Recognizing Structural Violence Against Women as a Human Rights Abuse

Advocacy groups have been successful in bringing violence against women to light within the past century; however, this problem persisted long before attention was drawn to it. Men evolved to require dominance over women’s reproductive capabilities in order to ensure their own lineage (Hudson, Bonnie, Capriolo, & Emmet, 2012). This dominance has transformed into widespread repression of women in all sectors, manifesting itself as systematic and societal inequalities between men and women, which have led to a persistent and wide spread norm of violence against women (Hudson et al., 2012). With the creation of the bill of human rights in 1966, human rights norms have become widespread. In 1979 with the ratification of “The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination of Women” (CEDAW), women’s rights officially became human rights (Nations, 1979).With international legislation and enforcement bodies, such as CEDAW, why does violence and discrimination against women continue to persist globally? While issues of physical violence against women are clearly important, addressing physical violence exclusively will not result in the sustainable prevention of such violence. In 1969 sociologist Johan Galtung defined a new kind of violence: structural violence. As a transnational community, it is most important for transnational bodies and grassroots organizations alike to give attention and energy to addressing issues of structural violence against women. The affects of structural violence can not only be seen in cases of direct violence against women, but also in cases such as the gendered economic-hierarchy, high incidence of avoidable maternal mortality in Sub-Saharan Africa, and the politics of hunger in areas with high prevalence of HIV.

The Beginnings of Women’s Human Rights as a Transnational Issue

CEDAW is one of six core conventions of the United Nations (UN) that effectively outline human rights and their place within international law for the transnational community (Merry, 2006). CEDAW outlines how discrimination against women is to be considered a human rights abuse on all levels by emphasizing not only civil and political rights, but also economic and social. The convention successfully emphasizes structural barriers women face that lead to avoidable early mortality, including maintaining equality between men and women in terms of employment opportunities, eliminating legislation that discriminates against women, and equity in access to education, among other basic rights (Nations, 1979). The goal of the treaty is to emphasize how these types of discrimination violate their human dignity, a key concept in human rights legislation (Nations, 1979). CEDAW is enforced through a transnational committee called a treaty body. Treaty bodies monitor ratified conventions by mandating regular reporting by signatory nations and hearing individual communications from victims of treaty violations. These reports cover each article that is relevant to the implementing countries and outlines what the country has done to address them (Mali, 2003). Through these reports the CEDAW committee tries to ensure that each signatory is adhering to the articles of the convention. In order for these policies to be truly embodied by the country, however, norms outlined in the CEDAW convention must be integrated at the grassroots level in order to have any lasting result of the state adhering to the convention.

Since the writing of CEDAW, the committee has released non-legally binding general recommendations for signatories. Two of these recommendations are about direct violence against women. General Recommendation 12 emphasizes consideration of the issue and requests more statistics on gender-based violence and General Recommendation 19 outlines gender-based violence as a form of discrimination that inhibits women’s liberties and rights from being equal with how men enjoy those fundamental human rights (Merry, 2006). In 1993 the UN published the “Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women,” where violence against women was defined 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 in private life,” (Krantz & Garcia-Moreno, 2005 ). These additions indicate a shift in focus of the committee away from issues of social and economic discrimination against women and to direct gender-based violence.

The paradigm shift to focus on gender-based violence began with a division between the concerns of women in the global north and women in the global south. Third world women did not identify with the discrimination framework that CEDAW was originally written with (Keck & Kathryn, 1998). This group was more concerned with issues of development and social justice for both genders at the time the convention was written. When the issue of violence against women was brought to the fore during the UN women’s conference in Nairobi in 1985, this gap between priorities for women began to close (Keck & Kathryn, 1998). Violence against women gave women’s groups all around the world a clear path for activism (Keck & Kathryn, 1998). Issues of violence are easily identifiable and there are well defined avenues for justice through the legal system (Merry, 2003). As long-time women’s rights advocate Charlotte Brunch said, “there are everyday things you can do about [violence against women], from wherever you are,” (Keck & Kathryn, 1998). Thus, it is no surprise that once violence against women became a global issue, activist groups rallied around it, making it an issue that women more readily identify violations of their human rights with (Merry, 2003).

The writing of CEDAW and other such conventions on women’s rights by the UN served as the impetus for the formation of grassroots women’s advocacy networks. As briefly mentioned above, these advocacy groups are what make the ultimate difference in policy change within signatory countries. It was these networks that pushed for the ultimate ratification of CEDAW, and ultimately the implementation of the principles that CEDAW outlines in states’ practices (Keck & Kathryn, 1998). As most women’s grassroots advocacy groups are rallied around direct violence against women, states are more likely to focus their policy efforts here.

