The serious public health burden of gender violence

Members of the civil society blow whistles as they demonstrate against gender-based violence to mark International Women's Day (Photo: Reuters)
Members of the civil society blow whistles as they demonstrate against gender-based violence to mark International Women's Day (Photo: Reuters)


We must work against the toll taken by silent anxieties borne by those who are vulnerable to such violence

Gender-based violence constitutes a serious public health burden that includes injuries, unintended pregnancies and pregnancy complications, poor reproductive and sexual health, sexually transmitted infections, HIV, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, difficulties with intimacy and interpersonal relationships, and death. ‘Gender-based violence’ refers to violence that is directed towards an individual owing to their gender and/or sexual orientation. Hazing to initiate young boys or LGBTQIA+ individuals into dominant forms of masculinity or femininity is also gender-based violence.

UN Women estimates that globally every third woman has been subjected to physical and/or sexually-intimate partner violence or both at least once in their lives. In the latest round of our National Family and Health Survey 1.5% of Indian women aged 18-29 years report having encountered sexual violence by 18, and nearly one in four women has experienced physical or sexual abuse by a partner. These figures are probably underestimates, as sexual violence tends to go hugely underreported. Also, survivors do not always seek or find support to help them heal because of the shame, stigma and self-blame associated with such violence, worsening its impact.

Sexual violence against girls and women exists on a continuum. Some forms are seen as ‘harmless’, such as street sexual harassment through lewd gestures, stares or cat-calling or unwanted sexualized attention. Some are taken more seriously, such as rape, gang-rape, torture and murder. No form of this violence is harmless, even if some of it is given short shrift in the belief that it does not cause immediate or visible physical harm.

Some women do have a higher risk of being exposed to such violence. This may be because they are socially or economically disadvantaged, due to their work, their sexual orientation or identity, their ability or health status, or some combination of these factors. Also, increasingly women and girls are confronted with newer forms of technologically-mediated violence, such as digital misogyny, online stalking, doxing and morphing of images, abusive trolling, death and rape threats on social media platforms and blackmail or extortion by a current or former partner or a perpetrator who has appropriated such images. Online abuse is especially directed at women if they dare to have an opinion or are active in politics.

Recently, I was invited to give a talk on an issue relevant to feminist theories. I was subjected to trolling, disruptions with explicitly misogynistic lyrics, and abusive and lewd messages in my chat box. I did not read these because I didn’t want to lose whatever was left of my focus during the talk. While the organizers tried hard to remove trolls from the Zoom platform, the fact that there were at least ten disruptions in a 40-minute talk shows how organized online misogyny is. By all accounts, my experience wasn’t unique. Other academics and journalists have faced similar situations, especially those who work on divisive issues.

It is also worth noting that the Indian digital sphere is male dominated; the NFHS-5 reports only 33% of internet users are female in India, a survey by We Are Social and Hootsuite found that only 8% of Twitter users and a little under a quarter of Facebook users are women in India. While pan-Indian figures are unavailable, some studies have reported cyber abuse prevalence rates of over 50% for Indian women on social media. In the EU, where data is available, 20% of girls over the age of 15 report cyber sexual harassment and 14% have experienced cyberstalking.

Over time, such violence, whether online or offline, at home or outside, or the fear of being subjected to it assumes an emotional and a cognitive burden. We must be vigilant about what we wear, where we go, whom we meet, when we go, where we work, how we talk, what we say, how we sit, stand, walk, run or cycle, what we watch, what we write—the list is endless.

How I experience the world as a woman, the ‘allostatic load’, isn’t unique; most women share some of these concerns. I owe an intellectual debt to the work of psychotherapist David Aruch. It was in his work that I first encountered ‘allostatic load’. A concept drawn from psychology, ‘allostasis’ refers to an equilibrium (homeostatis) maintained by adapting to stressful situations through the release of stress hormones that guide us to act in ways to reduce or eliminate the stressors. This is a good thing, because we learn how to cope with adversity. But when adversities are no longer extraordinary with a sustained spectre of gender-based violence haunting us, we experience an allostatic load and we pay for this with our bodies.

Over time, this allostatic load of having to cope with trauma or worrying about safety leads to a range of bad outcomes, including depression, anxiety, heart disease, gastro-intestinal disturbances, diabetes and even some types of cancer, not to mention the chilling effect it has on us as women. We self-censor or redraw the boundaries of what we can/should/must/won’t do. If we decide to motor through it all, that also extracts its price; we must still build solidarities notwithstanding the damage to our health and well-being.

Why must I carry this allostatic load? Why must women be subjected to violence? We must all recognize patriarchy as a toxin whose worst effect is gender-based violence. We must stop normalizing violence, discrimination and exclusion against women and acknowledge how gender violence contributes to poor health. Everyone has a right to a life where they not only survive, but thrive.

Sreeparna Chattopadhyay is associate professor, sociology, School of Liberal Education at FLAME University

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