worldwide, it becomes more and more important to examine the conditions for women in detention, as well as the reasons for women’s imprisonment. In the United States, poor women and women of color make up the greatest numbers of women in prison, and their mass incarceration is often linked to structural forms of oppression as well as neoliberal economic policies (Reynolds 2008). Women living in refugee camps or camps for internally displaced persons (known as IDP camps) also face higher incidence rates of violence and exploitation. Representing the majority of displaced people, women and children are subject to violence, including sexual violence, from military and immigration personnel as well as male refugees and rival ethnic groups.
Violence Associated with Reproductive Health
Another form of gender-based violence is associated with lack of access to health care and reproductive justice worldwide. Women and girls experience state-inflicted violence through a lack of access to safe abortions, reproductive health care, family planning, and safe contraception. They may also experience forced sterilization and/or forced impregnation, as these two practices have been used as tools of eugenics, ethnic cleansing, colonialism, and genocide. Reproductive justice is a framework developed by women of color, emphasizing the right to not have children, to have children, and to parent children in safe and healthy environments (Ross and Solinger 2017, 9). As Silliman et al. (2004) have demonstrated, women of color have a long history of resisting policies directed at controlling their fertility.
Population control tactics were used during the colonization of the United States and during slavery. Throughout the twentieth century, the targeting of Indigenous and Black women and other people of color, immigrants, poor people, and disabled people was often justified by eugenics and racist, classist, and ableist ideologies (Ko 2016). Women of color and women in the Global South have been targets of provider-controlled hormonal methods of contraception whose side effects and risks are not yet known, including Depo-Provera and Norplant. While white, middle-class, abled women have often experienced difficulties securing safe access to contraception and abortion, many poor women, women of color, and disabled women have been targets for coercive sterilization campaigns, linked to a model of population control that suggests that poor women and women of color are to blame for the world’s overpopulation and dwindling resources (Hartmann 2002). This ideology can also be linked to specific economic policies. When people of color no longer function as “cheap labor,” the fertility of women of color becomes problematic to systems of power and is subject to state control.
Many countries report high mortality rates related to lack of access to safe abortions. Young women and girls in forced early marriages also face increased risk for complications associated with pregnancy, as well as a lack of medical resources and obstetric care in many countries. And women in poverty often face difficulty accessing prenatal care and medical care during childbirth. Approximately 536,000 women die each year due to maternal health complications, with 533,000 of these deaths occurring in the Global South (Alsop 2007).
Gender-based violence and substandard medical care are commonplace in ICE detention and in prisons (Ko 2016; Wilson 2020). Recently, at an immigration detention facility at the Mexico-US border, mass hysterectomies were performed on women without their consent. And in women’s prisons, forced sterilization has continued for decades (Ko 2016). The United Nations considers compulsory sterilization to be a crime against humanity, and when directed at a particular racial, ethnic, or nation group, it is considered an act of genocide.
Forced Sterilization of Migrant Women in the United States
by Miranda Findlay
Many women and girls seek refuge in the United States to escape severe gender-based violence in their home countries, and yet thousands have reported various violations and mistreatment in the United States. In September 2020, a nurse who worked at the Irwin County Detention Center—an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) center—in Ocilla, Georgia, claimed that migrant women have been subjected to gynecological procedures without their knowledge or informed consent. This whistleblower alleged that hysterectomies, operations to remove the uterus, were performed on women who did not need them and were not fully aware that the procedures were going to take place. Though the whistleblower did not personally witness the hysterectomies, she spoke to several women who were subjected to the procedure.
The US Department of Homeland Security complaint alleged several other violations, including that the Ocilla detention center allowed employees to work while awaiting COVID-19 test results, refused to test detainees for COVID‐19, shredded detainee medical requests, fabricated medical records, and withheld information from detainees and employees about who tested positive for COVID-19. In a statement to the Associated Press, ICE explained that while it takes all allegations seriously, “in general, anonymous, unproven allegations, made without any fact-checkable specifics, should be treated with the appropriate skepticism they deserve.” This alarming statement reflects a long history of neglect and violence against migrants and the state’s unwillingness to take responsibility for its violations of human rights.
Finally, a collaborative report by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), and the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) links gender-based violence to an increase in HIV/AIDS, with women who have experienced violence being at higher risk for HIV infection (UNAIDS, UNFPA, and UNIFEM 2004). Women and girls trafficked for sex work experience greater risk for infection (Ertürk 2005), and women in situations of armed conflict may be deliberately infected with HIV as a weapon of war. Women who have HIV/AIDS may avoid treatment because they fear the possibility of violence and abandonment that result from such disclosure.
