Despite diverse cultural traditions seen in family life around the globe, a common thread of domestic violence weaves through nearly every culture worldwide. Societies which maintain rigid gender roles that define masculinity or male honor in terms of dominance are strongly associated with violence against women. Concern for the physical and mental safety of victims makes domestic violence an international human rights issue, yet it is essential to understand the cultural context for the abuse.
Domestic Violence around the World
In one form or another, domestic violence has been documented in almost every country and in every socioeconomic class. A statement issued by the United Nations General Assembly in 1993 described domestic violence against women as ‘‘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 mutilation, and other traditional practices harmful to women’’ (United Nations General Assembly 1993). However, local definitions of abuse and violence vary widely, so determining the actual prevalence of domestic violence within specific cultures is difficult. Full recognition of violence is prevented by cultural attitudes about male dominance and honor, rigid gender roles, failure to report abuse due to shame, concern over not being believed, and fear of retribution.
In many patriarchal societies, it is accepted that a man has a right to discipline his wife using physical means. The majority of villagers interviewed in Ghana, for example, stated that it was appropriate for a man to physically chastise his wife (Fischbach and Herbert 1997). Attitudes reported among the Japanese have shown that men and women of all classes and educational levels accept that men are entitled to batter their wives (Magnier 2002). In Islamic countries, women suffer violence from their husbands or male relatives, a practice allowed by religious text and institutionalized social norms (Douki et al. 2003). Even previously in the United States, which now has a progressive domestic violence policy, the ‘‘Rule of Thumb’’ law did not prevent a man from striking his wife; it only dictated the thickness of the instrument with which he could strike her (Eckert 2001). Severe and ongoing domestic violence has been documented in every culture, with the exception of rare, isolated, preindustrial, and non-patriarchal societies.
Domestic violence is a serious threat in cultures under extreme duress due to poverty and lack of education or opportunity. Aboriginal women in Australia credit the many examples of violence and sexual assault toward women in their community to the poverty brought on by loss of lands, resources, and self-determination that arose from the colonization of Aboriginal lands (Perry 2001). Native American cultures report similar abuse among communities with severe poverty and hardship (Wahab and Olson 2001).
Violence takes on culturally specific forms when linked with traditional issues of honor and sexuality. For example, acid throwing has become an urgent safety issue for women in Middle Eastern cultures. Rejected suitors avenge their honor by attacking their would-be wives with sulfuric acid, causing serious pain and permanent disfigurement. India has seen an alarming number of dowry-related deaths (a woman may be killed because her dowry is too small). Often the death is made to appear as a kitchen accident by the husband or husband’s family in collusion with local authorities. Female genital mutilation (infibulation) is practiced extensively in Africa and is common in some cultures in the Middle East. The cultural beliefs surrounding the mutilation means that it is often seen as a significant initiation rite or status change, associated with festivities and gifts. Many countries worldwide consider a woman as the property of her husband, particularly with regard to her sexuality. Since a woman is not allowed to choose if or when to engage in sexual relations with her husband, particularly in some African and Hispanic cultures where it is common for the husband to have unprotected sex outside of the marriage, she is at high risk of HIV/AIDS exposure. In cultures where virginity determines the woman’s worth, the stigma of rape can be particularly devastating. Case studies from Bangladesh note numerous women beaten, murdered, or driven to suicide because of the dishonor that rape brings upon the family (Fischbach and Herbert 1997).
Though the appearance of and attitudes toward violence vary from culture to culture, the worldwide health consequences of domestic violence do not. Domestic violence is a significant cause of preventable death, injury, incapacity, and mental illness for women in every culture. Victims of domestic violence sustain genital infections, broken bones, third-degree burns, lacerations, disfiguring scars, and other bodily injuries.
Around the world, women are at risk for domestic violence during every phase of life. As infants, female children are killed (infanticide) or are subject to physical, sexual, and psychological abuse. In some cultures, girls are at risk for incest as well as female genital mutilation from family members. Violence in adolescence expands to include date rape, courtship violence, and dowry-related death. Marital rape and sexual assault increase the risk of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, as well as unwanted pregnancy. In times of war, armies have used rape as a means of controlling the minds and bodies of the people they seek to conquer; rape enables the victors to demoralize their enemy, further asserting their power (‘‘Viewpoint’’ 1999). Elderly women are at risk both for violence and for neglect from related caregivers on whom they are dependent; and in extreme cases, they are victims of forced suicide.
