Violence against women (VAW) is a violation of women’s fundamental human rights and is both a cause and a consequence of women’s inequality.
Violence against women is widespread, and may affect women of any age, class, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, or ability. Across all forms of violence and abuse, women are most at risk from men they know.
Violence against women includes:
- domestic violence,
- rape and sexual violence,
- female genital mutilation,
- forced marriage,
- crimes in the name of 'honour',
- sexual harassment,
- trafficking, and
- prostitution / sexual exploitation.
Significant numbers of women experience more than one type of violence. Recurring themes in women's descriptions of male violence include the use of tactics of control, humiliation and degradation, the abdication of responsibility by the male abuser, and the attribution of blame to the woman. Other commonalities between all forms of violence against women include the high levels of under-reporting and extremely low conviction rates; long-term social, psychological and economic consequences, and the historic failure by states to prevent violence violence against women.
Read more for an overview of the international and national context, the extent and cost of violence against women, and links to selected publications
The United Nations (UN) calls on all States to act with due diligence to prevent and respond to violence against women. In 1993 the UN situated VAW within a human rights framework and in 1995 the UK Government signed the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (BPfA) on VAW.
The UN defines violence against women as follows:
Any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life. Violence against women shall be understood to encompass, but not be limited to, the following:
(a) Physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring in the family, including battering, sexual abuse of female children in the household, dowry-related violence, marital rape, female genital mutilation and other traditional practices harmful to women, nonspousal violence and violence related to exploitation;
(b) Physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring within the general community, including rape, sexual abuse, sexual harassment and intimidation at work, in educational institutions and elsewhere, trafficking in women and forced prostitution
(c) Physical, sexual and psychological violence perpetrated or condoned by the State, wherever it occurs.
(UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women)
In 2006, the UN published a summary definition of gender-based violence against women as:
“Violence that is directed against a woman, because she is a woman, or violence that affects women disproportionately. It includes acts that inflict physical, mental or sexual harm or suffering, threats of such acts, coercion and other deprivations of liberty”.
Since 1993 the Council of Europe has also developed a number of initiatives to combat VAW and works to a definition similar to that of the UN. The work of some Member States also includes work to address pornography. Between 2006-2008 the Council has run a campaign to combat violence against women, including domestic violence.
The response to violence across the UK is disjointed. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland there are separate policies on specific forms of violence (often gender-neutral) and the focus is primarily on the criminal justice system (even though most survivors do not report to the police).
- Government-wide Delivery and Action Plans, led by the Home Office and overseen by Inter-Ministerial Groups, on domestic violence, sexual violence, human trafficking and prostitution.
- The Minister for Women and Equality has also indicated that addressing violence against women and improving the way in which women who commit crimes are dealt with are among their top three priorities.
In contrast in Scotland, there is a strategy and programme of work on violence against women which is recognised as a cause and consequence of gender inequality; the definition used in the Scottish framework on violence against women is explicitly linked to ‘women’s and girls’ subordinate status in society’, ‘a function of gender inequality, and an abuse of male power and privilege’.
How common is violence against women ?
Each year across the UK 3 million women experience domestic violence, rape, forced marriage, stalking, sexual exploitation and trafficking, female genital mutilation, or crimes in the name of honour, and there are many more living with the impact of abuse experienced in the past.
The vast majority of violence is committed by men that women know or are in a close relationship with - family members, neighbours, friends or colleagues but it is also perpetrated by strangers.
The cost of violence against women
Individual women and girls count the cost in terms of cuts and bruises, broken bones, miscarriages, sexually transmitted diseases, death in extreme cases, long-term mental health problems, substance abuse and social exclusion.
A report by New Philanthropy Capital found that violence against women costs society £40 billion each year in England and Wales alone (NPC, Hard Knock Life, 2008).
The total cost of domestic violence alone is estimated at £23 billion annually in England and Wales, which inlcudes direct costs to the economy of £6billion and human & emotional costs of £17billion (Sylvia Walby, The Cost of Domestic Violence, 2004).
The overall cost to society of sexual offences in 2003-04 was estimated at £8.5 billlion, with each rape costing over £76,000. Much of this cost is made up of lost output and costs to the health service resulting in long term health issues faced by survivors (Home Office, Cross-government action plan on sexual violence and abuse, 2007).
Trevor Phillips (Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission), commenting on the scale of violence against women, refers to it as an ‘undeclared war against women’.
Selected Publications on Violence Against Women
Scottish Executive: Safer Lives: Changed Lives, A Shared Approach to Tackling Violence Against Women in Scotland 2009
The purpose of this document is to provide a shared understanding and approach which will guide the work of all partners to tackle violence against women in Scotland. This includes, but is not restricted to, the work of Community Planning Partnerships, Violence Against Women Multi-Agency Partnerships and Training Consortia around building capacity in the sector and the work of public bodies around meeting the statutory requirements set out in the Gender Equality Duty.
Home Office: Together We Can End Violence Against Women and Girls 2009
This consultation paper sets out a model for addressing the issue across government, focusing attention on prevention, provision and protection. There are also key themes for government action, which the Home Office has used to drive public debate and discussion on what more can be done to end violence against women and girls.
Government Equalities Office: FGM Factsheet 2009
The Government Equalities Office (GEO) has published a factsheet about Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). GEO developed the factsheet in partnership with the Department of Health and the Department for Children Schools and Families (DCSF). The factsheet explains what FGM is, who is most likely to be affected by it and why some communities wrongly justify this practice. It also provides guidance on how to identify those at risk and where to find information, services and useful organisations.
Forced Marriage Unit: Forced Marriage Action Plan 09-10
This document sets out the agreed two-year Action Plan for the Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) for calendar years 2009-10. This work is co-ordinated with broader government initiatives through the Honour Based Violence Steering Group and sits under the umbrella of the Domestic Violence Action Plan.
Realising Rights, Fulfilling Obligations: A Template for an Integrated Strategy on Violence Against Women for the UK, End Violence - Summary, Maddy Coy, Jo Lovett, Liz Kelly, 2008
This Summary of the more detailed report provides a template for UK governments to develop and implement an integrated strategy on violence against women based on the foundations of gender equality and human rights, which should begin from the vision of eradicating violence against women.
EVAW: Making The Grade? 2007 - UK and Making The Grade? 2007 - Northern Ireland
The UK Government scored 2 out of 10 in the 2007 assessment of government action to tackle violence against women, and the Northern Ireland Government scored 1 out of 10 The CPS scores top marks again and has published a Violence Against Women Strategy.
Home Office: Saving Lives. Reducing Harm. Protecting the Public: An action plan for tackling violence 2008-11
Serious violence covers a wide range of offences, including homicide and serious wounding, offences involving weapons, domestic violence, hate crime and serious sexual offences including rape. This Plan sets out a range of actions the Home Office will be driving forward to reduce priority crime types, including gun and gang-related crime; knife crime; and sexual and domestic violence.
CPS: Violence Against Women Strategy and Action Plans
The CPS has developed a VAW strategy and action plans, not only in recognition of UN, Council of Europe and EVAW initiatives, but also in recognition of the importance the Service places on improving the prosecution of these crimes and supporting victims in the process. The VAW strategy aims to secure the coordination and improved prosecution response to a range of crimes that fall under the umbrella of VAW.