Gender inequality and discrimination are root causes of violence against women, influenced by the historical and structural power imbalances between women and men which exist in varying degrees across all communities in the world.
Violence against women and girls is related to their lack of power and control, as well as to the social norms that prescribe men and women’s roles in society and condone abuse. Inequalities between men and women cut across public and private spheres of life, and across social, economic, cultural, and political rights; and are manifested in restrictions and limitations on women’s freedoms, choices and opportunities. These inequalities can increase women’s and girls’ risks of abuse, violent relationships and exploitation, for example, due to economic dependency and limited survival and income-earning options, or discrimination under the law as it relates to marriage, divorce, and child custody rights.
Violence against women and girls is not only a consequence of gender inequality, but reinforces women’s low status in society and the multiple disparities between women and men. (UN General Assembly, 2006)
A variety of factors at the individual, relationship, community and society (including the institutional/state) levels intersect to increase the risk of violence for women and girls. These factors, represented in the ecological model, include:
witnessing or experiencing abuse as a child (associated with future perpetration of violence for boys and experiencing violence for girls);
substance (including alcohol) abuse (associated with increased incidences of violence);
women’s membership in marginalized or excluded groups;
low levels of education (for boys associated with perpetrating violence in the future and for girls, experiencing violence);
Additional risk factors related to intimate partner violence that have been identified in the context of the United States include: young age; poor mental health levels related to low self-esteem, anger, depression, emotional insecurity or dependence, antisocial or borderline personality traits and social isolation; history of physical discipline as a child; marital instability and separation or divorce; history of perpetrating psychological abuse; unhealthy family relationships; poverty-related issues such as overcrowding or economic stress; and low levels of community intervention or sanctions against domestic violence. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2008)
On the other hand, there are protective factors that can reduce women and girls’ risk of violence, including:
completion of secondary education for girls (and boys);
Other factors that require further research and analysis, but may be associated with risk of and protection from domestic violence include: women’s prior experience as a survivor of violence (any form) at any age; men’s communication levels with their female intimate partners; men’s use of physical aggression against other men; as well as women and girl’s restricted mobility. (WHO, 2005)
It is important to remember that risk and protective factors are not direct causal links, but rather correlated – that is to say, for example, that a boy who witnesses abuse of his mother by his father as a child will not necessarily become a perpetrator later in life; nor is a women of high socio-economic status and highly educated immune to domestic violence. Violence against women is a complex social, economic and cultural phenomenon.
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