Violence against women and children has always been a concern for women movements. Violence within the family set-up was seen as a social problem and this was recognized by women rights movements who acted as catalysts in the 1870s for human rights (Costin et al., 1996; Gordon, 2002). In the early 1900s, feminism was an original expression of women advocates who were campaigners of right to life and right for women to vote in the United States and the United Kingdom. Later on in the 1970s, the meaning of feminism was changed by liberals in order to have a representation of people who were in favour of abortion and similar roles for women in the society. My purpose in this essay will be to define and problematise key concepts used such as ‘violence’, ‘feminism’ and ‘patriarchy’ using various definitions given by key authors. My main focus in this paper will be to discuss violence against women and demonstrate that violence is a feminist issue by examining radical feminist arguments around patriarchal violence against women. I will also argue that violence is not only a feminist issue basing on the violent experiences men go through in a human rights perspective then critically analyze the findings.
Violence to start with has been defined in various ways by a number of authors. According to Martin Luther King’s (1964), “Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys a community and makes brotherhood impossible”. World Health Organization (WHO) defines violence as “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”. This kind of violence as described by WHO, could be self-directed, interpersonal or collective kind of violence. Stanko (2003) states that “what violence means is and will always be fluid, not fixed; it is mutable” (2003: 3). For the purposes of this essay, I will use Salmi’s (1993) definition which states that violence is “any avoidable action that constitutes a violation of a human right, in its widest meaning, or which prevents the fulfillment of a basic human need” (Salmi 1993, Chap 3). Feminism on the other hand according to historian and activist Cheris Kramarae (1991), is the fundamental idea that women are human beings and as a movement, it advocates for women’s rights where they live on equal terms with men and no discrimination is put upon them by the law or their culture. In general terms, feminism can be described as a movement for social, cultural, political and economic equality of men and women. It strives for equal rights for women by promoting campaigns against gender inequalities.
Feminism has had several historical “waves” which have stated various rights of women over time. The first-wave feminism which came between the 18th Century and the World War II aimed at ensuring that women had basic civil rights such as voting and owning property. The second-wave feminism started at the end of the World War II until the 1980s when the amendment of the equal rights was defeated. Its main agenda was to campaign for equality between both women and male sexes (Rosen, 2000) by trying to pass the Equal Rights Amendment and also protect the women’s reproductive choice. The last wave was the third -wave feminism which wanted to seek equality for all women form racial justice, class oppression to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender rights. Liberal, radical and cultural feminism are different kinds of feminism which seek for various rights for women, these will be discussed at a later state of this essay. For the purposes of this essay, I will also discuss patriarchy. Patriarchy in general is described as a system in which men have power over women. According to Renzetti & Curran(1999), patriarchy is “a system of social stratification, which means that it uses a wide array of social control policies and practices to ratify male power and to keep girls and women subordinate to men” (1999: 3) .
Violence is a feminist issue
Feminism has played a major role in effecting the social changes in the Western society and this has resulted to giving it more attention. Some people see feminism as an acceptable form of fighting for women rights while others look at it as a destroying factor of traditional gender roles in the society in which some feminists say that these roles are used to oppress and silence women. The feminity and masculinity of human beings has been challenged by radical feminists as mutually exclusive and biologically determined categories. Radical feminists seek to eradicate feminity and masculinity characteristics restricting women’s competences and reinforcing male dominance. “While sex differences are linked to biological differences between male and female, gender differences are imposed socially or even politically by constructed contrasting stereotypes of masculinity and femininity” (de Beauvoir, 1970: 258).
Radical feminists consider patriarchy as the root cause of social problems such as inequalities, oppressions, and injustices indicating that oppression of women came from the underlying bias of a patriarchal society. These feminists argue that patriarchal violence against women keeps women subordinate, oppressed and unequal to their male counterparts. The term ‘violence against women’ according to the declaration of the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 means “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 private life.” In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, patriarchy was mainly used to describe the power of fathers (patriarchs) within families and according to Fredriech Engels (1884) and Max Weber (1922) family-centered patriarchy was imitated in the economic and political dominance of men in society. The broader system of family centered patriarchy was called patrimonialism by Weber.
