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Violence against women: A Social Phenomenon and Women’s Activism.

Violence against women: A Social Phenomenon and Women’s Activism.

President’s Address, WAO 39th Annual General Meeting , 10 April 2022.

Shanthi Dairiam- President 2021-2023

Since the sixties there has been a growing awareness among women globally, that Gender Based Violence (GBV)  is an issue that needs to become a significant component of their activism. Currently in almost all parts of the world the issue is being addressed at some level or other. But when we examine the activism that is taking place, we find that in many instances, mobilization takes place around individual instances of violence or is confined to specific initiatives such as demand for legal reforms or setting up of relief services such as shelters and related budgets. Strategies which are confined to such approaches, have their limitations, as they are not helpful in mobilizing around the significance of male domination as a root cause of violence against women. While one does not wish to gloss over the traumatic effects of single acts of violence, there needs to be a study of violence for its significance over time. In other words, we need to look at the systematic use of physical force by men to exert control and authority over women.  According to Dobash and Dobash, we need to understand the masculine culture that uses violence to “win arguments, to express dissatisfaction, to deter future behaviour, and merely demonstrate dominance.” (1988:57) (1)

We also need to draw attention to the fact that physical force is persistently directed towards a marital partner, or a cohabitant.  All forms of violence against women are “shaped by patriarchy”. But it is in the family that male privilege is so institutionalized, that women’s subordination to men is seen as legitimate, and various forms of public and institutional arrangements and ideologies serve to maintain gender hierarchy within the family.  

It is interesting that in Malaysia, the first programme to combat violence against women, focussed on wife abuse. In 1982, the first shelter for battered women was set up by Women’s Aid Organization (WAO).  In 2022, this year, WAO will be celebrating its 40th anniversary, and I wish to say a few words about this history. The impetus for setting up the shelter came from a man, the late Tun Tan Siew Sin (2) who donated his prize money awarded for public service for the express purpose of setting up a shelter for battered women. By the end of 1983WAO had given refuge to 57 women and 75 children and counselled 200 battered women over the phone. (3)

The 1984 Annual Report of WAO makes the following statements:

 “We contend that wife battering is not confined to a few problem families. It is a serious social problem; the reasons are intricately connected with our social structures and historical processes”.

 “Men who batter are actually living up to cultural values of society which sees men as heads of the family. Formidable problems are faced by women who choose to leave their husbands.”

Through interaction with the battered women, WAO’s awareness about the ideological and institutional arrangements that kept women subordinate took shape. This is a global phenomenon and it is therefore important to recognise that parallel to efforts for the elimination of GBV, also prevail misogynous and cynical attempts to keep women in their place as inferior to men, through perpetuating an ideology of female dependence, discrimination and prejudice against women. Such attempts can be seen in the highest public arenas of decision making at national and international levels, within formal national institutions that have responsibility to protect women’s equality and freedom from abuse, down to the broad levels of  social interaction and in the privacy of intimate relationships.  

Equality for women as a value is still not the norm in every society of the world. While globally there has been much effort to eradicate GBV, such efforts have to go beyond viewing this phenomenon in isolation but rather to see that it is an essential ingredient of how society wishes to organize its relationships and power sharing.  

A word about misogyny. Misogyny is a global culture that sees as appropriate, different identities, roles, rights privileges for women and men- primarily men as protectors and women as vulnerable and needing protection.  This extends to a social recognition that men need greater power and resources so they can play their role of protector, and this further extends to a value system that sees as essential the domination of men and the subordination of women legitimised by culture and even religion.  This unequal status is maintained no matter what the cost is to women, including disrespect, abuse and in some instances even death.

This culture can go by many names. Stereotyping is one of them that translates into – attributes that are appropriate for men and that which is appropriate for women.  It may appear as a benign mechanism that suits the organization of people’s lives, but stereotyping is an insidious practice and denies women equality of rights, status and power.   Although individual men play a crucial role through aggressive and violent behaviour towards women, society as a whole are keepers of this culture, hence the apathy of institutions towards Violence against Women (VAW) and aggression towards women in public spaces by men, even strange men through whom moral policing is often done. Reform has to take place not by transforming individual men but by attempts to transform society, 

“Cross-cultural studies have found that cultural norms endorsing male dominance; female economic dependency; patterns of conflict resolution emphasizing violence, toughness, and honour; and male authority in the family, predict high societal levels of domestic violence and rape.” (2) Hence violence against women is not primarily the result of “single factor” cause or solely attributable to individual-level risk factors such as alcohol use or mental illness. (5) They are not random acts and VAW cannot be eradicated if violent acts are only dealt with on a case by case basis.  

For example, in Malaysia, there are challenges to ensuring legal recognition of some forms of GBV such as marital rape as a crime, in spite of CEDAW Committee’s recommendations.  The concern by male decision makers globally, quite often seems to have been primarily to safeguard men against misuse of the law and not the protection of women’s rights even in the face of overwhelming evidence of men as predators.  Quote –a Member of Parliament pfrom an Asian country, “Imagine if the woman I have been married to for the last 20 years one day turns around and says I have raped her. It will shake the institution of marriage if marital rape is recognized as rape.” In response, Vrinda Grover, a Supreme Court advocate from Asia, stated that “as a result of putting men’s interest at the centre of a debate on VAW, the enabling protective elements in the law get diluted.” This is one aspect of misogyny. Always consider the interest of the male even if a crime is committed by him.

Laws are of particular importance to women.  Laws do provide the foundation for individuals to claim their rights as entitlements under the law. But how do we ensure success of our advocacy to eradicate GBV using the law?    While aiming for law reform is essential, we need to understand the systemic and frequent use of physical force to keep women in their place.  The law only looks at individual acts of violence. Also focussing only on solutions for the individual may not be useful enough. How do we bring about social change to challenge the hierarchical relationship between women and men in intimate relationships? These are questions that need to guide our advocacy. 

Further, we have to work closely with women who experience violence. This work is not merely to provide them with skills and confidence and to be strategic about the provision of skills, but importantly to find out the complexity of how they define and understand their experience.  Abused wives or partners typically come from a situation where their confidence and self- esteem have been repeatedly undermined.   Her   story of mistreatment and abuse is often downplayed, normalised and even dis -believed. So much so, how often we have heard, “I thought it was my fault.”  She has not been allowed to think otherwise or even talk about her experience. So, working with the women to give them a sense of identity as an equal human being, to restore their sense of dignity and their sense of entitlements as one with the right to bodily integrity, is a critical part of our activism.  For women, the thought that “No one has the right to abuse me” and “I did not deserve this” must be internalised. 

In conclusion, yes, our activism must contribute to the reform of society and   equip women with survival skills, but it must also equally enable individual abused women to regain their identity as equal  human beings and be outraged at any act of abuse against themselves. “No one has the right to abuse me” must become their slogan.

1 Dobash and Dobash. Research as Social Action: The Struggle for Battered Women. In Eds. Yllo,Kersti and Bograd,Michele.  Feminist Perspectives on Wife Abuse. Sage Publications.
2 The late Tun Tan Siew Sin was the first finance minister of Malaysia.
3 WAO Annual Report 1983.
4  Mala Htun University of New Mexico, S. Laurel Weldon Purdue University. The Civic Origins of Progressive Policy Change: Combating Violence against Women in Global Perspective,
1975–2005. American Political Science Review. Vol. 106, No. 3 August 2012
5  Crowell and Burgess 1996; Heise 1994; Heise, Ellsberg, and Gottemoeller 1999;World Health Organization 2010). Taken from Mala Htun University of New Mexico, S. Laurel Weldon Purdue University. Ibid

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