faculty & experts
25 November 2020

Unsafe in Your Own Home: Violence against Women and the Politics of Domination

Every 25 November, the world recognises the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. For the occasion, Co-Director of the Institute's Gender Centre and Associate Professor Nicole Bourbonnais retraces the deeper meaning of the importance of women's rights. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic stretches on, we have learned more not only about the virus itself, but also about the broader impact of the various measures taken to combat it. Restriction and confinement policies recognised as crucial from a public health perspective have had disproportionate repercussions for already vulnerable communities, exposing longstanding social, economic and political inequalities. One telling illustration of this can be seen in the dramatic rise in calls to helplines and reports of intimate partner violence in countries across the globe since the outbreak. Restricted movement, social isolation and economic insecurity have had a particular impact on many women who find their own homes to be unsafe.

Of course, women are not the only ones who experience violence, or even the only ones who experience violence in the home. But women are far more likely than men to be harassed, assaulted or killed by an intimate partner, ex-partner or family member. These patterns reflect larger gender power inequalities, patriarchal family structures and harmful norms surrounding masculinity and femininity. Violence is gendered.

Activists have had to fight hard to have this fact recognised, or, indeed, to have these experiences even acknowledged as “violence”. Throughout much of history, domestic abuse, sexual harassment and other forms of harm in the intimate sphere were more often than not seen as “private” matters, to be settled within the home.  Survivors of these forms of violence received little protection from states or international law, which reinforced instead the rights of “families” (ie. patriarchs).

As Charlotte Bunch wrote in 1990: “Significant numbers of the world’s population are routinely subject to torture, starvation, terrorism, humiliation, mutilation and even murder simply because they are female. Crimes such as these against any group other than women would be recognised as a civil and political emergency as well as a gross violation of the victims’ humanity.  Yet, despite a clear record of deaths and demonstrable abuse, women’s rights are not commonly classified as human rights”.   

The International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (November 25), initiated by Latin American and Caribbean feminists in 1981 and adopted by the UN in 1999, serves as an annual reminder of the long history of activism that put these forms of violence onto the international agenda. It is also a day to recognise all the hard work it takes to keep it there, and to address daily violence in practice.

We might also take this opportunity to think more about the way gendered violence intersects with other forms of violence: racism, homophobia, state violence, and structural violence, for example. As bell hooks argues, we live in a world “governed by politics of domination, one in which the belief in a notion of superior and inferior, and its concomitant ideology – that the superior should rule over the inferior – affects the lives of all people everywhere”. Resisting this logic of domination, in all its iterations, is necessary to create homes that are safe, a broader culture that celebrates life, and a world where all people can live fully and freely.