Social justice is a core principle that has historically informed ethical practice in social work and features strongly today in contemporary critical practice (Connolly & Harms, 2015, p. 18). Most definitions agree that there are four pillars of a socially just society: access, equity, rights and participation (Morley, Macfarlane, Ablett, & Ife, 2014, p. 4) . Social injustices can occur when these pillars are threatened by oppression imposed by dominant social forces. This essay will present the social justice issue of violence against women through a social justice lens.
Examples will be given of how the four pillars are affected and the dominant social forces that enable these oppressions will be described. A comparison of critical and establishment theories will lead into examples of relevant change practices in response to the issue. Before concluding I will critically reflect on my own values in relation to violence against women.
Women who experience domestic violence can have their ability to access money, support services, families, religious and cultural practices, friends and social groups controlled by their abusers (DV Connect, n.d.). By exerting power and control through isolation (TheDuluthModel, 2016) women’s access to their means of emancipation are restricted or denied. Stark (2007 p. 24) calls these behaviours ‘coercive control’. He says this is used to entrap women in their personal lives. This entrapment undeniably threatens the ability of women to access the support and services they need.
In an equitable society, a person’s gender would not place them at considerably higher likelihood of experiencing sexual violence. In an analysis of the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ 2012 Personal Safety Survey report Cox (2016, p.23) found that women were four times more likely as men to have experienced sexual assault since age 15 and eight times more likely to have experienced sexual threat. This analysis highlights an issue of equity with women experiencing statistically significant (Cox, 2016, p.23) higher amounts of sexual violence and threat compared to men. In some countries, domestic violence against women is not even regarded as a crime. (Morley et al., 2014, p.47.) These gender inequities and others (the wage gap for example) are the central underlying causes of violence against women.
International bodies such as the World Health Organisation (2013, p.2) see violence against women “as a fundamental violation of women’s human rights.” The United Nations says violence against women “is perhaps the most widespread and socially tolerated form of human rights violation.” (UN Women, n.d.). It is clear that violence against women threatens the fundamental human right to freedom from violence as well as a number of other articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UN General Assembly, 1948). In 1993, the UN General Assembly outlined the following rights in Article 3 of the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women:
Women are entitled to the equal enjoyment and protection of all human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field. These rights include, inter alia:
- The right to life;
- The right to equality;
- The right to liberty and security of person;
- The right to equal protection under the law;
- The right to be free from all forms of discrimination;
- The right to the highest standard attainable of physical and mental health;
- The right to just and favourable conditions of work;
- The right not to be subjected to torture, or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
It is a great injustice that these rights are threatened by the ongoing issue of violence against women.
Marital rape is not illegal in a number of countries exposing 2.6 billion women (Morley et al., 2014, p.47.) to an injustice that threatens their ability to participate in self-determination regarding their reproductive and sexual health. The potential consequences for the health of women who experience marital rape are immense and range from death in childbirth and death due to unsafe abortion to infection with HIV (Morley et al., 2014, p.47). “Violence against women affects women’s well-being and prevents them from fully participating in society.” (White Ribbon Australia, n.d.) Be this through fear of violence or threat in public spaces or through entrapment at home in domestic violence situations.
Amongst all the factors that contribute, Bettman (2009) asserts that “patriarchal discourse remains the fount of domestic violence.” She notes that culture, class and ethnicity have significant parts to play but “to go beyond gender is premature” (2009) when confronting the causes of violence against women. This system “that accords economic, social and political privileges to men” (Morley et al., 2014, p.46) constructs gender roles that are unbalanced in terms of power and privilege. The socially constructed characteristics of masculinity and femininity (see Morley et al., 2014 p.47, Bettman, 2009) such as male strength, dominance, aggression and female softness, submissiveness and caring place these roles in dichotomies of conflict. The outcomes of these conflicts ultimately disadvantage both men and women therefore “it is in the interests of both men and women to challenge the harmful effects of patriarchy” (Morley et al., 2014 p.46).
Patriarchy makes “female subordination … a social fact” (Stark, 2007) and despite considerable improvement (in Western countries such as Australia) women still face considerable gender inequities in contemporary society (Morley et al., 2014 p.48). The system of male dominance that exists in all parts of society is the single largest dominant social force that enables violence against women, and the social injustices inherent to the issue, to occur. It is however important to note that patriarchy and other dominant social forces such as biomedical discourse are interconnected and work together to enforce oppressions (Morley et al., 2014, pp. 50, 54).