Radical feminists such as Brownmiller (1975); Griffin (1971); Millett (1971) and Mitchell (1971), argue that the greatest capacity for male violence against women is linked to the origin and nature of patriarchy and that violence is a something that men use to control and maintain their dominance. Brownmiller (1975) and Mitchell (1971) believe that for men to act violently there is an existence of dissimilar level of physical strength between sexes. On the other hand, Millett (1971) and Griffin (1971) denote that there is a difference on how the two opposite sexes use violence which is influenced by culture and current technological developments. It has been assumed that all men are capable of being violent and that all women are submissive. The aim of Radical feminists has been to determine individual identity; free language and culture from the masculinity seize, and re-organize the power of politics, determine the significance of human behaviour and challenge what is valuable to individuals.
Mandell (1995) argues that radical feminists believe that unless the notion of sexuality is reformed and rebuilt, women’s image and representation will always be subordinate to men. According to Heywood (2003) “Women are subordinated as a sex that is subject to pervasive oppression and not as individuals who happen to be denied rights or opportunities” (2003:254). Radical feminists have raised the shortcomings of individualism as the basis of gender politics and this has resulted to ignoring the structural role that patriarchy plays. They have received criticisms from Marxist feminists for completely ignoring the basis of patriarchy which happens to be historical, materialistic and economic. At the same time, Alison Jaggar in “Feminist Politics and Human Nature” (1971) states that social organizations determine gender differences in the society and so women should be in control of their lives. Jaggar (1971) critiques radical feminists for not recognizing reasons that brought about patriarchy and its structures.
Violence is not only a feminist issue
Men continue to experience domestic violence within the society and even though many of them do not come out to report about the abuse, the issue is still a human rights matter that has to be addressed. In this essay, I will be interested in exploring the human rights perspectives and compare them with the feminists’ ones in order to come up with an argument that covers both sides of gender violence. Stanko (2006) argues that gender is more that just being male or female. Many people only view gender as a psychological and social system of reference. According to Stanko (2006) the work of feminists on domestic and sexual violence clearly explains the criminal harm against humanity as a justification to freedom of behavior in close relationships. Feminists insist on dealing with violence as ordinary and everyday activities in women’s lives whereas human rights activists follow legal dimensions that address the needs of each and every individual in order to enjoy the conditions that call for a decent life. Stanko (2006) continues to state that in domestic settings, men’s experiences of sexual and physical violence should be treated as similar to that of women. For a very long time, criminology as a discipline has portrayed women’s use of violence against men as normal (Klein, 1973).
Human rights, according to Merry (2006) promote equality, individual choices, individual autonomy and secularism. Gender violence which includes violence against women is a violation against human rights and as Merry argues, it is deeply established from the cultural and religious beliefs. Very often, the communities that commit acts of aggression resist change. Women’s human rights are violated in a number of ways and many a times, the violation of women’s rights is mainly by the fact that they are female and are abused on the basis of their gender. Many people have argued that feminism has been re-shaped by the fact that the last decade has seen major changes in terms of labelling women’s rights as human rights (Walby, 2002). Historically, women as both victims and offenders have had many disadvantages in the eyes of the law and men have dominated in each aspect from politics to domestic settings. Theorists such as Copelon, (1994) and Roth (1994) have argued that in order to disclose the usefulness of human rights for women, public and private divide relating to violence against women has to be challenged.
Comparing feminist with human rights perspective, it is clear that in reference to the terms of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, women enjoy the same rights, freedoms and autonomy as men. Feminism has been known for contending for gender equality and bringing to an end the gender based discriminations against women. Most feminists do not agree to the fact that men are equally oppressed as women and they insist that equality between sexes would make the society a better place. While feminism’s agenda is to campaign against gender inequalities and strive for equal rights for women, human rights’ motives provide the general basic fundamental rights which each human being is entitled to. Feminists agree with the fact that human rights provides rights for all human beings and addresses their needs but they claim that human rights does not include cultural diversity and gender perspectives thus limiting its interests. Various feminists argue that some of the women’s rights have been neglected and have proposed that all women rights be included in the human rights protection system considering that the main difference between men and women is the biological otherwise they all have equal rights.
