Why is domestic violence a gender equality issue?

One of the most sensitive issues that has reached epidemic proportions is gender-based domestic violence experienced by women. While there are still voices that say that partner violence is caused by unemployment, alcohol or poverty, experts have long shown that it is an extreme expression of gender inequality.

Roots in gender inequality

The Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council establishing minimum standards on the rights and protection of victims lists gender-based violence among the various violent crimes. For the purposes of this document, it refers to crimes that target a person on the basis of his/her sex or that disproportionately affect persons of one sex.

If we look at the Lithuanian police statistics on domestic violence, we can see that the vast majority of victims are women (77%), and that almost exclusively men are the perpetrators of violence (84% of all aggressors). This situation can thus be considered a classic example of gender-based violence, in line with global trends.

“As we see that women suffer disproportionately from domestic violence, the question arises why they are much more likely to be abused than men,” says Mintautė Jurkutė, Head of Discrimination Prevention and Communication Group at the Office of the Equal Opportunities Ombudsperson.

The reason for the disproportionality of domestic violence is legally explained by the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, which is considered to be the most advanced instrument in this area. Countries that have adopted the Convention (Lithuania signed it in 2013 but has not yet ratified it) recognize that domestic violence is a consequence of gender inequality.

Vilana Pilinkaitė-Sotirovič, an expert at the Center for the Development of Equal Opportunities, points out that the historical roles of men and women in the family justify in a way the abuse used by men: “Women’s traditional work (caring for the children and the home) is not equivalent to men’s work. In the public sphere, men are seen as the providers of the family. This status gives you the power to decide how the family should live and how others in the family should behave.”

As an example, she cites a study by Canadian researchers that found a single commonality among men who murdered their intimate partners. All of them were characterized by unequal treatment of women. These men grew up in diverse families, their school performance ranged from poor to very good, and they also had a wide range of educational backgrounds, with some not working and others in high positions and described as good workers. “However, scientists have discovered one thing that marks everyone like a red line. They shared the view that women are either floozies or princesses. One way or another, they need to be shown their place in life – they need to be constantly monitored and educated. This attitude also shows that domestic violence is a consequence of gender inequality – the convicts did not see their partners as equal human beings”, says V. Pilinkaite-Sotirovic.

Abstract talk masks

When explaining the causes of domestic violence, both in the media and in public debate, the gender dimension (for both victims and perpetrators) seems to be overlooked in the context of linking violent behavior solely to alcohol, poverty and other social problems. According to V. Pilinkaite-Sotirovic, such arguments simply do not follow logic.

“Then all those who drink would be violent towards the weaker ones. If we eradicated alcoholism, would there be no more domestic violence? What about countries where alcohol is not allowed at all, as in no violence against women?” – she asks rhetorically. If poverty were the root cause, then we would only find violence in poor families, but violence also occurs in affluent environments.

Lithuania’s legal framework to protect victims of domestic violence is gender-neutral, i.e. it does not specifically mention violence suffered by women. When awareness-raising campaigns are launched, there is also a suggestion to talk about violence in a neutral way – to exclude women from among the victims and men from among the perpetrators. However,  according to M. Jurkutė, this is not true.

“It would be wrong not to mention gender. For example, if we say that domestic violence affects women and men in the same way, we would be deceiving the people we are telling this. Keeps the topic intact. And it doesn’t affect them for the very reasons that men have not suffered historically – they have always been in a group that has been more valuable in society’s eyes,” she says. According to M.  Jurkutė, singling out violence against women does not in itself negate violence against men, but statistically they are much less likely to be victims of violence in close surroundings, and suffer for different reasons (men are more likely to be victims of other men).

  1. Pilinkaitė-Sotirovič points out that there is no equality in the area of domestic violence – the gender disparity between victims and perpetrators is much more pronounced than 50 / 50 or 40 / 60. “With the introduction of neutrality, we no longer see power imbalances. It has been shown that shifting the focus away from women who suffer disproportionately undermines the quality of implementation of protection laws. Another dangerous aspect is that it strengthens the possibility of victim blaming,” says the expert.

Challenging stereotypical masculinity

The argument “women are violent too” is often used to divert attention from the fact that 9 out of 10 domestic violence perpetrators in Lithuania are men. “We are talking about violent men because there are so many of them. We should not be afraid to say so. Women do not self-mutilate, it is their partners who abuse them. But this does not mean that the entire male gender has to whip themselves and identify with it”, – says M. Jurkutė.

“By not mentioning the source of the problem, we are pandering a little to men, who, as we know, still dominate law-making. They should not get caught out by the gender factor. As a man, you are not responsible for all men, but you are responsible for your own personal position and judgement. There is a serious lack of men in our society who speak out about violence against women. If we had more of them, we might not have to prove that there is a problem and we could move on to concrete solutions,” she adds.

The emotional reaction of people to the supposedly unfair “blackening of men” shows that society still does not reflect masculine norms. According to the speakers, the topic of men’s violence against women should not be taken as an insult or an attack, but as an opportunity to reflect on stereotypically perceived masculinity, which is associated with the obligation to be strong, force, control, power and the right to make decisions alone in the family. “Reflection does not destroy masculinity or the social order, but on the contrary, it enriches people,” V. Pilinkaite-Sotirovic.

On gender equality in the context of violence, the expert points out that the place to start is with the way we raise our children. Girls are told from an early age to be obedient, tidy, and to take care of the household, while boys are taught to lead, not to show emotions, and to protect girls. “What does it mean to “defend the girl”? This means that there is an aggressor who is equal to the boy, and the girl is automatically given the meaning that she is weaker and unequal,” – notices V. Pilinkaite-Sotirovic. Boys should be educated in a way that does not make them feel superior, that allows them to express their emotions appropriately, and that respects their rights and the rights of others to be equal members of the community.