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What causes gender-based violence?

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HealthWiki > Health Actions for Women > Chapter 6: Ending Gender-based Violence > What causes gender-based violence?

To stop violence against women, we need to understand how harmful ideas about masculinity and femininity justify men’s use of violence against women, children, and others with low status. The unequal status of men and women is the primary cause of gender-based violence. This inequality includes beliefs that women should be economically dependent on men, and that women and children are a man’s possessions and under his control.

Women share stories, tears, and anger

At a health education meeting in Pune, India, the women were consoling Maya, who had given birth to a third daughter. She wept bitterly, showing her swollen back to the other women. Rubbing on a soothing lotion, Khadija said, "Don’t cry. My husband beats me even though I have two sons."

3 women consoling a 4th woman.

After a moment of silence, Radha said, "I am beaten when I talk back. Men don’t like that." Deepa asked in a confused voice, "Then why did Minu’s husband throw her out of the house? She never answers back." Nobody had an answer to that.

Then Poonam the health worker said, "Men beat women to show that they have power over us, not because it’s our fault. Joya’s husband says he beats her because her skin is too dark. But remember how fair-skinned Roopa was? She was burned to death because her husband was a jealous man." The whole mood of the meeting changed after that. Amina, the eldest woman, said, "It makes me so angry. I can see that there are deeper reasons behind wife abuse."

The difference between causes and "triggers" of violence

People sometimes explain why a man acted violently by saying he was drunk, jealous, or upset. These excuses may be part of the reason, but they are never the whole story. And they never justify abuse! Some people call these reasons "triggers," because they can "set off" a man in a certain situation. But they do not cause every man in similar situations to use violence. Male children are not born to be violent. They learn to be violent if they are treated with violence or taught that violence is a proper way to use masculine power.

The cycle of violence

When a relationship becomes violent, the first attack may seem like an isolated event. But when the violence continues, it usually follows this pattern:

illustration of the cycle of violence: a thunderstorm, then the sun, and then storm clouds.
Tension builds
Calm period

  • Tension builds: anger, arguing, blaming, verbal abuse
  • Violence: hitting, slapping, kicking, choking, use of objects or weapons, sexual abuse, verbal threats and abuse
  • Calm period: The man may deny the violence, say he is sorry, or promise it will never happen again.

Women in violent relationships usually learn to expect — and even plan for — each part of the cycle. With many couples, the calm period gets shorter and shorter as the woman loses her will to resist or fight back. The man’s control over her becomes so complete that he no longer needs to make promises that things will get better.

Why do women stay?

Women can become trapped in the cycle of violence. Breaking themselves out of the cycle is one way to escape it, but for many abused women, leaving does not seem possible. Women who are abused:

  • may have no safe place to go.
  • may have no way to provide for themselves and their children outside of the abusive relationship.
  • may be too scared to take advantage of any support that might exist for them and their children.
  • may be brainwashed by their abuser to feel they don’t deserve help.

One of the causes of gender-based violence, then, is the lack of opportunities for women. By working to develop alternatives to the situations above, your community can prevent women from becoming locked into abusive relationships and the cycle of violence.

a woman speaking.
Sometimes our heads are so full of fear and misery that we need nudging to look into the “whys” and try to understand.
Sharon Ishcomer-Fleming,
Choctaw Nation, US
ActivityExplore the causes of gender-based violence

  1. After doing the activity Role play: Gender-based violence affects everyone, ask the actors to put aside their props and costumes and rejoin the group. Having the actors step out of their roles before the discussion helps avoid labeling a participant as a villain or victim. It is important not to confuse the person with the role he or she was playing.
  2. Discuss each of the dramas. Ask questions that lead the whole group to tell what happened that provoked the man to use violence. As people name different causes for the violence, you may want to write them on a poster or a chalkboard.
  3. Analyze the causes of violence. Help the group decide which of the causes they named are "triggers" and which are "root causes." A "But why?" exercise can help the group see the difference between "triggers" and "root causes." Seeing the root causes makes it is easier to understand how gender expectations lead to violence.
    a group of men and women doing the "But why?" exercise.
    Q: Why was the man angry?
    Q: But why did that make him so angry?
    Q: But why does he expect that?
    Q: But why does he think that?
    A: Because his wife went to a meeting and forgot to make him dinner.
    A: Because he expects her to stay home and make him dinner everynight.
    A: Because he thinks it is her duty to obey him, not go to meetings.
    A: Because men and women are taught to believe it is a woman's job to obey.
  4. Explore the connection between the violence in the role plays and ideas about how men and women should act and think. For example: Why did the men in the role plays believe it was OK to treat women (and perhaps others) in a violent way? Why do so many people tolerate violence against women? What beliefs about gender teach men and women to think that violence against women is OK?
  5. You might conclude by asking what would happen in each situation if the man did not use violence. What might he do instead? Or you can continue with the next activity to help the group think about ways to stop gender-based violence.

