25 November is the United Nations’ International Day for Prevention of Violence Against Women
This year the International Day for Prevention of Violence Against Women takes place in a year when cases of domestic violence referred to police have multiplied. The great majority of these cases have involved violence inflicted by men on women. This increase has been attributed to the anxieties and restrictions on families brought on by the coronavirus. This year, too, has seen protest against racially-based violence sharply focused in the Black Lives Matter movement.
In public conversation about the violence suffered by women and by members of Black communities, some minority voices have argued that the focus should not be narrowly on Black people or women but should be broadened to say that All Lives Matter and that all domestic violence, including that perpetrated by women on men, should be deplored.
In both these cases, the complaints seem hypocritical. They are inspired by the desire to dismiss the disproportionate number of Black Americans killed in police action, of Indigenous Australians who die in custody, or of women who are the victims of domestic violence. The complaints do not express a concern for all lives but a disregard for Black lives, nor revulsion against all domestic violence but a desire to minimise violence against women.
Nevertheless, when stripped of the malice that motivates them, the statements that all lives matter and all violence is to be deplored are true and helpful. We might be better able to understand racially-based violence by police and domestic violence against women if we look more widely at the broader patterns of violence in the community and at helpful ways of addressing it. We need simultaneously to focus narrowly on racially and gender-based violence and to focus broadly on the causes and remedies of violence in the community.
Certainly, women are more likely than men to be the victims of violence in their homes, more likely to be assaulted when walking alone, and are often systematically raped in war. The effects of violence on women, which include physical and mental illness, fear, shame and self-blame, can also affect their children. Its pervasiveness and seriousness underlines the importance of the movement to eradicate violence against women. Women must be able to report violence, be protected from the risk of further violence, supported if they need to leave their homes, and see the offenders sanctioned. For women to be safe, men must be educated into respect.
The narrowness of that focus is essential for women to be protected. To respond to violence, however, we need also to look more broadly at patterns of violence in our society and the factors that contribute to it. We should ask why so many men find violence to be an appropriate response to frustration, hatred and rage, and how they can find support in finding a better way. These are the questions with which the Jesuit Social Services program addresses.
Some of the factors that contribute to violence against women are found in the prevailing culture, with its endorsement of destructive violence in movies and popular literature, of violent pornography which often shapes young men’s relationships to women, and of the image of the strong and uncommunicative man who endures in silence. Other answers can be seen in the multiple disadvantages from which many men suffer in their childhood and formative years. They may experience violence from adults in their childhood, live in poverty, suffer from mental and physical illnesses. If their lives are chaotic and unformed, they will be likely to repeat in their relationships as partners and fathers the patterns of violence that characterised their early lives.
Ultimately women must be protected from violence by community expectations, by support, law and its enforcement and by law, and by men being accompanied in exploring a richer and fuller masculinity.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.