Some ideas for reducing violence against women | Leaders
ON MARCH 3RD police in Uttar Pradesh state in India arrested a man holding the severed head of his 17-year-old daughter. He had locked her into their home and beheaded her, he explained, apparently calmly, because he had caught her with a man of whom he disapproved.
Violence against women remains frighteningly common Some are attacked by strangers, but far more suffer at the fists of those who are supposed to love them. More than one woman in four will be beaten or sexually abused by a partner over her lifetime, according to new data from over 150 countries from the World Health Organisation.
The consequences are dire and long-lasting. Abused women report more emotional distress and higher rates of depression. They are more likely to consider or attempt suicide. Their physical health suffers, and they are likely to earn less—by a conservative estimate, violence against women reduces global output by 1-4%. And that does not include the costs passed on to the next generation. Babies born to abused mothers are more likely to be underweight. When they grow up, children who witness their fathers beating their mothers are more likely to become victims—or abusers.
The pandemic is almost certainly making all this worse. Many women are cooped up at home with their assailants. Lockdowns make it harder to see friends who might help, or to get to a shelter. Covid-induced job losses and money worries have stressed many homes, making some men likelier to lash out. More generally, poverty makes it even harder for women to escape from an abusive relationship. It is staggeringly difficult for a mother to leave her husband if she fears that the loss of his income would mean her children going without shelter or food.
Yet domestic violence is not inevitable. Attitudes can change, and have done so in the past. For centuries violent husbands have counted on society to look the other way. Now, in most rich democracies, wife-beating is both illegal and deplored. In most Western countries polled by the World Values Survey, nine in ten people say it is never justified. That does not mean it never happens. Far from it: in a typical year, 5% of European women with partners are abused by them. But in poorer places the situation is much worse.
In Africa and South Asia a fifth of women with partners are abused each year. In Afghanistan 80% of women say husbands are justified in hitting their wives under certain circumstances (such as if they burn the food or neglect their children). In the Democratic Republic of Congo 75% believe this. Unsurprisingly, wherever people think wife-beating is acceptable, more of it happens. And other sexist norms reinforce it. The belief that wives should obey their husbands, and that if they don’t, husbands have a right to “discipline” them, is still widespread. So are customs that make it harder for women to own property, which increase their dependence on their husbands.
The key to inculcating more woman-friendly values is to start young. Schools can challenge harmful ideas about girls. Teachers can teach respect during sex-education classes. Sports coaches can teach boys that real men don’t hurt women. Programmes for couples, especially newly-weds, can teach them how to resolve arguments peacefully. Schemes that enlist the help of local leaders—such as the police, health workers and religious figures—are particularly effective in reducing violence.
However, education is not enough. Abusers must face a credible threat of punishment. Too often they bear no consequences at all. Authorities should make it easier for women to report abuse and press charges. In many countries the process is both terrifying (because police are violent, too) and futile (because accusations are seldom taken seriously). That has to change.
Building a less sexist society takes time. In the shorter term, modest but regular cash transfers to vulnerable households in low-income countries can help. These appear to work well when handouts go directly to women, and they are also given some kind of training, for example in child care or nutrition. If designed well, such schemes reduce economic uncertainty and stress. They also increase women’s standing and bargaining power, both within the home and outside it. A review of 22 studies found that in 16, such programmes were linked to men attacking their partners less. In one in Bangladesh positive effects continued even when the cash stopped coming.
For too long, the disastrous consequences of violence against women have been downplayed, ignored or denied. It is time for counter-measures that match the scale of the problem. ■
This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline "How to curb violence against women"