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It has been argued that feminists of the second wave especially those in the USA between 1970 and 1985 focused mainly on violence against women because this violence resulted in to a patriarchal system which gave explanations to the biological difference between men and women. According to an article by Martinez (2011), the social and sexual control of women by men in patriarchal societies was linked to the use of violence against women and the second wave feminists contend that domestic violence is associated with the fact that men are more powerful than women , there are biological differences between men and women and that it is men who commit acts of violence against women. Due to the cultural and religious norms that people belief in, many women’s rights are violated in family set-ups and this has made human rights activists change their way of thinking in order to make an impact to the society.
In reference to the Working Conference on Women’s Rights as Human Rights held in Dublin (1997) and the discussions in this essay, it is clear that feminism and human rights have several differing components but they both have a common “world view”. In the Western society, feminism has become popular because of the social changes it has brought about although this has not passed without critisms. It has been noted that some feminist movements have invaded on the traditional gender roles which has harmonized the society in the sense that women have been silenced and oppressed. At the same time, there has been a massive negative impact on men due to the fact that a number of advocates for men’s rights claim that they have been oppressed by the social changes and legal reforms taking place for example, the law favouring mothers in divorce cases involving custody hearings. It is true some of the men go through domestic violence and other oppressions but statistics show that 11% of men had experienced domestic violence compared to 32% of women who actually experienced domestic violence four or five (or more) times more (Walby and Allen, 2004). This means that men’s experience of violence is much less that that of women. According to (Walby and Allen, 2004) 89% of women represented all those who had experienced incidents of domestic violence 4 or more times.
Male dominance has promoted the idea in the society amongst women that they are more superior thus creating a power gap between men and women. Patriarchal society has been identified by the existence of men whose thinking and ideas are influenced by their cultural norms. The patriarchal social structures according to Johnson (1997) are male dominated, male centered, societal and personal attributes are associated with men and they are valued for their ability to put things in control unlike women who have no control over anything. It is evident that these factors have contributed in a big way to domestic violence and other kinds of women oppression and has driven most feminists to fight for equity and demonstrate the importance of women in the society.
Evidence has also shown that violence is also a human rights issue with the arguments that the human rights activists protect the rights of all human beings against violence and any sort of abuse. Despite the fact that human rights activists are doing a good job, there has been a big conflict between human rights activists and feminists in addressing violence issues especially those affecting women. In a paper presented by Krishna Mallick (1998) at the World Congress of Philosophy in Boston on the common ground of feminism and cultural Relativism in Human Rights Discourse, feminists have argued that gender and culture must be included in the human rights systems because “human rights” in itself should incorporate all human beings’ rights irrespective of gender and culture. According to Mallick (1998), feminists recommend that human rights framework be revised in order to consider the differences like the reproductive and sexual anatomy rights that exist in a woman.
It could be argued that both feminists and human rights activists play a major role in ensuring that violence against women is addressed despite the fact that both sides criticize each other. Much of this essay clearly indicates how feminism has effected changes in the society in fighting for women equal rights although men were not left behind in the human rights discussion. I will conclude this essay by indicating that that violence is both a feminist and a human rights issue and that both can work together to effect positive change on to the society.
Feminism has received a lot of criticism but that this criticism has failed to account for the extent to which it has played a major role in protecting the rights of a common woman. According to Winston (2012) feminism has been a core movement in protecting women from the storm of patriarchy and historically, these feminists have been able to bring to attention issues that affecting women especially accessing education and also getting jobs in areas where men have been in occupancy for a long time. Morgan (1989) states that it is undeniable that history record of most women acting peaceably and most men acting belligerently to a point where the capacity for belligerence is regarded as an ingredient of manhood and the proclivity for conciliation is thought largely a quality of women (1989:27). It is evident that feminists have helped many women to be self determined and to have legal representation on various issues ranging from domestic to international level.
This essay has considered the definitions of ‘violence’, ‘feminism’ and ‘patriarchy’, discussion of violence against women and has demonstrated that violence is a feminist issue by examining radical feminist arguments around patriarchal violence against women. I have also stated that violence is not only a feminist issue basing on the violent experiences men go through in a human rights perspective. I tend to think that feminism has helped both men and women on gender issues and its principles. Patriarchy has been challenged and violence against women is becoming a thing of the past through the campaigns that are being undertaken by feminists. It would be important to see human rights activists and all feminists work together in fighting gender and violence issues because violence is not only a feminist issue but also a human rights concern.