Activity"Happy ending" role plays to think about change

  1. Ask the groups that role-played each situation to meet separately again for 15 minutes and discuss how each character could have acted differently so the situation would not end in violence. Challenge everyone to think about different actions the victim, the abuser, and the witnesses could take. Ask them to take care not to put all of the responsibility on the woman!
  2. Act out each situation again, this time changing what happens so it ends without violence. It can be very powerful to see a realistic alternative to violence, especially for people who have experienced violence.
  3. In the "happy ending" role plays, what do you think helped the participants and bystanders to do something different? Where do you think they might have gotten the idea to do this, or the strength?
  4. Discuss ideas for changing some of the root causes of gender-based violence. Ask the group to consider ways to help families and others in the community see the problem and the harm it causes. You might ask them to reflect on their own situations. Is there something they would like to change in their relationships? How could they involve children in making changes for the future?

    Based on the answers to these questions, the group may be ready to plan some specific actions. (See Make an action plan.)

Power and violence

People with higher status and more power often use violence against people with lower status and less power. This can be an important starting place for discussing genderbased violence with men. It may be easier for men to understand the harm and injustice suffered by women if their own experiences of powerlessness and violence are also recognized.

To prepare for the next 2 activities, you may want to read about Gender, power, and health.

ActivityMore powerful vs. less powerful

  1. Make a large chart with 2 columns, one labeled MORE POWER and the other LESS POWER.
  2. Ask the participants to brainstorm the groups of people in the community who have the most power. Write a list of their ideas on the MORE POWER side of the chart. Make sure people focus on status and social power, not physical strength.
  3. Then ask whom each of these powerful groups has power over. Put these groups in the other column, labeled LESS POWER.
  4. Ask if there are any other groups who have less power, and add those to the LESS POWER column. Then decide who has more power than these last groups and add those to the MORE POWER column.
    a chart with 2 columns as described above.
    Child or youth
    Lighter skin
    Darker skin
    Single, divorced, or widowed
    Without disability
    With a disability
    HIV positive
    HIV negative or untested
    Gay, Lesbian, Transgender
    a man speaking.
    I use this chart a lot as a way to start discussions, but power is not so simple. Many people are more powerful in some ways but less in others. Most people also move from one side to the other during their lifetimes. The chart also makes it look like all types of inequality are the same. But some groups face much more violence than others.
  5. Talk about what this chart shows. Point out that people in the powerful groups have privileges or advantages that people in the less powerful groups do not have. Discuss different types of privileges that come with higher economic, educational, or social status. You might also discuss the different kinds of violence used by people in any of the more powerful groups against people in any of the less powerful groups.
  6. Ask the participants to talk about how they fit in more powerful or less powerful groups, and the privileges or disadvantages they experience. Discuss what people on both sides of the chart can do to make the status and power between different groups more equal. (The next activity can help people in the group see where they fit in relation to each other.)
    3 men talking.
    Other men come to me for advice because I have traveled. But at home, my mother and my father will not let me choose a wife.
    My boss makes me work extra without pay, and threatens to fire me if I do not. At home I want my wife and children to respect me!
    Is it fair to use our power over others to feel better about being less powerful in other situations?

ActivityThe power shuffle

Another way to explore power and privilege, especially in a diverse group, is to ask people to move across a room based on the types of power they have or do not have. Be aware that this activity may make participants uncomfortable or provoke strong feelings. This activity can be done as part of Step 6 of More powerful vs. less powerful.

  1. Use the MORE POWER and LESS POWER chart from the previous activity, or prepare a similar list before doing the next steps here.
  2. Have everyone line up on one side of the meeting space.
  3. Say "Take a step forward if you are without disability," or name one of the other groups with more power. Then say "Take a step forward" again, and name another group with more power. For groups with less power, say something like "Take a step back if you are under 25 years old." After many steps, people may be surprised to see where they are standing.
    a woman leading a diverse group of people in the activity described above.
  4. To conclude, you can start a discussion using the questions in Step 5 of More powerful vs. less powerful.