Women and girls are particularly vulnerable within situations of armed conflict, during which gender-based violence often increases. Worldwide, 70 percent of casualties during armed conflict are civilians, many of them women and children. In such contexts, women may experience physical and sexual assault, including mass rape, forced marriage, forced prostitution, military sexual slavery, and increased domestic violence. Rape is consistently used as a weapon of war, but according to Coomaraswamy (2002), it is “the least condemned war crime.” In some instances, mass rape is used as an instrument of policy and a deliberate tool of genocide (Tétreault 2001; WHO 2005). Often, young women and girls are targeted for rape, and victims of rape face increased risk for HIV infection, the possibility of unwanted pregnancy, and potential rejection by families and communities (Ertürk 2008).
Between 1992 and 1995, up to 60,000 Muslim and Croatian women and girls were raped by Serbian soldiers in Bosnia-Herzegovina; many were forcibly impregnated as part of a campaign for “ethnic cleansing.” Similarly, during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, approximately half a million women and girls experienced war-related sexual violence, and it is estimated that 70 percent contracted HIV (Kolluri 2018). Rehn and Sirleaf (2002) suggest that some women were purposefully infected with HIV as a tool of war. In Sierra Leone, as many as 64,000 internally displaced women were raped between 1991 and 2001, and as many as 257,000 Sierra Leonean women and girls may have been subjected to sexual violence, perpetrated predominantly by rebel forces. In Colombia, rape has been used not only by soldiers in government armed forces, but also by guerillas and paramilitary forces. In Darfur, thousands of women and girls have been raped, with about 40 percent of victims under 18 years of age. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, sexual violence reached unprecedented levels, and women and girls face violence perpetrated not only by armed combatants but also by UN peacekeepers.
Violence against women during or immediately following armed conflict has also been reported in Afghanistan, Burundi, Cambodia, Chad, Chechnya/Russian Federation, Côte d’Ivoire, Darfur, Haiti, Iraq, Kuwait, Liberia, Mexico, Peru, northern Uganda, and the former Yugoslavia (Ertürk 2008). In refugee camps, women may be abused or raped by military, immigration personnel, male refugees, and men of rival ethnic groups. They may also be forced into prostitution or the sex industry. Particularly vulnerable groups include members of ethnic minorities, unaccompanied women and children, female heads of household, disabled women and girls, and elderly women (WHO 2021).
Systematic rape during armed conflict has been recognized as a human rights violation, yet it continues to occur. The UN identifies four categories of wartime rape: (1) genocidal rape, intended to destroy an entire ethnic, cultural, or political group; (2) opportunistic rape, in which crimes against women increase when male perpetrators take advantage of the breakdown in law and order; and (3) political rape, where women are punished for their association with men, as a means to subjugate men holding particular political perspectives. In such cases, women are often viewed as property, and sexual violence against them is used to subjugate and humiliate the men of their communities, including husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons (WHO 2005). Finally, (4) forced concubinage, the forced sexual servitude of women, often in “rape camps” such as those established by the Japanese during World War II, is another category of wartime rape. Approximately 200,000 women were forced into a system of sexual slavery in which they were systematically raped in what were called “comfort” camps (Duncan 2004).
Although the Beijing “Platform for Action” from the 1995 World Conference on Women declared rape in armed conflict to be war crime that can be classified as genocide in some cases, impunity for perpetrators is common. Until recently, no perpetrators of war rape had ever been prosecuted for crimes of war. In 1996, a UN tribunal indicted eight Bosnian Serb military and police officers in connection with their rape of Muslim women during the Bosnian war, and more recently the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1820, which recognizes sexual violence in situations of armed conflict as a threat to national and international peace and security. In postconflict periods, gender-based violence often continues. Reports associated with the recent war in Afghanistan show higher rates of rape, acid attacks, forced marriages, forced prostitution, and bombings of girls’ schools (Marshall 2006). Since 2014, Yazidi people have been targeted for genocide by the so-called Islamic State of Iraq (ISIL). Thousands of Yazidi men have been killed, and thousands of Yazidi women have been kidnapped, systematically raped, tortured, forced into sexual slavery, and murdered. Mass rape has also been used a wartime strategy and tool of genocide against other marginalized communities, including the Rohingya people, an ethnic minority group in Myanmar, and the Uighur people in China.
Razia Sultana, Rohingya Activist
by Shaina Khan
In 2021 the world’s largest refugee camp was found in the tiny country of Bangladesh. In 2017, in neighboring Myanmar, military forces began murdering, raping, and destroying the homes of Rohingya people, an ethnic minority in the region. Since then, almost 1 million Rohingya refugees have fled from Myanmar to Kutupalong camp. Many of the women and girls in Kutupalong are dealing with the aftermath of violence they experienced in Myanmar and while fleeing. Even in the camp, they face risks of kidnapping and sexual assault.
