Violence Against Girls and Women Essay

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Rates  and  consequences  of interpersonal violence differ according to gender. Crime statistics indicate that although males are generally more likely to be victims of physical violence, females are disproportionately affected by intimate partner violence, sexual  violence and  harassment, and human trafficking. Women and girls are also more likely than their male counterparts to be victimized in their home, to report concerns about personal safety, and to modify their behavior to avoid violent victimization.

Violence experienced by women and girls is also more likely to include a combination of physical,  sexual,  and  psychological  elements, and  to  be perpetrated with  the  intention of inducing feelings of terror and helplessness. Low rates of reporting and help-seeking are due to a number of barriers, such as the fear of disbelief on the part of service providers or fear of retaliation from the offender, which compounds the impact of violence against women and girls. The diverse effects of such violence extend beyond the direct victims to impact the broader community of women for whom the threat of violence negatively impacts well-being and limits behavioral options. Growing recognition of the severe consequences of violence against women and girls has led to calls for increased attention to the development of legal policy and practice, universal and targeted prevention, and tailored treatments for victims and offenders to increase help-seeking and treatment efficacy.


Popular  conceptions of violence against women and girls often focus on historical events, such as the mass torture and execution of women and girls by the European and North American witch hunts of the 1400s to 1700s, and the many female prisoners of war who were forced into sexual slavery during World War II. North American legal traditions pertaining to violence against women and girls (i.e., rape and spousal violence) are rooted in English common law and have been subject to diverse interpretations. However, in general, prior to the mid-20th century legal approaches to the prosecution of violence against women tended to overlook marital rape and allowed considerable leeway in the use of physical violence within married couples. The women’s movement in the 1960s and 1970s increased awareness of various kinds of violence against women and girls and led to substantial changes in law and policy.

For example, prior to the widespread enactment of sexual harassment laws across North America in the 1960s, female workers had no recourse  against  coworkers who  made  offensive sexual comments, engaged in unwanted touching, or made professional advancement contingent on complying with sexual demands. Similarly, prior to the 1960s, domestic violence against women and girls was largely considered a private, family matter. Today most states have adopted aggressive mandatory arrest and prosecution policies in cases of intimate partner violence, and marital rape was criminalized across all 50 U.S. states by 1993.

Violence against  women  and girls remains  a major social concern and attitudes that facilitate this violence persist across nations. Such violence is more prevalent in societies where gender roles are more  rigidly defined, and  where  the male prerogative to control or punish women through the use of violence is widely endorsed. Although most nations  have enacted laws to prohibit all forms of violence against women and girls, many have yet to outlaw these actions, especially when they occur within the family unit. Moreover, the enforcement of laws protecting women is often inhibited by societal or cultural beliefs regarding the culpability of the victim or the triviality of the crime.

Intimate Partner Violence

Intimate partner violence refers to a combination of physical, psychological, emotional, sexual, financial, or spiritual abuse perpetrated by an intimate partner. It is in the context of intimate partner relationships that women are at greatest risk of experiencing violence. Women are more likely to be attacked, raped, injured, stalked, or killed by a male intimate  partner than by any other type of perpetrator. Lifetime risk for North American women of being physically assaulted by an intimate partner has been estimated as being as high as 25 percent, with women under age 25 at highest risk of victimization.

Recent approaches to the understanding of partner violence  have  highlighted  the  importance of addressing heterogeneity of contexts and motivations. An important distinction involves the division of partner violence into the two categories of intimate terrorism and common couple violence. Intimate terrorism is characterized by a gross power difference between victim and perpetrator, a global pattern of abusive behavior toward the victim in which physical violence is only one means of exerting power and control, and chronic or escalating patterns of violence. This category of abuse is characterized by a strong overrepresentation of male perpetrators and female victims. Many women who report experiencing intimate terrorism describe a cyclical pattern of abuse, which includes a buildup phase of increasing tension, an outburst phase when their partner becomes violent, and a honeymoon phase when their partner appears contrite and promises to change his behavior. After this period, the abusive partner reverts to abusive behaviors, and the pattern is reestablished.

