Three root causes of violence against women and how to tackle them

By Hyeshin Park, Gender Programme Co-ordinator and Gabrielle Woleske, Policy Analyst, OECD Development Centre

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Every day, 137 women are killed by their partner or a family member. And one in three women worldwide have experienced intimate partner violence (IPV) in their lifetime. While violence against women remains a persistent, global problem, many continue to view it only as an individualistic issue or the actions of “some bad men”. However the widespread nature of the problem indicates that violence against women is also a collective, social problem, rooted in the widely-held social norms surrounding masculinities – socially constructed notions about how men behave and importantly, are expected to behave in specific settings to be considered ‘real’ men. To understand why some men perpetrate violence against women and to end it, we must uncover and address the drivers that lead to such behaviour and move beyond the discourse that simply attributes it to the individual actions of “some bad men”.

Driver 1: The norm that ‘real’ men are breadwinners

Masculine norms are diverse and can be harmful and restrictive – like those associated with “toxic masculinity” – or gender-equitable and flexible. The critical issue is that some masculinities promote very rigid understandings of what it means to be a ‘real’ man, thus putting pressure on men and boys to live up to the ideals of a socially constructed idea of manhood. Indeed, the men who accept and internalise these norms are more likely to commit violent acts1. One such ideal is that ‘real’ men have to be breadwinners and financial providers for their family. In fact, this is one of the strongest and most universal social expectations that societies have for men. Data from EU-28 countries shows that in 2017, 43% of respondents declared that the most important role of a man is to earn money, and up to 80% said so in Bulgaria for example. Moreover, in 2016 in Azerbaijan, a majority of men declared that a man who does not have an income is of no value.

Driver 2: The norm that ‘real’ men have the final say at home

The belief that ‘real’ men are breadwinners reinforces another central norm of restrictive masculinities; that they must earn more than their partners and have the final say in household decisions, including, importantly financial choices. As societies change and evolve, the traditional roles of men and women—for instance that men work for pay and women care for the home—are being increasingly challenged. Women’s economic empowerment and success in the economic sphere is making it more difficult for men to live up to this ideal of manhood marked by financial dominance. In fact, about 37% of respondents in 49 countries declared that if a woman earns more money than her husband, it is almost certain to cause problems, and this figure was as high as 50% in Bangladesh, Bolivia, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Jordan, Kyrgyzstan, Mexico, Myanmar, Nigeria, Pakistan and Zimbabwe. When men cannot prove their masculinity, for example by out-earning their spouse, violence can emerge as a way to seek recognition as ‘real’ men and reaffirm their dominance.

“Data from EU-28 countries shows that in 2017, 43% of respondents declared that the most important role of a man is to earn money, and up to 80% said so in Bulgaria for example.” #DevMatters

Moreover, the rigid expectations that ‘real’ men are breadwinners and financially dominant, when internalised by men, often leads them to view their job as a reflection of their self-worth, prioritise work over other things, such as family life, and to feel shame when they are out of work or underemployed. For instance, a study conducted in India in 2009 showed that about 30% of men reported that “they were frequently stressed or depressed because of not having enough work” and a similar percentage said “they sometimes felt ashamed to face their families because they were out of work”. Importantly, those men who indicated having one or both of these experiences were almost 50% more likely to have committed violence against their female partner.

Even when women do choose to leave abusive partnerships, the expectation that ‘real’ men are financially dominant and control household assets, create roadblocks. Where these norms are widely accepted, women lack access to and decision-making power over important assets. Indeed legal frameworks even promote this; in 30 countries the law does not provide married women with the same rights as married men to own, administer, and make decisions over property and other non-land assets. This is a critical issue as access to resources such as income and employment are predictors for women leaving abusive partnerships.2

Driver 3: The norm that ‘real’ men are ‘strong’ and repress their emotions

Another important piece of this issue is the fact that most societies expect men to be ‘strong’ and refrain from expressing their emotions3. As such, men are left with few socially legitimised outlets while anger and violence are simultaneously often accepted reactions from men and boys. This means that violence against women, and intimate partner violence specifically, can emerge as an outlet for the emotions and frustrations men feel when they are unable to live up to societies’ restrictive expectations. This also means that macro changes—such as the COVID-19 crisis—have the potential to destabilise the lives of men by making it more difficult to live up to the demands of restrictive masculinities thus provoking violent reactions. In fact, emerging evidence has shown increasing reports of violence against women since the outbreak of the pandemic.  

“Understanding restrictive masculinities allows for a deeper understanding of the societal issue, but to mobilise this knowledge we need more data on societies’ expectations for men and boys.” #DevMatters

In conclusion, understanding restrictive masculinities allows for a deeper understanding of the societal issue, but to mobilise this knowledge there is a need for more data on masculine norms and societies’ expectations for their men and boys. This data can equip policy makers with the information they need to shift social norms and measure success. For example, such data could support efforts like Colombia’s recently launched Movimiento Nacional por el Desaprendizaje del Machismo (National Movement for Unlearning Machismo) through monitoring the campaigns’ impact on social norms and beliefs about masculinities. Furthermore, data on the prevalence of violence against women at shorter timescales is critical for measuring change. Indeed, this data would enable a better understanding of how local, national and international events, such as COVID-19, as well as policies for social and norms transformation, are shaping and addressing this problem.   

1. See Promundo: The Man Box

2.See for instance: Anderson and Saunders, 2003.

3. See Promundo: The Man Box