Violence Against Women and Girls

views updated

Violence Against Women and Girls

Violence against women and girls has come to be recognized as a major social problem with serious consequences for individuals, their families, communities, and society as a whole. Commonly understood to include sexual assaults, stalking, sexual harassment, and abuse by intimate partners and household members, the forms of violence that women and girls experience have particular dynamics that make the impact particularly profound.

According to the National Institute for Justice, 25 percent of women in the United States will experience abuse by their husbands or live-in intimate partners in their lifetimes, at a rate of approximately 1.5 million per year (Tjaden and Theonnes 2000). In terms of sexual assault, one in six women are raped each year, more than 86,000 children are molested, and anywhere from 30 to 70 percent of women experience sexual harassment that includes physical threats of abuse (Tjaden and Theonnes 1998). Studies of women in dating relationships, including same-sex relationships, reveal similar rates of violence, both physical and sexual in nature. Even in situations where the intimate relationship has ended, the abuse often continues, as in the case of women who are stalked by people they had a previous relationship with (Broaddus and Merrill 1998, Butler 1999).

When talking about these forms of abuse against women and girls, researchers and advocates are referring to situations that are far more menacing than simple arguments or fights between partners or annoying unwanted physical or sexual encounters. The kind of violence that is captured in the aforementioned statistics is profoundly serious, for the problems are not merely a series of isolated incidents, but rather a pattern of aggressive behavior that tends to escalate over time, leaving women in serious peril. For example, nearly one-third of all women murdered in the United States are murdered by current or former intimate partners; violence is the leading cause of death for women in some age groups; sexual assault is a major reason that adult women give for attempting suicide; child sexual abuse is a strong precursor to later problems with truancy, drugs; and alcohol; and stalking and sexual harassment cost women millions of dollars each year as they attempt to flee dangerous living and work situations (Cecil and Matson 2001, Baynard et al. 2002, Violence Policy Center 2004).

It is also important to recognize that the types of violence discussed here are decidedly gendered; the victims are overwhelmingly women and those who inflict intimate partner violence, those who rape, and those who are engaged in extreme forms of stalking are typically men (Bachman 1994). There are some exceptions to this, however, including same-sex violence and the abuse of frail elderly men by women who are their caretakers. The overall pattern, however, is one that firmly establishes women and girls as the primary targets of these forms of violence.

Emotional and psychological abuse reinforces physical and sexual assaults. Women who are physically assaulted are often made to feel like the abuse is their fault; children who are molested are isolated from other people as a way to increase the terror they feel; rape victims suffer greatly from the insults and the shame that accompany the physical aspect of the assault; and the general denial and minimization that enables abuse to continue is particularly painful for those who experience it over time.

Paradoxically, despite these serious consequences, violence against women is still casually accepted in some social spheres. The physical abuse of women that is normalized in mainstream movies, images of rape, and other forms of degradation of women can easily be found in popular music, and jokes about wife abuse and incest can be overheard in everyday conversations. This social acceptance of violence against women and girls is linked to their relative diminished social status (in terms of economic and cultural power). This explains why institutions have been slow to respond to these problems, why communities have not held accountable those who use violence, and why so many of the women and girls who experience violence have been forced or coerced into silence and submission.

Since the 1980s, however, great strides have been made to give voice to these problems. Advocates and activists have challenged the underlying gender dynamics that give rise to violence against women and girls, and they have attempted to change those institutions that are obligated to protect vulnerable members of society. In the early twenty-first century, there are shelters for battered women, rape crisis centers, prevention programs for children, and a range of other services designed to provide services and support to victims. Legal and legislative changes have heightened sanctions for those who use violence, and a growing body of research has established prevalence rates, the consequences of abuse, and the best practices to respond to these problems. Elected officials, well-known celebrities, and everyday citizens take a stand against violence against women, and both public and private donors support the work. Due in great part to grassroots feminist activism, the problem of violence against women is understood differently than it once was, and it is safe to say that hundreds of thousands of women and girls are safer in the early 2000s than they were before the advent of the social movement that responded to the problems of violence against women.

