WCW Blog

The Women Change Worlds blog of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) encourages WCW scholars and colleagues to respond to current news and events; disseminate research findings, expertise, and commentary; and both pose and answer questions about issues that put women's perspectives and concerns at the center of the discussion.

Eliminating Violence against Women

united nations day for the elimination of violence against womenI spend a lot of time thinking and talking about our research on sexual violence case attrition and why most rape cases do not go forward to prosecution. The way that cases move through the criminal justice system has been a concern to victims, practitioners, and researchers for the last 40 years. Our recent findings on sexual violence case attrition make it clear that most sexual assault reports made to the police do not result in the arrest of a perpetrator or in any prosecution. This isn’t because no one knows who the perpetrator is—it is not a reflection of random stranger-danger. Women are assaulted, raped, and murdered by someone they know much more often than by a stranger. This is true across the globe and yet the response to violence remains weak.

Societal response to reports of sexual violence reflects deep-rooted cultural ideals about women and a feminine ideal. In our research, we found that cases are less likely to move forward when women have engaged in behaviors that signal “risk taking" like drinking alcohol or are of lower status and reputation. It is the “ideal” woman who is more likely to be believed—the conservatively dressed woman, the woman of means who was shopping or walking home from her professional position, the woman whose career and family life reflects strict adherence to social norms. So, even while we celebrate a changing cultural environment that purports that women now have more agency, independence, and are “permitted” to embrace more of the behaviors that have always been okay only for men, women who were out alone and who had been drinking when they were assaulted are less likely to find that the man who raped her is arrested or prosecuted.

Now, on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women—and after a week of more incidents of violence against women—both sexual violence and gun violence--- and amid concerns about the policy changes taking place on college campuses that will make women’s lives more difficult; and accounts of survivors of sexual assault who have been silenced, denied due process, and pushed back against on many fronts, we know we have not yet eliminated violence against women. Further, gender-based violence—violence that happens to women because they are women—is as blatant and as bigoted as violence perpetrated against one religious group. We are talking gender-based violence and femicide. How far have we really come? And what is needed to keep moving us closer to truly eliminating gender-based violence?

We have evidence of positive changes in rape law and sexual violence prevention, in care and support for survivors, and in bringing this issue of gender-based violence to the forefront both nationally and globally. We know that reductions in gender inequality can happen—this may occur when we elect more women to government leadership and we reverse the reductions in government social spending in areas such as health and education. Internationally, there are many leaders, advocates, and research that help us move the action against gender-based violence forward.

Now we must focus attention on turning research into action and promoting the changes needed in the community. Change requires that we not reify one form of knowledge over another. It’s no surprise to advocates that victim characteristics and victim behavior are associated with whether or not charges of rape go forward to prosecution. Recently in Ireland, an individual was acquitted after senior counsel for the defense remarked on the fact that the young female complainant was wearing thong underwear. This led to protests, the display of women’s underwear, and the hashtag #ThisIsNotConsent. Meanwhile, it is reported that an independent review conducted by a legal expert who is examining how rape and sexual assault cases are handled in Ireland is due at the end of the year. While such data will no doubt be valuable as are similar reports from South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the U.S., these provide evidence of what women have known all along--that what women wear or what they drink is used to sway the court system and jurors and to reinforce common stereotypes about men, women, and rape.

Clearly we need to assure that funds for implementing prevention programs and innovative campaigns directed at ending violence against women are available, and that such programs and the research conducted on their impact must continue to draw on feminist roots. All such work on gender-based violence also must be informed by intersectionality—the product of Black women’s activism and scholarship. For example, Tarana Burke founded the #MeToo movement that later became a global phenomenon to raise awareness about sexual harassment, abuse, and assault in society. #MeToo supports all who experience sexual violence and grounds this work in the real experiences of all women—young and old, Black, white, and brown, rich and poor. Research, undertaken in a setting that allows the linking of activism with the research, and that highlights the importance of data as a social change agent, is a necessary step to ending gender-based violence. A call to link activism and research should not be confused with activist research that seeks to prove a particular hypothesis. Sound principles of scientific research must be followed. However, we must assure that the voices of survivors and the skills and approaches of grass roots organizations underpin this work. These efforts are critical to success in eliminating violence against women and girls in all communities across the globe.

Linda M. Williams, Ph.D., is director of the Justice and Gender-Based Violence Research Initiative at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College. Her research focuses on justice system response to sexual violence, commercial sexual exploitation of women and children, human trafficking, intimate partner violence, and child maltreatment.

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VAW: A Call to Action

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Yesterday was the International Day for Elimination of Violence Against Womenis the glass half empty of half full? 

It is clear that this day calling for the elimination of violence against women is still necessary—in fact, it is crucial. Despite notable advances, many millions of women still suffer victimization and gender-based violencephysical, sexual, emotional, and psychological. Female genital mutilation, child marriage, marital rape, and other forms of gender-based violence (GBV) remain epidemic and have serious psychological, emotional, and economic consequences.

Skepticism about reports of sexual violence is still with us. Few rapes are reported and only a small proportion of these cases lead to arrest and prosecution. Indeed we still live in a “rape culture” where tales of sexual assault are dismissed as “locker room talk” and perpetrators are not held accountable for their behavior. Yes, there have been countless and pronounced steps forward in the past 40 years (which is when I started my work in this area.) United Nations (U.N.) and governmental proclamations against violence against women (VAW) have proliferated and much research on prevention and consequences of GBV has been funded and has resulted in evidence-based practice. We have witnessed reform of laws against sexual and domestic violence, new policy and practice as it pertains to prevention and intervention, and new and much more widespread services for survivors.

Not long ago sexual assault and domestic violence were hidden behind closed doors or kept secret as shameful and somehow the fault of the woman or girl. Today, while such misguided opinions and judgmental attitudes still exist, we have witnessed significant changes in the U.S. and in many countries around the world. Violence against women is a topic that is no longer hidden. Attention is focused on GBV across the globe, in war zones and in the aftermath of conflict or disaster. We can note the successes of the Violence Against Women Act, the U.S. Department of Justice Office on Violence Against Women, and the more recent White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. Also there are efforts to curb and eliminate domestic sex trafficking and human trafficking in the U.S. and around the globe. Social media also keeps this issue in the forefront and no longer hidden, we are counting dead women and we #sayhername aloud recognizing the intersections of gender, race, and violence.

We must celebrate the achievements and thank those who have worked so hard to make these advances… but we must not lose sight of the fact that there is much work to be done. It is clear today that while the governmental and international organizations have done and can do much to support changes to eliminate violence against women, this work has always needed the work of many hands. And in our future, there is likely continued fluctuation in support of the elimination of all forms of VAW. As always, we need to assure, pledge, and guarantee continued support and funding of this work—support that will come from many donors-- individuals, centers, working groups, and private foundations. Today we must re-double our efforts to encourage support for the elimination of violence against women from everyone—every woman and every man.

#sayhername | @JGBVR_wcw | #orangetheworld | @SayNO_UNiTE | @WCWnews | #givingtuesday… add your recommended links in the Comments section.

Linda M. Williams, Ph.D. is a senior research scientist and the director of the Justice and Gender-Based Violence Research initiative at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College.

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