Razia Sultana, a Rohingya woman who grew up in Bangladesh, visits the women at Kutupalong, documenting their stories and helping them overcome feelings of shame about the sexual violence they experienced. She began a women’s center at the camp to spread messages about women’s empowerment and reduce gendered discrimination and violence. Sultana also speaks with refugee men, who can be hostile toward the idea of women’s rights, to convince them that women should have a voice, too. In 2017, Sultana left her job to be a full-time activist for Rohingya people. That same year, she spoke at the United Nations Security Council. Knowing that Rohingya women faced continuing violence—both in Bangladesh and in Myanmar—she says she surprised the council members when she told them, “The security council has failed.”
Sultana travels the world to speak on behalf of Rohingya women. She also coordinates the Free Rohingya Coalition and is a director of the women’s section of the Arakan Rohingya National Organization. In 2019, she was nominated for the US State Department’s International Women of Courage Awards. Despite all her international work, Sultana continues to visit the community at Kutupalong so she can listen to the women’s stories and understand what resources they need.
Read more about Kutupalong and Razia Sultana (Biographies of the Finalists for the 2020 International Women of Courage Awards, US Department of State).
Gendered violence can be linked to processes of globalization associated with both state and nonstate actors. As discussed above, hundreds of thousands of women worldwide are forced to migrate in search of work opportunities, often as a direct result of economic restructuring in their home countries. While gendered violence is shaped by unequal gender relations and women’s subjugated status in society, we can also see that it increases with processes of globalization that may heighten and intensify problems associated with unequal gender relations. For example, violence against women in Juarez, Mexico, where hundreds of women have disappeared and have been found raped and murdered, must be understood in the context of globalization that contributes to the “cheapening” of women’s labor and therefore their bodies. Such forces are exacerbated by problems associated with organized crime, the sex industry, drug trafficking, and police corruption (Livingston 2004). We might ask what role the global economy plays in making women’s bodies and labor expendable and disposable. Economic systems that devalue women and cheapen their labor make it easier for state actors and legal and political systems to inflict violence upon them.
Resisting Gendered Forms of Violence
In 2006, activist Tarana Burke used the phrase “Me Too” on social media as a way to name her experience as a survivor of sexual harassment and express solidarity with other survivors. By naming her own experience by using this phrase, Burke wanted other survivors to know that they are not alone. Then, in 2017, Alyssa Milano started using the phrase as a hashtag to demonstrate the magnitude of the problem. #MeToo soon became a movement across various social media platforms, in which people named sexual abuse and sexual violence, and expressed solidarity with other survivors. By sharing the hashtag #MeToo, survivors speak out about their experiences and make visible how many people have been affected by sexual harassment, abuse, and violence. The movement has spread to many places around the world, in multiple languages, trending in at least eighty-five countries, including Afghanistan, China, Egypt, Ethiopia, France, India, Iran, Nigeria, Palestine, South Korea, and Turkey. Florence Njoki describes how increased Internet access has allowed women in Africa to participate in the #MeToo conversation (Njoki 2019), and Carrie Baker details how state legislators in the United States were inspired to propose more than two hundred sexual harassment laws in two years (Baker 2020). Burke has recently referred to #MeToo as an international movement focused on community action and healing (Snyder and Lopez 2017).
Tarana Burke and #MeToo
by Miranda Findlay
Tarana Burke became involved in activism in the 1980s with the organization 21st Century. She met many young women of color who were survivors of sexual violence and abuse. A survivor herself, Burke focused on finding ways to provide resources and safe spaces for these women to share their stories. In 2007, Burke founded the nonprofit Just Be, Inc., which encouraged young Black girls through workshops and other educational programs. Just Be, Inc. was so impactful that its programs were adopted by every public school in Selma, Alabama.
Shortly afterward, Burke began using the phrase “me too” to empower young women of color to share their stories. Although the concept originated in 2006, Burke’s hashtag #MeToo went viral during the 2017 Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse scandal. In addition to Hollywood, statements of “Me Too” provoked sexual harassment and abuse discussions in the music industry, sciences, academia, and politics. Women spoke out about harassment by political leaders such as Michael Bloomberg and Donald Trump. In higher education, students and faculty stepped forward to disclose harassment and assault by tenured professors from prominent schools, including Harvard University and the University of Virginia. In 2017, Time named Burke, Susan Fowler, Isabel Pascual, and other women dubbed the “Silence Breakers” as the magazine’s annual Person of the Year. Burke has become a global leader in conversations about sexual violence and has been invited to speak across the country.
