Strengthening Health System Responses to Gender-based Violence in Eastern Europe and Central Asia

A resource package

1.5. Myths surrounding gender-based violence

Myths and stereotypical attitudes about GBV shape the way in which society perceives and responds to violence perpetrated against women. Such myths and attitudes are harmful as they tend to blame the survivors for the violence, rather than holding perpetrators responsible for their behaviour. As stated earlier, myths can inflict additional harm upon women who experience violence and may prevent health professionals from providing adequate medical care. It is therefore essential that health care professionals understand the difference between myth and fact, in order to understand the survivors’ situation and needs and to maintain a professional and impartial attitude. Health care providers are responsible for providing medical care and support to the survivor and to avoid any behaviour that can lead to secondary traumatization. By no means is it the role of health care professionals to assess the credibility of the alleged violence or to blame the survivor. The present sub-chapter presents a number of myths about intimate partner violence and sexual violence that can also be found in the EECA region, and contrasts them with facts.

Myth 1: Women allow intimate partner violence to happen to them and if they really want to, they can leave their abusive partners.

  • Facts:In no case does a woman deserve to be abused. The international community has recognized violence against women as a human rights violation that cannot be justified and requires a comprehensive state response. As explained in several theories on the dynamics of violent relationships, such as the Stockholm Syndrome or the Power and Control Wheel, perpetrators use a combination of tactics of control and abuse that make it very difficult for women to escape the violence. It is also important to understand that women who experienced violence from an intimate partner and seek to leave the relationship in order to ensure their own and their children’s safety paradoxically face an increased risk of repeating and even escalating violence. Women are also prevented from leaving violent relationships due to feelings of shame and guilt, lack of safe housing, or the belief that divorce is wrong for children (adapted from Hagemeister et al 2003).

Myth 2: Conflicts and discord are a normal part of any relationship.

  • Facts:“Everybody can lose control,” is a commonly used excuse to justify intimate partner violence. However, violence is not about “losing” control – rather, it is about “gaining” control through the use of threats, intimidation, and violence, as demonstrated by the Power and Control Wheel. Violence in arelationship is not normal - it is a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women (DEVAW).

Myth 3: Men and women are equally violent to each other.

  • Facts:The majority of those affected by GBV, in particular intimate partner violence, are women and girls. Worldwide, almost half (47%) of all female victims of homicide in 2012 were killed by their intimate partners or family members, compared to less than 6% of male homicide victims (UNODC 2013). According to EU-wide data, 67% of physical violence and 97% of sexual violence perpetrated against women is committed by men (FRA 2014). This fact is also confirmed by research from the region. For example, a study from Moldova shows that the perpetrators of violence against women are often family members, the overwhelming majority being husbands or former husbands (73.4%), followed by fathers or stepfathers (13.7%) (UN Special Rapporteur VAW 2009).

Myth 4: Domestic violence happens only to a certain type of person.

  • Facts:GBV is a global problem of pandemic proportions. 35% of all women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual violence from an intimate partner or sexual violence from a non-partner (WHO et al 2013). While a number of factors may increase the risk of women experiencing GBV, domestic violence affects all women, irrespective of socio-economic status, educational achievements, ethnic origin, religion or sexual orientation (IGWG undated). While some studies have found that women living in poverty are disproportionately affected by intimate partner violence and sexual violence, it has not been clearly established whether it is poverty as such that increases the risk of violence or rather other factors accompanying poverty.

Myth 5: GBV only includes physical abuse (hitting, punching, biting, slapping, pushing, etc.).

  • Facts:Physical abuse is just one form of violence. International law 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” (DEVAW, Article 1). For example, prevalence research from Romania shows that 18,5% of women experienced psychological violence from family members including intimate partners; the percentage for economic violence was 5,3% (Centrul de Sociologie Urbana si Regionala 2008). Some studies show that women often consider psychological abuse and humiliation more devastating than physical assault (Casey 1988, cited inHeise et al 1994).

Myth 6: GBV is caused by substance abuse such as alcohol and/or drugs.

  • Facts:While substance abuse is present in many domestic violence cases and may lower inhibitions, it is a contributing factor, not the cause of violence (see also section 1.3). Neither should alcohol or drug abuse be used to justify violence (IGWG undated). Not all perpetrators of violence use drugs or alcohol, and not all those who use drugs or alcohol are violent (Roberts 1984, cited in Hagemeister et al 2003).

Myth 7: Women should tolerate violence to keep the family together.

  • Facts:Every woman has the right to safety, dignity and a life free of violence. Every woman survivor of GBV has the right of self-determination- she can decide to stay with her abusive partner or to leave him and either way she is entitled to support and protection from the state. The argument that women should stay in an abusive relationship is often justified for the well-being of the children. However, it is well established that the safety and health of children are negatively affected when children experience or witness domestic violence. State support for perpetrator programmesteaching violent men to adopt non-violent behaviour in interpersonal relationships is key for preventing further violence and changing violent behavioural patterns (Article 16 Istanbul Convention). This is of particular importance in situations where women are not willing or able to leave a violent relationship, for instance, due to economic dependence and risk of stigmatization by the community, particularly in rural areas. At the same time, perpetrator interventions should supplement, but not replace, or withdraw resources from, the work of women-specific support services.

Myth 8: Domestic violence is a private family matter, in which the state has no right to intervene. How a man treats his wife is a private matter.

  • Facts: Violence against women is a human rights violation, no matter whether it occurs in the family or in the public sphere.Under international human rights law such as CEDAW or the Istanbul Convention, states are not only entitled to eliminate all forms of violence against women, they are obligated to do so.

Myth 9: Sex workers cannot experience rape.

  • Facts: International definitions of rape and other forms of sexual assault (WHO 2013) focus on the type of violent acts committed, without consideration of who is the perpetrator or the survivor. Accordingly, any man who forces a woman into a sexual act against her is committing rape, whatever her profession is. A survey from Bosnia and Herzegovina demonstrates the high amount of violence experienced by sex workers- three out of five sex workers surveyed reported experiences of sexual violence (PROI 2011).

Myth 10: A man cannot rape his wife.

  • Facts:As mentioned earlier, rape is defined by an action and not by the identity of the perpetrator or the survivor. Accordingly, any forced sexual intercourse is rape, irrespective of whether the woman survivor is married to the perpetrator or not. This statement is also grounded in international human rights law definitions, which encompasses all forms of physical, sexual, psychological or economic violence against women, no matter if they are committed in the family or in public. Even though international human rights law obliges states to criminalize and prosecute rape, not all jurisdictions recognize marital rape as a criminal offence, resulting in impunity of rape committed by intimate partners.

Myth 11: Most GBV is perpetrated by strangers.

  • Facts:The majority of women experience GBV at the hands of a person close to them, as confirmed by the 2013 Global Study on Homicide. It is estimated that women make up 79% of all persons killed by their intimate partners. Additionally, 47% of all women killed in 2012 were killed by their family members or intimate partners; for men, the respective percentage totals 6% (UNODC 2014). This statement is confirmed for instance by a study from Kyrgyzstan, of which 3% of the women interviewed have experienced sexual violence, with 98% of the perpetrators being current or former partners or husbands (National Statistical Committee 2012).