In contrast, common  couple violence occurs in the context of arguments that become heated and may lead to physical violence. This pattern of violence is often characterized by mutual violence, which blurs the lines between victim and perpetrator. Both men and women perpetrate this type of partner violence in roughly equal numbers; however, female victims of common couple violence experience relatively more severe physical injuries and psychological  distress. Population-based studies of intimate partner violence primarily capture common couple violence, and thus may conclude that the phenomenon of partner abuse is gender-symmetric; whereas studies of help-seeking populations primarily observe intimate terrorism, and thus report more gendered patterns of intimate partner violence with disproportionate victimization among females.

Consequences  of  partner  violence  include acute physical injury, psychological trauma, and chronic health conditions. Psychological disturbances  associated  with  partner abuse  include post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety disorders, and substance use. Trauma may be exacerbated in situations in which it is dangerous to remain in an abusive relationship, but also dangerous to attempt to leave the relationship. Indeed, victims of intimate terrorism may be at increased risk of violence and stalking due to jealously or outrage when they attempt to terminate an abusive relationship.

The  consequences  of  partner violence  can extend  throughout the  family;  children  who have witnessed parent-to-parent abuse have been found to display signs of trauma, elevated levels of aggressive behavior, and diminished academic functioning. They are also at dramatically increased risk for both perpetration of, and victimization by, intimate partner violence in adulthood.  The development of partner abuse can often be traced to adolescence; psychological, sexual, and physical abuse initiated in adolescent dating relationships may escalate into a regular pattern of violence in long-term  relationships. The experience of violence in dating relationships in adolescent girls has been linked to a variety of negative outcomes, such as increased substance use, engaging in risky sexual behaviors, and suicidal ideation.

Victims of intimate  partner violence report many  barriers  to  help-seeking,  including  the belief that the abuse is not severe enough to call the police, fear of retaliation from their intimate partner, or wanting their partner to receive help but not face incarceration. These victims also face a significant amount of nonsupport from their often well-meaning family and friends, who may be ill-equipped to offer ongoing social support and may lack knowledge of the seriousness of the abuse. This nonsupport within the victim’s social network has been implicated in discouraging help-seeking from formal support providers. The legal system also faces substantial barriers to the successful prosecution of partner violence offenses including the identification of a primary aggressor in the context of complex intimate relationships, ambivalence among eyewitnesses, and financial interdependence between victims and perpetrators.

Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment

Rape is the nonconsensual vaginal, anal, or oral penetration obtained by force, threat  of bodily harm, or when the victim is incapable  of giving consent. The term rape has been replaced by other terms such as sexual assault or sexual battery in many contexts. Rape is among the most widely underreported crimes. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) statistics indicate that fewer than 25 percent of stranger rapes and 5 percent of acquaintance rapes are reported to the police. Victims of rape are overwhelmingly female, and virtually all individuals arrested for rape are male. The lifetime risk of a North American woman over the age of 15 being raped is estimated to be as high as 25 percent. Most rapists are known to the victim; they may be an acquaintance, a dating partner, or a spouse.

Rape may result in the profound traumatization of victims with long-term negative effects on health and well-being. Women who develop posttraumatic stress disorder following a rape may have difficulty in multiple areas of life, including work, parenting, relationships, and daily functioning. Compounding the impact of rape are the many barriers to help-seeking, including fear of the rapist, fear of not being believed by police, thinking that the incident is not serious enough to report to police, and self-blame. Rape myths, such as the belief that men cannot control their sexual urges, and that women cause rape by dressing in a sexually  provocative manner,  further  inhibit help-seeking and exacerbate victim blaming. In contrast to these myths, sexual aggression is often a preference of offenders, who demonstrate varying degrees of planning in their offenses.

Gender asymmetry in sexual violence victimization is also observed in children, as females are substantially more likely to be subjected to childhood sexual abuse. Approximately 30 percent of North Americans girls age 14 and under will be sexually abused (compared to 15 percent of boys), and 8 percent will be raped.

Nearly 95 percent of the perpetrators of child sexual abuse are male. Similar to adult sexual violence, child sexual abuse is often unreported to  police,  and  the  perpetrator is likely well known to the victim (e.g., parent, caregiver, relative, teacher, coach). The consequences of child sexual abuse may include problems  of physical and mental health as well as difficulties in academic and social functioning. Additionally, research suggests a relationship between childhood  sexual  abuse  and  adult  victimization. Another  consequence  of child sexual abuse is the prevalence of child sexual abuse images on the Internet, where the ready availability of such materials to the general public has been implicated in a general normalization and desensitization to images of child sexual abuse.