Women’s Human Rights in Context

While important, the emphasis exclusively on gender-based violence will not lead to broad improvements in respect for women’s human rights. The beginnings of inequalities suffered by women at the hands of men go as far back as the beginning of the human species. Biologically, there is no predisposition for women to be passive and unaggressive, however, natural selection has worked such that those males who are most concerned about their reproductive success will have greater chances of personal survival and the survival of their lineage (Hudson et al., 2012). This kind of trend in natural selection has resulted in men finding it to their advantage to control female sexuality, given the intense labor required by the female to successfully reproduce. This has manifested itself in practices such as patrilocality, where females move to the community of their male mate in order to gain protection for themselves and their children from other male predators. Doing so, however, makes the female more vulnerable as it separates her from her own support networks, actually putting her in greater danger of sexual coercion by the males of the new community (Hudson et al., 2012).

As these trends developed through evolution, male-dominated societies with norms of discrimination against women came to be, perpetuating female vulnerability. This is seen clearly with the advent of agriculture, as land and crops were exclusively owned by men, diminishing the amount women could contribute to the subsistence of the family. Furthermore, studies have shown that the less women contribute to the subsistence of the family, the more likely they will be beaten and raped (Hudson et al., 2012). This is connected to the idea of who is contributing to the livelihood of the family more, or who is doing more productive work in the household, as these are the avenues through which conflict is approached in the family. There is evidence that suggests the more a woman works outside the home as opposed to unpaid housework, the better standing women have in household conflicts. This stems from the woman having her own income to wield, and the social pride that comes with being a breadwinner for the family. This can have multigenerational effects on the status of women in society at large, for if women in the family have more control over finances, it is almost guaranteed that female children will be better fed and educated than if the man of the house holds the most financial power. Thus, living in a more robust economy can mean that a woman has more likelihood of obtaining a job, and thus hold more economic power that will promise them better treatment in the household (Murthy & Lanford, 2012).

It is known, however, that violence is not practiced unless it is serving some function for the individual (Hudson et al., 2012). In the case of Felvian, an eleven-year old girl from Nairobi, Kenya who had been raped for years by her own grandfather, this heinous occurrence persisted due to more complex factors than her grandfather simply being a bad man (Kristoff, 2014). He could have continued perpetrating this violence because it gave him sexual pleasure, either overtly or symbolically, because it made him feel powerful, or because he viewed women as sexual commodities. It is clear, however, that the society in Kenya at the time of this event is what made this gender-based violence persist. When legal systems were first created, they generally favored men with laws specifying adultery as a crime only for women and marital rape not being against the law (Hudson et al., 2012). This is clearly at play in cases, such as Felvian’s, as it took five years for her to get any legal justice, or even acknowledgement for this horrible abuse, as her family chose to ignore the issue, cleansing her with herbs to purify her when they found out what was happening (Kristoff, 2014). The patriarchal nature of law goes back to the fundamental principle of natural selection for reproductive fitness (Hudson et al., 2012). Thus, even instances of direct physical violence against women can be drawn back to forms of social discrimination against women.

Structural Violence as a Cause of Violence Against Women

Johan Galtung’s 1969 paper, “Violence, Peace, and Peace Research,” defines violence to be, “that which increases the distance between the potential and the actual, and that which impedes the decrease of this distance,” (Galtung, 1969). For example, homicide creates an infinite distance between the potential a person has to contribute to society and what they will actually be able to contribute, as an act of violence has ended their life. This particular definition of violence is very interesting especially when considering the case of gender-based violence. Often, gender-based violence is used to prove dominance of the male or to prove the submissiveness of the female (Hudson et al., 2012). This physical oppression of the female is clearly violence, however, what systems allow this repression to occur within society? In this same paper, Galtung introduces the concept of structural violence. He describes structural violence as the unevenly distributed power to allocate resources unfairly, thereby increasing the gap between the potential and the actual (Galtung, 1969). This phenomenon is clearly at play in patriarchal social structures; from the home to national governments, historically men have been disproportionately in charge of decision-making and resources. This phenomenon goes back to evolution, again, for the beginning of societies were male-kin groups, making women vulnerable and sexually subservient to the male-kin group (Hudson et al., 2012). While it would be a stretch to assert that this phenomenon continues today, and is still to blame for persistent structural violence against women, the relics of these types of societies do remain. Even in societies where women are ever closer to equal rights with men, such as the United States, there are still inequalities in who is responsible for the distribution of resources, as only two percent of U.S. senators were women in 2010 (Murthy & Lanford, 2012).

