What Is Gender-Based Violence & What Can We Do About It?
Reflections From 7 Thought Leaders On Gender Equity
For UN Women’s #16Days campaign to end gender-based violence, Aangan hosted a virtual panel featuring Atiya Bose, Bishakha Datta, Kirthi Jayakumar, Divya Balaji, Shyamolie Parikh, Mihir Parekh, and Pooja Podugu. In this piece, you can find the five questions we asked these leaders to answer, as well as their insightful responses that can instruct us all on how we tackle gender-based violence in our daily lives and at a larger scale.
1. What is your definition of gender-based violence, including the multiple ways in which it can manifest?
Kirthi of the Red Elephant Foundation replies, “I understand gender-based violence (GBV) to be any form of violence targeting an individual or group with their gender identity as the primary basis or reason for targeting them. GBV has a structural component (patriarchy), cultural component (cultural/religious/traditional practices and views on gender), and direct component (outright violence). GBV is also often synonymized with sexual violence. But there is a difference. Sexual violence is violence of a sexual nature (rape, molestation, female genital mutilation, etc.) while GBV can be all forms of violence (hitting, yelling) that target the victim for their gender.”
Aangan’s Atiya adds, “Also, all the acts of omission; not just commission — the denial of rights like education, food, and inheritance — all of that is violence too. The defining characteristic of gender-based violence to me is assertion of power.”
Shyamolie, formerly with Majlis Law, shares, “While GBV can’t be confined to a single definition, it brings to the fore the reality of violence being perpetuated due to the existence of normative roles and skewed power relationships, which we need to accept to be able to defeat.” And Mihir reminds us, “Gender-based violence is usually synonymous to ‘violence against women’ due to the sheer number of victims arising from that particular gender. Due importance must also be accorded to violence against men, and gender diverse individuals.”
Bishakha from Point of View speaks to the omnipresent nature of gender-based violence:
“For me, gender-based violence takes place in physical and digital places, online and offline and at their intersections — and can be visible or invisible.”
2. Who are your role models? What behaviors do they demonstrate when it comes to relationships? What message do their words and actions send about men and women?
Pooja, who wrote her thesis at Harvard on gender-based violence in Jordan, answers, “I think foremost of the many survivors of GBV I have met and learned from. The strength they exhibit even after surviving trauma is unfathomable. Many of these women work hardest to ensure the violence they’ve endured isn’t repeated, even as the onus should be on men to not abuse. The tenacity of will required to continue to demand the equity they deserve even after attack is awe-inspiring. I think of the power of their voices and the unqualified, unapologetic ways in which they fight for their own safety, bodily autonomy, and sociopolitical power.”
“This one is easy: my mother. Unlike what is usual in ‘typical’ Indian mothering, she taught me the importance of ownership and consent and helped me understand my agency in relationships. She is my safe space and taught me the value of safe spaces in relationships. Also, every woman who owns her agency — I see so many everywhere and they protect me through workplace relationships, in educational institutions, while navigating institutions of power, and on and on,” reflects Divya of The Bridgespan Group.
Shyamolie responds, “I would particularly like to point out the influence that Flavia Agnes has had on my thinking. And, closer to home, my late grandmother who was fearless in her resolve and never gave in to patriarchal norms.”
3. Describe an occasion where you’ve witnessed violence against women. How did you react? Was there something you could have done differently?
Divya describes an instance from her former role at Delhi Commission for Women: “The most shocking time was one where a young woman was raped and wanted to complain to the police. I helped her navigate the system and was shocked by the depersonalized treatment she received. I would have linked her to mental health care at the least. I was always shocked by the low level of efforts taken to make people aware of their rights while filing a complaint about violence against women (VAW). Women never knew they could get a copy of an FIR, that their testimony was most important, what their medical rights were…the list goes on and on.
Bishakha and Mihir admit that their is often no “right” approach to intervening when you observe an instance of gender-based violence. Bishakha shares her approach: “When I witness verbal putdowns (e.g. at a party, dinner, etc.), I take the woman’s side and try and say something. Sometimes it feels awkward; sometimes I hit the right note. Sometimes I’m not sure if the woman wants me to pitch in — what about her wishes and agency?” Atiya replies, “I’m glad you brought that up because it’s not always about the huge obvious violations — the more ‘mundane’ verbal humiliations do so much damage because they normalize an attitude, a superiority, a submission.”