Gender-based violence both results from and reinforces gender inequality and women’s subordination in society. It affects women in the family, the community, the workplace, and in society in general. It is a public health issue as well as an obstacle to peace and development, and it is a human rights violation. Addressing gender-based violence must involve recognition of multiple levels of violence that include both individual experiences of victimization as well as the long-term structural or systemic violence that accompanies it, including the lack of accountability for perpetrators, a general lack of resources for survivors, and the stigma associated with many forms of violence. Ending gender-based violence requires education, resources, support for survivors, political movement, and a change in how laws are understood and applied.
At the World Health Assembly in 2016, member states agreed to a multisector approach to address violence against women. They endorsed “a global plan of action on strengthening the role of health systems in addressing interpersonal violence, in particular against women and girls and against children” (WHO 2021). State support to end gender-based violence is problematic, however, since states are also involved in the oppression of women and girls (Kirk and Okazawa-Rey 2004). As we have seen, states condone and legitimize violence against women through the legal system, police violence, violence against women in detention, rape of women in prisons, violence against women by military personnel, and assaults against women at the national border by immigration officials. As many feminist scholars and activists have argued, carceral approaches to gender-based violence, which emphasize individual cases rather than structural forms of violence, have failed (Bernstein 2010; Britton 2020). Such strategies rely on criminalization, prosecution, and incarceration, and conflict with movements for racial, gender, and economic justice.
Women’s, feminist, and human rights organizations continue to challenge gender-based violence around the world. In each case, it is important to consider specific local histories and contexts of gender-based violence. Only then it is possible to develop methods and strategies of intervention that will be effective within a particular context. It is also crucial to keep in mind that gendered forms of violence always exist alongside, and in fact are sustained by, structural inequities, which must also be addressed.
CARE: Reducing Rates of Child Marriage in Bangladesh
by Shaina Khan
Bangladesh has the fourth-highest recorded rate of child marriage in the world. Although boys are also married as children, girls are more likely to be married before they are 18 years old. About 60 percent of women in Bangladesh were married as children. Although illegal, widespread government corruption ensures that the law is not enforced. Child marriage carries risks for girls and women, including increased domestic abuse and marital rape, financial insecurity, and higher chances of maternal and infant mortality.
When asked, parents who have married away their young daughters cited multiple reasons. Impoverished families sometimes marry off daughters to reduce the number of mouths to feed. In a culture that views sons as future providers, marrying away daughters can free up resources for parents to invest in their sons’ education. In addition, many parents marry away their daughters to protect them from harassment and sexual assault. Girls in Bangladesh are frequently harassed or sometimes even abducted and raped while walking between home and school, and a common belief is that married girls experience less harassment. Because police do little to prevent these crimes against girls and women, marriage sometimes seems like the safest option for worried parents.
CARE is one of many organizations working to end child marriage in Bangladesh. CARE’s Tipping Point Project engages communities to demonstrate that girls and women are valuable members of those communities. With help from CARE, in some towns, children put on skits for their community members that show positive futures for girls who were educated, who eventually found jobs, and who remained unmarried even in adulthood. To change gender norms in Bangladeshi societies, CARE created the Amra-o-Korchi (“We are doing it, too”) program to change beliefs that certain work is only for women. For example, CARE organizes cooking competitions for men and boys. Involving men in activities like cooking and caregiving reduces the burden on women and develops men’s and boys’ empathy for women and girls. CARE has also facilitated discussions at tea stalls, where men in Bangladesh commonly gather. The facilitators steered conversation toward men’s perceptions of women and girls and encouraged the men to think differently. After participating in CARE programs, adults say that they have begun to view child marriage as more harmful than beneficial to girls. Many participants become convinced that child marriage is not an acceptable practice. Men, who tend to make decisions for their households, often decide to send their daughters back to school rather than get them married. While some community members, particularly religious groups, disapprove of CARE’s activities, the overwhelming majority of participants say that the programs changed their attitudes about gender roles. Activities like CARE’s, which directly challenge patriarchal thinking within specific local contexts, seem to be most effective in delaying girls’ marriages.
- What is gender-based violence, according to Duncan?
- What is family and intimate partner violence? Why is it so pervasive?
- What does Duncan include in the category community violence?
- What constitutes state violence, according to Duncan?
- Duncan discusses activists’ attempts to bring attention to violence against women and girls, such as the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) movement, #SayHerName, and #MeToo. Working alone, with a partner, or in a small group, choose one of these movements and look for information online about it. What do you learn? How does the organization/movement you’ve selected work to resist gender-based violence?
- Here are two terms to add to your glossary: gender-based violence, cultural relativism.
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8.1 “Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General, World Health Organization (WHO): I wear orange because I know what violence does to the physical and mental health of women” by UN Women Gallery is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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