The connection between the social structures that allowed Felvian’s grandfather to get away with abusing her for so many years and the concept of structural violence are strong. Even when Falvian’s immediate family knew a family member was raping her, they did not take action against him. This can be drawn back to the man’s historical power in the family. This is from both patrilocality practices and the phenomenon of men owning the land and producing an income (Hudson et al., 2012). These factors of unequal power over resources lead the family to valuing the integrity of the grandfather over Felvian’s bodily autonomy and happiness. Additionally, the patriarchal nature of the law further contributed to the delay in justice for Felvian. Felvian not only experienced violence from the violations her grandfather was committing, but also the violations her society was committing, in the form of structural violence due to men having unequal control of the distribution of resources and power in Kenyan society.

CEDAW addresses this framework of structural violence as it specifies the social, economic, and cultural barriers women face to exercise the full realization of their human rights (Nations, 1979). Structural violence is an obvious violation of the human right to individual agency (Ho, 2007). While addressing direct violence against women is important and is a useful way to get women’s advocates to ban together, it only addresses a product of the ultimate problem of structural violence against women. There is a need for specific protection of economic and social rights, as these are what lead to physical violations of human rights and allow them to continue to occur (Ho, 2007). Unfavorable social conditions for women in many parts of the world are due to certain pathologies of power that have come about as a result of human evolution. The human rights violations, including gender-based violence, these cause against women will not be addressed until power differentials, also known as structural violence, are addressed (Ho, 2007).

The gendered-economic hierarchy is an explicit example of structural violence that specifically targets women. In the 1930s a cohort of male economists developed the national system of accounts in the U.S. and decided that housework was not to be considered an economic product. This has had lasting impacts for women, as in the U.S. it is proven that the greatest risk factor for elderly poverty is to have ever been a mother. Despite the fact that the work of a full-time mother has been valued at a salary of $125,000 to $700,000, a mother’s labor does not contribute to her social security, leading to poverty in old age. Furthermore, the structure of the workplace is such that a woman cannot be economically secure while also caring for her children, as women who work part-time in order to care for their children are not paid the same amount as someone doing identical work, but is working full time. Additionally, these women workers are not entitled to health benefits either, further impoverishing them and their children (Hudson et al., 2012). This unequal economic and labor system embodies the fundamental concepts of structural violence, as its very nature gives significant advantage and control to men and thus the power to separate a mother’s potential economic security from her actual grasp. Because of this separation between a woman’s potential economic security and her actual situation, women’s personal autonomy and individual agency are compromised. As these are essential components of human rights it is plain to see that this systematic oppression is a widespread violation of women’s human rights.

High rates of maternal mortality in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia are a perfect example of how structural violence can cause inequalities on the scale of human rights violations, without having historically fallen under the umbrella of a human rights violation. Two of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set by the UN in 2000 directly address women’s rights. The fifth MDG specifically targets reducing maternal mortality worldwide by three quarters. While many countries have been successful with meeting this goal, the most at-risk countries have remained behind. What makes this problem even worse is that national maternal mortality estimates hardly paint the true picture of what is going on in the country. A 2011 study in rural Mali found the maternal mortality ratio in the Kita district to be 3,131 deaths per every 100,000 live births. This is shocking as the national maternal mortality ratio for Mali for that year was reported to be below 1,000 deaths per 100,000 live births (Aa, Grove, Haugsja, & Hinderaker, 2011).

In order to understand the shocking health disparities for women in rural areas, it is important to understand what systematic differences lead to disparities in maternal mortality ratios globally and regionally. The top cause of maternal mortality in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia is hemorrhage. A related top cause of maternal mortality is obstructed labor (Ronsmans & Graham, 2006). In Sub-Saharan Africa and in South Asia it is common for female children to not be fed as much as male children, thus leading to stunting, a condition characterized by lower height-for-age and an indicator of chronic malnutrition. Stunting, in combination with having children at a young age, means that the birth canal does not have sufficient time to develop. This often leads to obstructed labor, and thus hemorrhaging, because the baby is too large for the mother to deliver (Ronsmans & Graham, 2006). Disparities such as these explain global differences in maternal mortality ratios. Regionally, however, weak health infrastructures are to blame. In cities, it takes less time and is less costly for a woman to reach a health center if her pregnancy becomes complicated. In rural settings it is extremely difficult and costly for a woman to get to a health center if her delivery suddenly becomes complicated. This is due to unevenly distributed energy resources leading to higher costs for transportation, in addition to disparities in food security and job availability, forcing families to prioritize their finances. Additionally, rural health centers tend to be understaffed and under resourced, meaning they may not be open when needed, or may not have the proper resources for the dying mother (Ronsmans & Graham, 2006).

