Forms of gender-based violence

Direct violence

Direct violence against women includes physical, sexual, psychological, and economic violence. A comprehensive picture of the different forms of direct violence against women is outlined in the EU Council Conclusions of 5 and 6 June 2014. The Conclusions refer to the following as forms of gender-based violence against women:

  • violence in close relationships
  • sexual violence (including rape, sexual assault and harassment in all public and private spheres of life);
  • trafficking in human beings, slavery, and sexual exploitation;
  • harmful practices such as child and forced marriages, female genital mutilation, and crimes committed in the name of so-called ‘honour’;
  • emerging forms of violations, such as online harassment, various forms of sexual abuse instigated or facilitated through the use of information and communication technologies, stalking, and bullying.

Still, the Council Conclusions do not reflect the realm of violence against women in its entirety. Specifically, psychological and economic violence are not visible as they are not explicitly mentioned.

Psychological violence includes ‘threats, humiliation, mocking and controlling behaviours’. Economic violence involves denying access of the victim to financial resources, property, healthcare, education, or the labour market, and denying them participation in economic decision-making.
(United Nations Statistical Commission 2010)

The relationship between the victim and the perpetrator of acts of violence against women is also of great relevance. Intimate partner violence (IPV) is one of the most widespread forms of direct violence against women, and includes a range of sexual, psychological and physical coercive acts used against adult and adolescent women by a current or former intimate partner.

According to the EU-wide Survey on Violence against Women conducted by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, 22% of women have experienced some form of physical and/or sexual violence by a current or previous partner.
(EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, EU-wide Survey on Violence against Women 2014)

Direct violence against women must be understood through the lens of unequal power relations between women and men. Violence against women is often normalised and perpetuated due to these structural inequalities. Hence, the historical and contemporary subordination of women in economic, social and political life must be acknowledged when attempting to explain the prevalence of direct violence against women in our societies. This means shifting the focus from an actor-oriented perspective which examines individual motivations for acts of violence, to a structure-oriented perspective which looks at the structural gender inequalities that support and justify gender-based violence against women. The structural dimension of violence against women can also be described as direct violence.

Indirect violence

According to the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, institutional or structural violence is ‘any form of structural inequality or institutional discrimination that maintains a woman in a subordinate position, whether physical or ideological, to other people within her family, household or community’
(Report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women 2011).

Indirect violence can be understood as a type of structural violence, characterised by norms, attitudes and stereotypes around gender in general and violence against women in particular. Indirect violence operates within a larger societal context; institutions, and the individuals within and outside these institutions, are all engaged in the production and reproduction of attitudes which normalise violence against women (United Nations 1992). Looking at these attitudes can provide insight into the way in which these indirect forms of violence are created and sustained, and even more importantly, how they contribute to and support direct forms of violence against women.

Inequalities - and the forms of violence connected to them - are intersectional. They are the result of an interplay between multiple power structures that produce and reproduce hierarchical distinctions, for example regarding race, (dis)ability, age, social class, and gender. This means that while all women face discrimination based on gender, some women experience multiple forms of discrimination, of which gender is only one component.

To date, there is no consensus on the terminology adopted, or on the relationship between direct and indirect violence. While some see it as an integral part of violence against women, this is contested by others. Much work needs to be done in this area to better understand, and ultimately measure, structural inequalities between women and men.