Establishment theories and establishment social work “uncritically accepts existing social inequalities and helps people cope with impact of injustices instead of challenging them.” (Morley et al., 2014, p.278) If the gendered perspective of patriarchal oppression is removed from the issue and violence against women is viewed with individualist establishment theories then women who experience violence could be treated as having individual problems requiring medical ‘cures’ (Morley et al., 2014, p.188). A woman having experienced violence may be placed into therapy or prescribed medicine to deal with the issues arising from the violence. This biomedical discourse (see Morley et al., 2014, p.50) could lead to psychodynamic approaches that focus on symptoms of violence and not the causes. As Payne (2014, p. 98) states psychological theory tends to blame people for what has happened to them. This victim-blaming is a factor that contributes to the perpetuation of violence against women rather than being a useful approach to ending it. When a woman feels that the violence she has experienced is her fault then guilt and shame can prevent her from accessing the services and support she needs. It is not just the focus on the individual that is problematic. Even when shifting the focus away from the individual towards systems theories, such as family systems theory, we would still find that without considering power or gender the woman experiencing violence would be treated as a problem (Morley et al., 2014, p.190).
In comparison, critical theories and the social justice lens (Connolly & Harms, 2015, pp. 16-19) reveal the need for changes to society and place the responsibility for ending violence against women with whole communities rather than the individuals who experience it. (Morley et al., 2014, p.193). Critical theories such as feminism help us understand the role that patriarchy and power play in violence against women. When the causes of injustice are properly understood and identified relevant change practices can be adopted. It is important to note that individual practice methods such as counselling can be used as a part of a critical response but this practice would be based on a different set of assumptions than if it were used in an establishment response (Morley et al., 2014, p.193).
Community development and education are relevant change practices when addressing violence against women as a social justice issue. As a social justice lens views violence against women as a community responsibility rooted in social structures, raising awareness around the myths that surround the causes of violence is an important and relevant change practice (Morley et al., 2014, p.197). White Ribbon Australia (see https://www.whiteribbon.org.au/) focuses on the potential perpetrators of violence against women and urges men as a community to take responsibility for the issue by making an oath: “I will stand up, speak out and act to prevent men’s violence against women.” (White Ribbon Australia, n.d.) This approach dismisses victim-blaming and moves the responsibility away from potential victims. White Ribbon engage in ‘primary prevention’ targeting the root causes of violence against women through education programs in schools and workplaces and addressing gender inequity through research and advocacy.
Having identified gender inequity perpetuated by patriarchy as the root cause of violence against women it becomes clear that advocacy at a political level to address these injustices is a highly relevant change practice. Lobbying the legal system to make changes to legislation that better addresses the needs of women who experience violence is one example (Morley et al., 2014, p.198). Lobbying and advocating for structural change around other inequities such as the wage gap, representations of women in government and academia, and laws around reproductive rights all play a part in the underlying injustice that contributes to the ongoing issue of violence against women.
When reflecting on my own values regarding violence against women through a social justice lens I began to see that some of the values I was raised with were problematic. I was brought up to never swear in front of a woman, to hold open doors and that a man’s role was that of provider and protector. I can see now that these values support patriarchal constructions of gender roles and as such can act to create inequity and injustices. Whilst as an adult my views on masculinity have long since departed from the stereotypical ones I was exposed to as a child, I still found myself with some echoes of this patriarchal thinking. The most poignant being an agreement with discourses of safety and risk. I knew that victims of violence where not to blame for their experience but I believed there was no particular harm in messages of risk avoidance – don’t be out late at night in unlit places alone for example. I now believe that the messages that are given regarding violence against women are vital. We cannot place blame with the victim and we cannot place the responsibilities with the women who experience violence to avoid it. There is of course a need for basic public safety awareness for all of us, regardless of gender, but where the risk is inequitable the focus must be with changing the forces that cause these injustices.
The injustice of violence against women is far further reaching than the examples given here. It is however quite clear, even with a light analysis, that the four central pillars of social justice are heavily impacted in a number of ways by this issue. By looking at the dominant social force that creates this injustice, and exploring the relevant change practices we can use in response to it, we can see that the problem must be addressed from a social justice perspective acknowledging that gender inequity is at the core of it. Violence against women is both globally, and nationally here in Australia, one of most concerning social justice issues we face as a society. As Ban Ki-Moon, UN Secretary General (UN Women, n.d.) said: “There is one universal truth, applicable to all countries, cultures and communities: violence against women is never acceptable, never excusable, never tolerable.”
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Payne, M. (2014). Modern Social Work Theory (4th ed.). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillian.
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TheDuluthModel. (2016, May 2). Isolation – Understanding the Power and Control Wheel [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ECKkCUWDx7w.
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World Health Organisation, Department of Reproductive Health and Research, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, South African Medical Research Council. (2013). Global and regional estimates of violence against women: prevalence and health effects of intimate partner violence and nonpartner sexual violence. Geneva: WHO Press. Retrieved from http://www.who.int/: http://www.who.int/reproductivehealth/publications/violence/9789241564625/en/