Sexual harassment represents another form of violence against women and girls. Harassment behaviors range from verbally aggressive behaviors such as “catcalls” and sexually suggestive comments to physically invasive behaviors such as fondling. These behaviors create a hostile environment that may interfere with the victim’s functioning at work or school. Additionally, quid pro quo harassment takes place when perpetrators try to coerce sexual behavior in exchange for professional or educational advancement. Harassment can take place in diverse contexts, such as on the street, on public transportation, in schools, or in the workplace. Nearly 60 percent of women have experienced harassment in the workplace, and in a study of North American students, nearly 40 percent reported daily harassment at school.

The advent of social media has expanded opportunities for harassment, and hostile or abusive messages can spread quickly, causing enormous damage. Street harassment behaviors make women and girls feel uncomfortable and vulnerable, and they reinforce the concept that men are sexually predaceous. Harassment in schools may cause women and girls to drop out of school, or inhibit their classroom participation. When sexual harassment occurs in the workplace, women may underperform or leave their jobs. Other women may also be affected, as the harassment of one woman may lead to an environment that feels broadly unsafe for all women.

Human Trafficking

Women and girls are also disproportionately victimized by human trafficking. It is estimated that millions of women and girls internationally are victims of the illegal trade in human beings for purposes of forced labor, often of a sexual nature. Victims of this crime are drawn from vulnerable groups including the homeless, runaways,  and  the  substance-dependent. Victims are often recruited from economically strained circumstances and lured with promises of a better life and financial stability, usually under the guise of a legitimate job offer. However, following recruitment victims are forced into sex work and held against their will or through coercion. Human trafficking has a pervasive impact on its victims that has been described as amounting to physical, emotional, and spiritual  torture. The implications may extend beyond direct victims by causing women who have not been trafficked to feel insecure and vulnerable.

Effective Strategies for Reducing Violence Against Women and Girls

Many effective strategies have been developed to reduce and prevent violence against women and girls, and private  and public institutions have been established to support victims. At the level of policing, many police stations have established specific women’s desks to receive complaints of abuse, and police forces have developed dedicated subsections of officers who are specifically trained to address crimes against women. Police services may also include integrated victim resources to assist victims as they interact with police, lawyers, and the court system. At the judicial level, dedicated domestic violence courts have been established to help expedite prosecution, protect victims, and hold offenders accountable. Restorative justice programs that take cases of partner violence and sexual assault may increase help-seeking in victims who want to preserve their family, and want their abuser to get help rather than punishment. There are also specially trained police officers, lawyers, and judges who work on cases of child sexual abuse.

Prevention programs employ diverse approaches to change societal attitudes that facilitate violence against women and girls and have been tailored to suit diverse populations and contexts including children, youth, the workplace, and the general population. Public awareness campaigns have also been designed to change harmful norms related to harassment and to encourage victims of gender-based violence and abuse to seek help and retribution. Direct assistance to victims of violence and abuse is provided by networks of rape crisis centers and shelters for abused women, many of which emerged out of the women’s movement of the 1970s. These centers may provide short-term residence and support as well as counseling programs for victims and offenders. In addition, cognitive-behavioral, family-systems, and multimodal approaches to psychotherapy have all been modified to reduce recidivism among perpetrators of partner violence and to facilitate recovery and encourage resilience among victims. Recent therapeutic approaches have also highlighted the value of addressing concurrent substance use and other psychopathology in perpetrators for reducing the risk of violence against women and girls.


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  3. Johnson, Michael. “Patriarchal Terrorism and Common Couple Violence: Two Forms of Violence Against Women.” Journal of Family and Marriage, v.57 (1995).
  4. Lips, Hilary. “Violence Against Women: A Worldwide Problem.” In A New Psychology of Women: Gender, Culture, and Ethnicity. 3rd ed. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, 2010.
  5. Rozee, Patricia and Mary Koss. “Rape: A Century of Resistance.” Psychology of Women Quarterly, v.25 (2001).
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  7. Watts, Charlotte and Cathy Zimmerman. “Violence Against Women: Global Scope and Magnitude.” The Lancet, v.359/9313 (2002).

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