Harm inflicted by domestic violence is not limited to physical injury. Exposure to even one episode of violence experienced or witnessed or even the perceived threat of violence is enough to produce mental trauma with lasting effects. Women who are abused are significantly more likely to suffer from depression, alcohol abuse, and post-traumatic stress disorder, and are at increased risk for suicide (Fischbach and Donnelly 1996). Importantly, these symptoms are not limited to only Western cultures that typically understand and commonly treat mental illness. A study conducted among the Kalahari Bushmen found that victims of domestic battering suffered from symptoms classified as post-traumatic stress disorder (McCall and Resick 2003).
Besides the risk of death, physical injury, and mental health disorders, consequences of domestic violence reach beyond the abused woman, resulting in intergenerational consequences for families, communities, and cultures. For example, boys who witness violence perpetrated against their mothers are more likely to batter their partners as adults. Girls who grow up witnessing or experiencing violence in the home are likely to tolerate abuse from partners as adults. Secrecy within the family keeps these abuses hidden and private, reinforcing behaviors that undermine women’s autonomy, their potential as individuals, and their worth as members of their culture and society.
While data on the nature and extent of intimate partner violence directed against women are slowly gathered, human rights organizations increasingly recognize the universality of the threats posed to a woman’s fundamental right to life and liberty and freedom from fear and want. Although human rights abuses tend to increase in environments of extreme poverty, scarcity, and social and economic oppression, violence against women is found to occur in nearly every society regardless of socioeconomic class.
As domestic violence becomes defined as an international human rights issue, effective intervention and prevention is focusing on two approaches: education and contact with health care professionals. Health care professionals are often the primary and perhaps only point of contact with public services for battered women. These professionals, if properly trained, are in the best position to identify abusive situations and counsel the victim. Widespread education will be a key factor in changing societal attitudes and empowering women to gain control over their lives and to wield sufficient influence and power to make changes which will lead to improvements in their sense of dignity, their physical and mental health, and their overall well-being.
Effective strategies for eliminating the threat and reality of violence in women’s lives must be informed by research that is culturally specific and comprehensive. Researchers need to recognize and be sensitive to particular cross-cultural differences in interpretation of violence. This type of research is particularly challenging in that it must be comparable to the work of researchers in other parts of the world, and thus researchers must first agree on a common vocabulary and lexicon so that they are evaluating the same problems. Quantitative data are needed from every region to identify the magnitude and impact of the problem, as are qualitative data to improve understanding of domestic violence as a social process in local contexts.
Several international organizations including the World Health Organization (1997) and the United Nations have sponsored cross-cultural research on domestic violence, identifying universal risk factors such as low socioeconomic status, young age of partners, excessive alcohol use, and cultural attitudes (Fischbach and Herbert 1997). Even though abuse and violence vary across cultures, recognizing universal contexts is essential for research and ultimately for designing strategies for intervention and prevention.
While the gravity of domestic violence across cultures is obvious, data currently are not available to assess accurately its prevalence, severity, and culturally significant differences (Cousineau and Rondeau 2004). Given this, it is difficult to fully understand and appreciate the magnitude of the problem and recommend potential solutions. The complexities of cross-cultural definitions and behaviors are full of ambiguity in understandings and interventions; the challenge is to be informed and culturally sensitive in order to decrease intimate domestic violence in a significant and meaningful way.
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- McCall, George, and Patricia Resick. ‘‘A Pilot Study of PTSD Symptoms among Kalahari Bushmen.’’ Journal of Traumatic Stress 16, no. 5 (2003): 445–450.
- Perry, Michael. ‘‘Australia’s Aboriginal Women Call for End to Abuse.’’ Reuters. June 21, 2001.
- United Nations General Assembly. ‘‘The Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women.’’ Resolution No. A/RES/48/104. February 23, 1994.
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- Wahab, Stephanie, and Leonora Olson. ‘‘Intimate Partner Violence and Sexual Assault in Native American Communities.’’ Trauma, Violence, and Abuse 5, no. 4 (2004): 353–366.
- World Health Organization. ‘‘Violence against Women: A Priority Health Issue.’’ July, 1997.