By Mieka Polanco, Senior Technical Advisor, and Elle Steindel, Program Officer at Banyan Global
The 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence are observed annually from November 25, International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, until December 10, Human Rights Day.
WHAT IS GENDER-BASED VIOLENCE?
The U.S. Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-Based Violence Globally (U.S. GBV Strategy 2016), describes gender-based violence (GBV) as:
Any harmful threat or act directed at an individual or group based on actual or perceived biological sex, gender identity and/or expression, sexual orientation, and/or lack of adherence to varying socially constructed norms around masculinity and femininity.
The Strategy underscores that GBV is “rooted in structural gender inequalities, patriarchy, and power imbalances. GBV is typically characterized by the use or threat of physical, psychological, sexual, economic, legal, political, social, and other forms of control and/or abuse.”
As the definition above suggests, the term GBV encompasses a wide variety of acts, ranging from sexual assault and intimate partner violence, to forced marriage and infanticide. It also includes acts of economic and structural violence, such as barring individuals from certain forms of livelihood activities, or access to land, education, or health care on the basis of their gender. It is important to keep in mind that GBV can be perpetrated in our most intimate relations—such as by spouses, parents, or offspring—and also by acquaintances and strangers—including health care providers, local officials, and aid workers.
GBV IS AN ACT OF DOMINATION
At its most basic, gender-based violence is an act of domination that is organized around gendered differences. While power disparities could exist without occurrences of GBV, GBV cannot happen without the presence of power disparities. Acts of GBV inflict harm on victims, and simultaneously clarify who has the power to inflict harm, versus who should fear becoming a victim.
WHO IS IMPACTED BY GBV?
While women and girls experience GBV throughout their lives at alarming rates, other individuals across the spectrum of gender identities and gender expression may also be targets of GBV. This includes men and boys, third gender, gender non-binary, and other gender minorities. Like any act of violence, GBV profoundly impacts individuals of all ages and genders, and wreaks havoc on families, communities, and society as a whole.
A NOTE ON TERMINOLOGY: VICTIM OR SURVIVOR?Words have power in that they shape how we come to think and act in reference to a particular topic. Recognizing the gravity of word choices and calibrating terminology is especially important for radical anti-violence, justice-centered work, because the terms we use shape how we will address the issue. In preventing and responding to GBV, some practitioners have replaced the term “victim” with “survivor,” signaling that those who have experienced GBV are not passive victims but should be acknowledged as full-fledged stakeholders in tackling the root causes of GBV, and knowledgeable experts whose insights are key to preventing and responding to future incidents. Furthermore, the term “survivor” helps dismantle obsolete, damaging patriarchal beliefs about the agency and resilience of those who have experienced GBV.
But doing away entirely with the term “victim” poses its own set of problems. For one, not everyone who experiences GBV survives. GBV inflicts very real wounds and sometimes irreparable harm that should not be diminished, even if victims may eventually overcome them. The term “survivor” can minimize the destructive nature of acts of violence, or the permanent physical, emotional, and social scars that they leave on those who experience them. But, similarly, the term “victim” may minimize the immense amount of strength and agency that individuals who experienced GBV must summon to recover from the experience. In our work, Banyan Global, refers to both “victim” and “survivor,” depending on the context, based on guidance from the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), the largest and one of the most well-respected anti-sexual assault organizations in the United States.
Following RAINN, we use the term “victim” to refer to someone who has recently been affected by sexual violence, when discussing a particular crime, or when referring to aspects of the criminal justice system. In contrast, we use “survivor” to refer to someone who has gone through the recovery process, or when discussing the short- or long-term effects of GBV. Most importantly, when working directly with those who have experienced violence, or with organizations who work on GBV, we take our cues from them, using either “victim” or “survivor”—depending on that individual’s or the organization’s own preference.
Individuals who belong to marginalized social groups—for example, based on their gender, age, disability status, or sexual orientation—are at an increased risk of experiencing GBV. Those who belong to more than one disempowered category face an elevated risk of experiencing GBV. For example, children with disabilities and those who are living outside of family care; members of racial or ethnic minority groups who live in conflict or emergency settings; and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) youth all face an increased risk of violence. Adding complexity to the issue, cycles of intergenerational violence often produce “complex victims” who have both experienced GBV and perpetrated it.
While the immediate victims of acts of GBV are likely to experience the most traumatic forms of harm, GBV causes long-term and often intergenerational trauma within a survivor’s entire community of care. The social, emotional, physical, and financial wellbeing of all humans, as social creatures, is bound up with the wellbeing of other members of their community. When harm is inflicted onto one, other members of the collectivity experience it to varying degrees too.
A growing number of voices within the GBV scholar and practitioner community—and especially queer feminists and feminists of color—have been calling for an approach to GBV that transcends binary, heteronormative assumptions. Believing that GBV is always perpetrated by men, or that victims can only be women reproduces damaging and outdated stereotypes about gender roles. More dangerously, it renders invisible any acts of GBV that don’t mirror those stereotypes.
For all these reasons, GBV prevention and response measures must be grounded in a gender inclusive conceptualization that avoids oversimplified models, considers the complex oppressive structures that underly GBV, and create justice-centered, anti-violence, survivor-centered programs.