Disparities in how much children are fed, and weak health infrastructure in rural settings are examples of structural barriers that lead to the disproportionately high maternal mortality ratios in these areas. The tragic outcome of these barriers is what makes these barriers forms of structural violence, and why disproportionately high maternal mortality ratios should be considered a human rights violation. What makes this health disparity structural violence is that it is avoidable. Trial runs of specific interventions in Sub-Saharan Africa have been successful and have been proven to reduce maternal mortality significantly (Mukherjee et al., 2011). Recommendations of adequate primary healthcare, access to family planning, quality prenatal care, attendance of trained birth assistants at deliveries, and early detection and referral mechanisms for birth complications have been made but seldom adhered to in rural settings (Mukherjee et al., 2011). For example, despite the training and employment of female community health workers being an intervention proven to be successful in improving rates of maternal mortality in rural settings, it has not been implemented on a large scale (Mukherjee et al., 2011).

It should be obvious, for example in rural Mali, that a 20% chance of death during child birth, simply due to where a women lives and her income level, is an inherent violation of those women’s human rights (Aa et al., 2011). CEDAW discussed the violation of women’s human rights to be when discrimination:

Is an obstacle to the participation of women, on equal terms with men, in the political, social, economic and cultural life of their countries, hampers the growth of the prosperity of society and the family and makes more difficult the full development of the potentialities of women in the service of their countries and of humanity. (Nations, 1979)

This is not to say that these rural-urban health infrastructure disparities don’t impact men’s quality of life too, however, due to the fact that women bear children and urgent complications in this process can cause death, the impact these disparities have on women’s livelihoods is unparalleled. When many women die prematurely in Sub-Saharan Africa the whole family suffers. As the mother is the primary caregiver to the children, the children are either on their own, or the father must stop working to take care of them, thus forgoing income for the family (Murthy & Lanford, 2012). Furthermore, due to early mortality, women are not able to reach their full potential within their societies. The cause of this significant early mortality is systematic structural violence against women through cultural gender preference manifesting itself as a low political priority for access to life saving healthcare in a way that does not equally affect men (Ho, 2007).

It is true that structural violence does not exclusively affect women. Structural violence has been connected to the relationship between HIV prevalence and hunger in all HIV patients in sub-Saharan Africa. HIV as a disease requires a higher caloric intake as being malnourished further suppresses the immune system, having adequate consumption of food is imperative for HIV patients (Kalofonos, 2010). A side effect of HIV treatment, anti-retroviral therapy (ARV) is hunger, and food insecurity is persistent in areas of high HIV prevalence (Weiser et al., 2010). Thus, the disease itself and its treatment exacerbates this existing problem. Many aid projects focus on providing ARV treatments to as many people as possible in sub-Saharan Africa. Food aid and free ARV treatments have become a political mess in these countries. It has resulted in a divide amongst the people, as those who have HIV and are receiving more food aid to allow them to better adhere to their treatments, while those without HIV continue to go hungry (Kalofonos, 2010). Aid projects in this sector have turned into institutions of structural violence as these aids programs have huge power to distribute resources to some and not others, leading to unequal advantages and resentments in communities.

This unequal distribution of suffering can too be considered a human rights violation. Thus it is clear that structural violence is pervasive in all human rights violations, which should not diminish its presence as a women’s human rights violation, but rather strengthen it. The CEDAW established women’s rights as human rights. Thus, if we recognize structural violence as something that is pervasive in instances of human rights for men as well, this just makes the case stronger for its equal importance in the realm of women’s human rights.

Human rights violations against women has been pervasive in many different forms throughout history, whether it is sexual violence, as in the case of Felvian and her grandfather, or disproportionately high rates of maternal mortality in Sub-Saharan Africa. All women’s rights violations can be traced back to long-established structural violence against women. In order to protect the human rights of women everywhere, it is imperative for women’s advocacy groups and transnational legal bodies alike to devote energy and attention to issues of structural violence, as well as direct gender-based violence. While issues of direct violence are gut-wrenchingly horrible, addressing what is causing and allowing these instances to occur is the only way to end the abuse and for women to enjoy equal human rights.


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