For a country that otherwise praises itself on upholding values of freedom, equality and equal representation, the lack of awareness when it comes to gender-based violence (GVB) is rather appalling. The United States is no stranger to skepticism regarding the women’s rights movement. Among developed nations, it still falls behind on equal pay, equal representation in politics. But when it comes to violence against women; the approach needs to change. The vast majority of the American public still has yet to fully understand what exactly gender-based violence is, and why it should be treated as a public health emergency. 

Gender-based violence (GBV) defined

Gender-based violence is defined as violence directed at an individual because of their biological sex, gender identity, or socially perceived adherence as defined by cultural norms. Although gender-based violence can and does affect men, women are disproportionately affected. With the definition expanding, gender-based violence includes but is not limited to; physical assault, harassment, sexual assault, domestic violence, intimate partner violence, child abuse, forced (child) marriage and human trafficking. (All of which occur regularly in the United States). 

Internationally speaking, GBV affects 1 in 3 women (35%) at some point in their lifetimes. 30% of women in a relationship, will at some point have experienced some sort of verbal, physical, emotional and/or mental abuse solely based on their gender. 38% of murders of women (globally) are committed by an intimate partner. And nearly half (49%) of human trafficking victims worldwide are women and girls.

Closer to home, the statistics are even more shocking. The US is among the richest countries with ample financial resources to address this as a public health crisis. However, the reality at home remains.

Why is this an ‘America’ problem?

Gender-based violence and all of the forms of violence included is absolutely a domestic problem here at home. For some perspective:

  • Every 73 seconds an American is sexually assaulted
  • 20 people are physically abused by an intimate partner every minute
  • 1 in 4 women experience severe intimate partner violence (beating, burning, strangling etc) in their lifetimes 
  • Women college students 18-24 are 3x more likely experience sexual violence in the US
  • Gender-based violence accounts for 15% of all violent crimes in the US
  • Only 34% of victims receive medical treatment (implying most cases go unreported) 
  • 74% of all murder-suicides involve intimate partner (gender based violence)
    • 94% of these victims are women
    • Out of which, multiracial, American India, Asian, Black and LGBTQ women experience the highest rates

Black (and minority) groups experience intimate partner violence at 35% higher rates as compared to White women. Native American and immigrant women are most unlikely to ever report crimes out of fear of legal status and deportation. The ‘this is not an America problem’ assumption has cost the lives of thousands and will continue to do so if the realities are not exposed.

Gender-based violence as a public health crisis?

The problem is public’s inability to identify the relationship between a human rights issue and a public health issue. However, by very definition, a human rights issue is a public health issue. For instance; human rights are those that inherently belong to all humans regardless of race, religion, gender, ethnicity, status etc. Basic universal human rights include the right to life, freedom of slavery, harm and torture, and freedom of opinion. Meaning, the lack (or violation) of any of these rights would be a human rights violation. Hence, violence towards an entire population of humans solely based on gender is perhaps the most shameful human rights violation, and the most pervasive.’

The short term and long term health implications (or health outcomes) can be both indirect and direct. Short term health outcomes include injuries, self harm, homicide (or suicide), unwanted pregnancies, miscarriage, still-birth, pre-term delivery. In other words, the outcomes that may otherwise immediately follow a violent incidence. Long term health implications, not only affect the individual physically and mentally, but also further generations. There has been an exponential rise in depression, anxiety, PTSD and suicidal tendencies in women who have experienced gender-based violence. And vice versa; mentally ill women are 6x more likely to succumb to violence.

In terms of the social and economic impact, individuals who have experienced trauma are more likely to  hinder poverty reduction because of lack of employment.  It only makes sense, those that have been abused are likely to either quit, or not work entirely. Nearly half of women (and children) escaping intimate partner violence, end up homeless. Gender-based violence sabotages female education, and in turn contributes to lower school enrollment. Women on college campuses who have experienced violence are less likely to continue education and even report the assault in the first place.

Why does the US often treat violence against women like a joke?

Historically, backlash against feminism/women’s rights occurs after the movement gains popularity. Consequently, that backlash fuels a culture that normalizes violence, harassment and otherwise undermines legal protections. Generally speaking, there are less gender-based violence protections worldwide as cases are rising. 

The current US political rhetoric and casual racist/sexist ridicule, continues to mock and lessen the impact of the #MeToo movement. The laid-back approach to women’s issues on the national scale here, has normalized violence culture. For example, sexual assault and rape, are publicly recognized as ‘one-way’, and all the external complexities are neutralized entirely. Meaning, when a particular violent incidence does not adhere to this watered down, skeleton version of what constitutes a true ‘gender-based violence’ event (usually determined by men), women are expected to downplay their experiences because these incidents are the ‘norm’. 

‘Locker room banter’ mentality has consumed the White House, and filled the loopholes in the legal system. Violence prevention laws exist, but they only work if they are enforced. The US culture has normalized assault and harassment in the workplace and justified it with the ‘fear of termination’. Has normalized catcalling, and regularly objectifying women on the national scale. Women as a whole are still wildly underrepresented in politics and media, despite being overqualified many times. Gender based violence specific to women is growing in otherwise affluent US cities, because the culture negligently allows for it. 

Moving forward?

Priority number one is re-defining gender-based violence. And, supporting a robust research initiative to highlight gaps in data among minorities. The root causes of most forms of violence (specific to the US) stems from abuse of power, gender inequality and lack of equality of human rights for everyone. Whereas contributing factors that fuel the violence include lack of social services, economic inequality (especially minorities), poverty, lack of accessible health care, lack of traditional family structure, and political factors. This should be part of the normal school curriculum. Waiting until a college or professional level to be taught on the severity of gender-based violence is absurd. Educating girls (and boys) at an early age will shift the culture.

Concrete actions among federal, state and institutional level policy makers is necessary. A cross functional effort between the Department of Justice, Dept of Labor, HHS and HUD, will put protection laws actually into practice. A diverse delegation that includes policy makers, public health professionals, academic organizations and GBV survivors will bring lasting change. To bring triage of services including legal assistance, social support, employment/work support, counseling and healthcare. Redistribute public (and private) funds to actually create safe spaces for both women and men. 

Gender-based violence is a personal issue, so there will never be a ‘one size fits all’ band aid. This country has always systematically taken advantage of a marginalized population since its birth, so it only makes sense the GBV has blended into the fabric as well. Its blood runs deep, and the culture of stereotyping on gender equality, especially among minorities, illustrates just that.

“Everyone deserves a destiny that allows them to chart their own course and determine their own future free from discrimination, coercion, or violence.” Center for American Progress

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