Race and racism have also figured into the understanding of and responses to the problem of violence against women in important ways. The rate of violence against women and girls reported in most communities of color is higher than the national average (Buchanan and Ormerod 1992, McNutt et al. 1999). A closer analysis of this statistic reveals that this difference is linked to variables such as income, age, employment status, the presence of children in the household, and social factors such as the presence of weapons, the use of drugs and alcohol, the availability of services, and the effectiveness of prevention messages (Honeycutt, Marshall, and Weston 2001; Taylor 2002). That is, the rates of violence against women of color might actually not differ that much from those of white women if other variables are controlled.

Furthermore, when violence occurs, institutions do not respond to needs of women of color as readily, resources are not sufficiently allocated to communities of color to ensure women’s safety, and law enforcement agencies have not necessarily proven themselves to be agents of assistance in disadvantaged neighborhoods. Without opportunities for safe housing, good health care, or employment, women of color who experience violence are often left with few options but to remain in dangerous relationships and situations (Donovan and Williams 2002).

Many scholars and activists point to these and other social factors to explain why women of color are at particular risk, and they have challenged the antiviolence movement and related institutions dedicated to justice and safety to expand their attention to look at violence against women of color. In so doing, women of color, with support from male allies, have made significant contributions to the work to end violence against all women by challenging racial and patriarchal privilege and promoting the kind of broad-based social changes that ending violence against all women and children will require.

SEE ALSO Feminism and Race; Pornography; Rape; Social Problems.


Bachman, Ronet. 1994. Violence against Women: A National Crime Victimization Survey Report. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Banyard, Victoria, Linda M. Williams, Jane A. Siegal and Carolyn M. West. 2002. “Childhood Sexual Abuse in the Lives of Black Women: Risks and Resilience in a Longitudinal Study.” Women & Therapy 25 (3/4): 45–58.

Broaddus, Toni, and Gregory Merrill. 1998. Annual Report on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Transgender Domestic Violence. San Francisco: National Coalition on Anti-Violence Programs.

Buchanan, Nicole T., and Alayne J. Ormerod. 2002. “Racialized Sexual Harassment in the Lives of African American Women.” Women & Therapy 25 (3/4): 105–121.

Butler, Lola. 1999. “African American Lesbians Experiencing Partner Violence.” In A Professional’s Guide to Understanding Gay and Lesbian Domestic Violence: Understanding Practice Interventions, edited by Joan C. McClennen and John Gunther, 50–57. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press.

Cecil, Heather, and Steven C. Matson. 2001. “Psychological Functioning and Family Discord among African American Adolescent Females with and without a History of Childhood Sexual Abuse.” Child Abuse and Neglect 25: 973–988.

Donovan, Roxanne, and Michelle Williams. 2002. “Living at the Intersection: The Effects of Racism and Sexism on Black Rape Survivors.” Women & Therapy 25 (3/4): 95–105.

Honeycutt, Todd C., Linda L. Marshall, and Rebecca Weston. 2001. “Towards Ethnically Specific Models of Employment, Public Assistance, and Victimization.” Violence Against Women 7 (2): 126–140.

McNutt, Louise-Anne, Michelle van Ryn, Carla Clark, and Idelle Fraiser. 1999. “Partner Violence and Medical Encounters: African-American Women’s Perspectives.” American Journal of Preventive Medicine 19 (4): 264–269.

Richie, Beth. 1996. Compelled to Crime: The Gender Entrapment of Black Battered Women. New York: Routledge.

Taylor, Janette Y. 2002. “The Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back: African American Women’s Strategies for Disengaging from Abusive Relationships.” Women & Therapy (3/4): 79–94.

Tjaden, Patricia, and Nancy Theonnes. 1998. “Stalking in America: Findings from the National Violence Against Women’s Survey, Research in Brief.” (NCJ 169592). Washington DC: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice.

_____2000. Extent, Nature, and Consequences of Intimate Partner Violence: Findings for the National Violence against Women Survey. (NCJ 181867). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Violence Policy Center. 2004. When Men Murdered Women: An Analysis of 2002 Homicide Data: Females Murdered by Males in Single Victim/Single Offender Incidents. Washington, DC: Violence Policy Center. Available from

Beth E. Richie

About this article

Violence Against Women and Girls

Updated About content Print Article