Environment of violence

TOWARDS JUSTICE - Emmeline Aglipay-Villar (The Philippine Star) - December 1, 2020 - 12:00am

Do you think you live in a violent world? When you think of the word “violence,” what pops into your head?

A gun? A splatter of blood? A scream of pain?

Often when we think of violence, these are the sensations evoked. Images of warfare or heinous crimes, sounds of death and maiming. And violence encompasses all of those things… but it is also much more. Violence is just as often an omission as it is an action, equally likely to be a discriminatory law as it is a destructive weapon. In our modern times, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say more violence is committed remotely by words than is done up-close by hand.

And much of this violence is directed at women. Simply because they are women.

Nov. 25 marked the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, and the need to take a stand against violence specifically aimed against women is only becoming more urgent. According to the UN, “[s]ince the outbreak of COVID-19, emerging data and reports from those on the front lines have shown that all types of violence against women and girls, particularly domestic violence, has intensified,” leading to the organization dubbing the increase in violence as a Shadow Pandemic. Yet even before COVID-19, the UN’s studies also pointed to alarming global trends in violence, with 243 million women and girls claiming to have been abused by an intimate partner in the past year, and only less than 40 percent of women who experienced such violence reported it or sought help.

The dangers faced by women in society have been a constant refrain in this column, and I could devote every column to the topic and still not exhaust their extent. I’ve written about discrimination against women, the harms wrought by victim-blaming and the challenges faced by women specifically during this pandemic. Yet the root of all these societal dangers that women face can be summarized in a single word: violence.

According to the WHO in its World Report on Violence and Health, violence is “the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment or deprivation.” The most important thing about this definition is how it highlights the fact that violence has many faces. It is more than just a physical blow, it can be a mental or emotional one. It does not need to be a direct attack, but can take the form of a denial of basic rights. It does not have to actually do tangible harm, for as long as it increases the risk of harm. The attempt to widen the scope of what we mean by violence is important because it forces anyone that accepts this definition to realize that – even without war, or weapons, or a confrontation of any kind – violence can be present.

As I wrote in my column about the SOGIE Equality Act, those who are in positions of privilege rarely see the need to change the status quo. A heterosexual man who is not vulnerable due to some other characteristic (such as poverty or disability) can walk into a space and feel completely safe, while a woman in the exact same situation will feel justified anxiety. When society has been created with you (a man) as the standard, it’s only natural that the status quo will not place you in jeopardy. All this means is that the dangers do not apply to you, not that the dangers aren’t real.

To paraphrase the idea that Margaret Atwood conveyed: men are afraid that women will laugh at them; women are afraid that men will kill them.

The first step to stopping violence against women is to realize the scope of the problem, and the structures and practices that allow this violence to happen. A sexist comment on social media is nowhere near the same degree of harm as a sexual assault – but it’s important to recognize that not only do both cause harm, they inhabit the same continuum. Violence done by words helps create an environment of violence, one where it becomes “common sense” to believe, for instance, that what a woman wears can compel a man to sexually assault her, where the victim becomes somehow complicit, if not the one completely to blame. And when the victim herself holds this belief – that can be the greatest harm of all.

There is a reason that the WHO’s definition of violence explicitly includes violence against the self. The worst violence is the one that makes the victims complicit in their suffering, which makes them inflict it against themselves. There is no escape from one’s self, no reprieve and no mercy.

In my last column, I spoke about how one of the things that make us human beings who we are is how susceptible our development is to the environment we grow up in. Right now, in the Philippines and many other places, that environment is one where simply being a woman makes you a target. A 2016 SWS survey found that in Quezon City – with a population of over 3 million at the time – 3 in 5 women said they had been sexually harassed during their lifetime. Documents from the Philippine Commission on Women revealed that in 2013 one in five women aged 15-49 had experienced physical abuse, and 1 in 7 married women had been physically harmed by their husbands… and a horrifying 14 percent of married women surveyed actually believed that a husband is justified in beating his wife in at least one of the following circumstances: if she burns the food, if she argues with him, if she goes out without telling him, if she neglects the children and if she refuses to have sexual intercourse with him.

When we think of “violence,” I want this kind of mentality to be at the top of the list.

There is no peace without equality, and there is no equality until we all recognize the violence that surrounds women, and do our part to stand against it.

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