Mihir, who works to organize other men as allies in his community in Bangalore, recounts, “There was an instance (two years ago) where I saw a couple fighting on the street and the man shoved the woman around and clearly she was uncomfortable. I managed to dissolve their tension and sternly instructed him that that wasn’t right. The man walked away after asking me to mind my own business and she tagged along with him with her head down. I feel there was very little I could do from there on out as there was no “severe violence” per se, but I hope that the woman is safe now.” Admitting his blind spots and that we all have room to grow in thinking about interventions that are so complex, he shares a question with the audience:
“Does anyone here who has experience with similar situations know if I could’ve or should’ve done more? Please do let me know, because if I do come across something like this next time, I’d like to do better.”
4. What can men and boys do to help end violence against women and girls?
Atiya says we all can contribute to ending VAW by “empowering boys from a young age to safely reject toxic masculinity. Let them know how it circumscribes them too, and alienates them from their true selves.” She continues, “it’s also important to remember that the hundreds of thousands of boys forced to go out to work when they are still kids facing violence and sexual abuse are also victims of patriarchy and gendered violence.”
“To me, the biggest contribution men and boys can make in the pursuit of ending VAW and GBV is to recognize the societal imbalance of power that systematically privileges them — in other words, patriarchy. Only then can they take an active role in empowering women within this system,” reflects Pooja. She continues, “Within their own lives, men must step up to call out acts of violence and gendered aggression they see occurring against women, but also against any gender identity that lacks the same societally-imparted privilege. They must strive to empower and believe non-cis male voices. In other words, men and boys must actively and conscientiously advocate for and act in support of eliminating gender disparities, and they must use their own privilege and power to dismantle these structures on both a micro and macro level.”
Shyamolie suggests, “To begin with, not trying to undermine every movement and bringing up the ‘immense number of false cases’ that have been filed. Men need to stop trying to explain how every movement to end GBV and VAW is unfair to them. What I also think is of vital importance is to fight his taboo of false cases. Lack of evidence leads to an acquittal, that DOES NOT equate to being a false case.”
Mihir adds, “Many men don’t realize the impact that sexual harassment can have on women, and how it can debilitate lives. Survivors of harassment are frowned upon and denied equity in almost all spheres, and only when men really feel the repercussions of destroying someone’s life that way will they learn.
And Kirthi sums up quite simply that men and boys should “understand how patriarchy is harmful to all gender identities and to recognize that they also have a lot to gain from an equal future.”
5. Do some demographic groups of women and girls face unique challenges that make them more vulnerable to violence? If so, what are these challenges and how can they be addressed?
“Yes, multiple vulnerabilities increases the possibility of violence. And what is important to note is that any form of violence doesn’t exist in isolation. Where there is sexual violence being perpetrated, the probability of domestic violence existing cannot be negated. Additionally, it’s not only the race and class of the victim that becomes important to note but also those of the perpetrator,” replies Shyamolie.
Bishakha adds, “I feel like there are so many structural and other issues: caste is a big one. We at Point of View work with disabled women and with sex workers and with queer and trans women. All of them face violence whose specificities are often not recognized. Women with disabilities face violence both because they’re women and because they’re disabled — from the subtle to the specific, like GBV from caregivers. Perhaps the most insidious is the everyday experience of not being valued.”
Pooja says, “Refugees and displaced women are also crucial in the conversation around GBV. Sexual assault & domestic violence persist as widespread weapons of war, exposing women in war-torn regions to some of the world’s highest rates of GBV. All migrant women are particularly vulnerable to violence.” She continues:
“These efforts must also center considerations of class (how does lack of socioeconomic power make one more vulnerable to coercion and violence?) and of ability (how does disability often preclude avenues of escape from violent situations?). If one’s advocacy against GBV does not include consideration of the heightened risk of violence along axes of race, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical ability, etc. then one’s advocacy is lacking in crucial, often life-saving nuance.”
As you can see, there is so much we can learn from these folks and apply to our daily lives, and many steps big and small that we all can take to be better allies to the women around us. The first piece to tackling the issues of gender-based violence and violence against women is to equip ourselves with as deep an understanding of the issue as we can, and I hope that conversations like these ones allow us to mainstream these respectful, in-depth open dialogues.