ICEBERGS AND COBWEBS – GENDER-BASED VIOLENCE AS A FORM OF ECONOMIC VIOLENCE
By Victoria Stetsko
A woman’s hand trying to shield herself from a violent man’s fist is probably one of the first pictures that come to mind when hearing the term “gender-based violence”. However, gender-based violence (GBV) can’t be boiled down to the acts of physical or sexual violence alone –there is a system of economic, political, and other factors that support its perpetual cycle. The unifying element of these factors is patriarchy. This blog will show how gender-based violence is rooted in a sexist economic system.
There are two parts of the iceberg – the one you can see, and the one below the surface. If you only pay attention to the tip and pretend there’s no underwater part – it would eventually lead to a disaster. If you imagine gender-based violence as an iceberg, then rigid social norms, economic exclusion – for example through pay gap, unfair taxation, insecure work, lack of education, restrictive access to financial resources and disproportionate unpaid care responsibilities are the much less often talked-about factors that fuel it. Like with icebergs, ignoring the scope and scale of gendered violence cost lives – 30,000 women die every year from the hands of their partners,and 143 million are killed in excess female mortality and missing due to sex-selective abortions. 
Oversimplified portrayal of the issue of gender-based violence such as referring to it as a “women’s issue”– diverts from perceiving the complex nature of the phenomenon. The implied onus of such framing removes the responsibility for GBV away from the perpetrators (the vast majority of them being men) and prevents seeing it as a complex systemic issue. Indeed, for too many years those in power managed to turn away from addressing the problem, so it became an “ignored pandemic”.
Such pigeonholing contributes to justification of treating gender-based violence as an issue of a secondary priority. This is particularly pronounced in situation of crisis – such as the Covid-19 pandemic. While access to services for survivors of GBV had been far from universal before the pandemic, only 15% of countries examined by the UNDP Covid-19 Gender-Response Tracker enabled emergency services for survivors to operate during the lockdowns. Sexual health infrastructure had been severely affected by diversion of resources towards Covid response. This is likely to increase the financial burden on survivors, who already shoulder a significant portion of 1,5 trillion USD of economic losses associated with gender-based violence.
Treatment of gender-based violence as a secondary issue also finds its expression in the amount of funding allocated to response and prevention. In 2020, despite a well-documented rise in helpline calls during the lockdowns, the funding to tackle GBV accounted for only 0.0002% of what had been allocated to the coronavirus response. In the same year military spending saw the biggest rise for more than a decade, despite the pandemic.
Economic exclusion of women, girls, trans and non-binary people contribute to heightened vulnerability to gender-based violence. Our economic system is sexist as it helps the already powerful to accumulate even more wealth and power through exploitation of women and girls. The exploitation rests on exclusion of women from well-remunerated income generation through barriers in access to education, discriminatory labour laws, gender pay gap, and disproportionate responsibility for unpaid care work. Our economy is built on the backs of women who are supporting the market with cheap or free labour. In low-income countries, 92% of women work in informal, low-paid, and least protected jobs.Gender-insensitive or outright discriminatory taxation additionally harms women’s economic prospects. While women lost 800 billion USD in incomes due to the pandemic, billionaires gained nearly 69% more wealth.
It is impossible to speak about the system that supports the reproduction of gender-based violence without mentioning social norms. Many discriminatory economic policies and practices are underpinned by sexist beliefs that pressure women into compliance with the place patriarchy reserved for them. In cultures with prevalence of rigid gender roles, women are being socially conditioned to provide care, often at the expense of participation in labour markets and other forms of socio-economic activity. Gender-based violence is used to reinforce their compliance with carer roles – studies show that often women are brought up to believe that men are entitled to punish them physically for failing to provide adequate care. Globally women end up providing three-quarters of all unpaid care, which translates into economic value three times higher than the global tech industry.
We are all denied from seeing the scale of the iceberg of gender-based violence by not having enough quality data. The role of governments to collect data disaggregated by sex, gender, race, age and other relevant characteristics had been established in the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action. Without such data we cannot assess the true scale of the problem, track progress in addressing gender-based violence and mitigate the risks. Up to date, there is still no unified standard for sourcing data on GBV across countries – often leaving us to rely only on reported incidents, which represent just a fraction of all cases. Focusing on reported incidents ignores the complex power relations behind gender-based violence and secures impunity for cases where survivors and victims are not able to report due to fear of reprisals, exposure, legal barriers and culture of victim-blaming.
Another representation of the nature and scope of gender-based violence is a cobweb of interlinked factors that sustain women’s vulnerability. This analogy is more helpful to understand how various discriminations and pre-existing inequalities intertwine to exclude, marginalize, and oppress. The research by Human Rights Campaign reported a disproportionate economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the economic wellbeing of transgender people of colour in the United States. A 2020 study documented how the Covid-19 pandemic became the last blow that pushed many women, who experienced domestic violence, into homelessness – particularly women from minority groups.
There are many strategies to dismantle the ways in which patriarchy and other systems of oppression extract wealth and power at the expense of women, girls, trans and non-binary people. At the core of these strategies is the redistribution of power and wealth. Women have been prevented from equally participating in making decisions affecting them and all spheres of economic and political life for way too long. It’s time to shatter these barriers, and to see our economies and societies transform. Data is also a form of power – and investing in capacity and methodology of gender-disaggregated data collection is necessary to design interventions that address root causes of gender-based violence.
The allocation and redistribution of wealth is one of most universal strategies – it can become the source of funds that are crucial for GBV response and prevention, and investments into reliable social infrastructure. UNFPA estimated that 42 billion USD need to be invested in GBV programs in 132 countries by 2030. Progressive and gender-sensitive taxation can become a tool to help redistribute economic means.
Clearing the cobweb of gender-based violence, including economic violence, will benefit entire societies. Measures to advance gender equality through removing barriers in women’s economic participation could add up to 12 trillion USD to the global GDP by 2030. Bringing much needed investment in social infrastructure would also make our societies more resilient to the potential crises such as the current Covid-19 pandemic.
I am sure there are many other helpful metaphors apart from cobwebs and icebergs to describe the scope and nature of gender-based violence. No matter which one we use, patriarchy is part of all of them. It helps justify the entitlement of perpetrators to control bodies and access to opportunities for women, girls, trans and non-binary people. It also favours men when it comes to accumulation of wealth and power – particularly if they are white and cisgender. To get rid of the scourge of gender-based-violence we must substitute patriarchal values and norms by those promoting equality and dignity of all members of the society irrespective of their sex or gender, and ensure our policies and institutions reflect these values.
Victoria Stetsko is a Gender Rights and Justice Campaigner at Oxfam International
Image & Illustration Credits
- Featured image: Photo by Fakurian Design on Unsplash
- The Iceberg illustration. Credit: Victoria Stetsko/Oxfam
- The Cobweb illustration. Credit: Victoria Stetsko/Oxfam
- In the poorest city on the Mediterranean, a group of refugee women in Tripoli, Lebanon, are fighting against Gender Based Violence and empowering other women in their communities to do the same. … The women’s group was established and supported by Oxfam and partners in Tripoli. Credit: Natheer Halawani/Oxfam.
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