The United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women defines violence against women as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual, or mental harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life.” This expansive definition nonetheless serves to limit the scope of the committee’s focus, by separating the unique challenges faced by women and girls from more generic or incidental forms of violence that are not targeted. Within this limited scope are two broad categories of violence: physical violence, that is, harm to the body, and violence aimed chiefly at the mental or emotional wellbeing of its target. While other UN bodies, including the World Health Organization, have addressed aspects of these problems or incorporated fixes into larger societal health policies, UN Women is uniquely capable of examining violence against women holistically and intersectionally.
Physical violence, while often the most publicized, is statistically much less common than mental violence. This is not to say that physical violence targeted against women is uncommon, however – 35% of women worldwide are estimated to have experienced some form of gender-based physical violence over their lifetimes, with some nations reporting rates as high as 70% when violence from intimate partners is included. Physical violence includes everything from battery and genital mutilation to sexual assault. Sexual assault in particular is often portrayed as sex achieved by violent force, but in fact, any nonconsensual sex act is an act of violence. Trafficking of women and girls for the sex trade accounts for more than 70% of all human trafficking globally, with girls representing more than three-quarters of all child trafficking victims. While trafficking is perhaps not as stereotypically violent as sexual assault, it is without any doubt a function of coercion, much as sexual assault is. Indeed, coercion itself is a form of violence, no matter whether the coercion is physical, chemical, financial, or emotional. Because coercion need not be physical, it can serve as a link between discussing the more widely recognized physical forms of gender-based violence and the more pervasive, less well-defined forms of mental and emotional violence. Mental and emotional violence can take many forms, from harassment at work or in public places to targeted messages containing threatening or sexual content, family member or intimate partner abuse, and exploitation of imbalances in physical, political, or financial power. Cultural norms often play a role, as well, with pressure to uphold “traditional values” or “family honor” forestalling efforts to curtail rape, spousal or child abuse, and enforced servitude.
The effects of violence against women are felt by the victims and their communities alike, and are as diverse as the causes are numerous. The health effects alone are catastrophic, with rates of sexually transmitted infections more than 1.5 times as high among women who have experienced physical or sexual abuse as for the general population, and the risks of miscarriage, stillbirth, and birth defects significantly above baseline, as well. Mental and emotional violence, the effects of which are less directly measurable, nevertheless contribute to financial, educational, and professional disparities at all levels of society. The task of UN Women will be to examine these issues and come up with broad-based, inclusive, and actionable strategies for preventing violence against women and mitigating its effects.