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De-coding Gender-based Violence

Anupama Dokeniya's picture

The brutal assault on a young woman in Delhi on December 16 last year, and the protests that followed in its wake spotlighted global attention on the issue of gender-based violence (GBV), a malady that manifests itself in myriad forms across the world – sexual violence, war crimes against women, domestic abuse, domestic violence, just to name a few. The World Bank has recognized the relevance of, and worked on addressing, gender-based violence as an intrinsic element of empowering women as equal partners in development. In the wake of the horrific December 16 incident, the Bank’s Country Partnership Strategy for India, highlighted attention to GBV as a key element of its strategy.

Over the past few months, a number of discussions at the Bank have attempted to investigate and understand the key underlying drivers - sociological, economic, and cultural - that spawn gender-based violence, its impact on welfare and development, and possible approaches to finding solutions. Among them was a panel discussion organized by the Bank-Fund India Club in March that brought together experts from different disciplinary backgrounds: eminent sociologist Alaka Basu, Georgetown University Professor Shareen Joshi, ICF International Fellow Kisrsten Johnson, and World Bank Senior Economist and human rights expert Varun Gauri. Another event, co-sponsored by the Social Development Department in May discussed the experience of prominent NGOs in addressing GBV – in settings as diverse as the South Asian community in New Jersey, and the rural and urban communities of Brazil. The panel included Maneesha Kelkar, former Executive Director of New Jersey-based Manavi, Candyce Rocha, Gender Coordinator at the Brazilian House of Representatives, and Matt Morton, a Social Scientist and gender expert at the Bank. Common themes – on the causes, consequences, and solutions – emerged from the two panels.

Gender-based violence is a development issue
First, both panels underscored that gender-based violence is very much a development issue. Estimates suggest that gender-based violence can cost countries up to 2 per cent of GDP lost. It adversely impacts the health of women, impedes their skills development, and severely limits their social and economic contributions. Moreover, GBV tends to be transmitted across generations, perpetuating its deleterious impact over the long term.

On the other hand, the social and economic transitions that are part of the development process might also accelerate violence, signaling the need to be sensitive to these issues in the development process. For instance, even as social transformation empowers women, it might incite more violence if men feel threatened. Social and economic dynamics, such as migration and dislocation might also precipitate violence. One of the panelists pointed out that in the Delhi incident, a sense of entitlement deriving from high caste affiliation, combined with a sense of frustration at economic marginalization among the migrant workers who were the alleged perpetrators, might have contributed to inciting violence. 

It does not happen only in “traditional” cultures
But the panelists also underscored that gender-based violence exists across regions, income levels, social systems, and cultural legacies. A January 2013 article in the Mirror, for instance, enumerates the shockingly high statistics on rape in both the US and western Europe. The specific dynamics, the social, cultural, and economic factors that precipitate violence might be manifested in different terms in different societies, but recognizing that gender-based violence is a challenge across societies – in rich countries and poor, in democracies and authoritarian regimes, in modern societies and more traditional ones – is critical to seeking more comprehensive solutions.

Solutions must be culturally-sensitive
At the same time, solutions need to be culturally-specific. Different approaches are feasible in different contexts, conditioned by cultural, social, and economic realities. For instance, in more traditional societies, addressing GBV might be more difficult because it is less often reported, especially in instances of sexual violence, publicly addressing which might be seen as breaking the bonds of family and community. Understanding these differences is an important starting point to explore solutions. 

Men need to get involved in finding solutions
The panelists emphasized that GBV is not a women’s issue, but one that fundamentally involves both men and women, and understanding the factors that make men perpetrate violence, and women tolerate or under-report it, are both equally important in finding viable solutions. Of course, men have to be engaged in education and awareness-raising, but equally in taking ownership to find solutions. Sustainable, tractable solutions depend very much on who sits at the table, and the participation of both men and women, and especially of young people, who might bring a more progressive approach to the issue, is critical.

Laws are necessary, but not sufficient
Stronger laws are very important, but are only part of the solution. While the anger in the Delhi rape case incited calls for laws with harsher punishments, commentators also suggested that the solution might not necessarily be more stringent punishment, but better enforcement and higher conviction rates. The incident highlighted the role of institutions across the system – it was alleged that police and emergency services were slow to respond, the government hospital provided tardy care, and the incident itself happened because the judicial directive banning tinted glasses on buses was not being implemented. While the specifics might be contested, these institutional weaknesses are all too prevalent, especially across developing countries, and makes addressing the issue intractable. 

In India, even as a new, stronger law against sexual violence was adopted, and despite heightened media attention and public awareness - a barrage of cases of sexual assault has been reported subsequently, highlighting how frustrating and difficult the challenge is. The panelists suggested that a multi-faceted approach that focuses on fundamental reform in institutions – better law enforcement, speedier trials, higher capacity in courts and police departments, combined with attention to sensitization and education of both men and women, bridging the gender gap in education (in India, for instance, the male to female literacy ratio nationwide is 82 to 65 percent), might just begin to address the issue. 

Photo Credit: World Bank
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Submitted by Priyanthi Fernando on

Unpacking the concept

In trying to unpack and understand gender based violence, we tend to unwittingly find ourselves trapped by the very frameworks that cause the problems...

GBV connotes violence of men against women, but there is sexual violence of men against men, women against women (some incidents of ragging in my university come to mind) and violence against transgender people.

Culturally-sensitive solutions - masks the fact that it is the culture of patriarchy that often leads to GBV. This article is particularly interesting for the complete absence of the word patriarchy or even gender relations, despite the recognition that one of the drivers could be 'culture'.

De-coding GBV needs a different way of imagining gender relations.

Submitted by Anupama on


Thanks for your comments. I agree that unpacking and understanding gender-based violence, or violence of any kind is a complicated exercise. This Blog was merely reporting on some discussions that took place recently that explored a few of the aspects of this issue. Other work at the Bank and elsewhere is, of course addressing these issues in much greater depth.

On the issue of patriarchy, I'm not sure using a broad term like that is helpful. First, the meaning of that term itself needs to be unpacked, it might mean different things in different contexts, it does not explain violence across contexts, and as you say yourself, violence takes many forms - including within genders. I would be very interested in understanding what you mean a "culture of patriarchy" and where you think this exists and where not.


Submitted by Priyanthi Fernando on

Patriarchy is a term that describes the power relations between men and women; and while the 'culture of patriarchy' might manifest itself differently in different contexts, it is the patriarchal belief of male, heterosexual dominance that is at the core of gender based violence.

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