Getting to the root of power inequalities: collective action to address gender-based violence

Our contexts, histories and relationships are a part of who we are, how we act and how we make life choices. These are complex realities that we interact with on a daily basis, learn from and are shaped by over time. In turn, we experience opportunities, power, discrimination and oppression differently according to the multiple identities that make up who we are. Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) cannot therefore be seen to exist in isolation from this complex web of structural discrimination and inequalities of identity – it is tangled within other forms of power, privilege and social exclusion which are deeply embedded in societal structures and norms.

A street protest against sexual harassment in Egypt.

As we near the end of the 16 days of activism against sexual and gender-based violence and we look ahead towards global commitments and continued activism to address the issue in private and public life (in all its forms), understanding context and how gendered power differences intersect with inequalities and privileges in relation to race, ethnicity, class, (dis)ability, sexuality, age and citizenship status is critical

Recent research undertaken by the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) with civil society organisations and social movements in the global south has shown that an analysis of the root causes of sexual and gendered violence can provide direction for mobilisation, political action and accountability. Thus by analysing the intersections of inequality, exclusion, privilege and power men and women are coming together in gender justice movements to: 

  • Politicise action to address SGBV; 
  • Make visible the transformation of the issue from a private to a public concern; 
  • Make a shift towards addressing the root causes of the issue; 
  • Challenge problematic gender roles and expectations amongst both men and women;
  • Highlight that gender and other social justice issues must be understood within specific cultural and historical contexts and as having multiple dimensions – social, economic and political.

In doing so work with men in collective action for gender equality has been critically engaged and the possibilities of transformative, inclusive approaches explored. The research found that men are working to analyse the intersecting inequalities and vulnerabilities experienced by different men and boys (e.g. social class, ethnicity or sexuality) which is catalysing a personal and political connection to how and why gendered violence can be prevented and addressed. This rejection of patriarchal privilege has, in India, South Africa, Kenya and Egypt for example, enabled solidarity between women, men and persons of non-conforming gender identities in a shared struggle towards social justice for women, men, girls and boys and to demand accountability in the response to SGBV.

Activist groups working in conflict-affected contexts and with refugees, including in Sierra Leone and Uganda, are also using an analysis of complex vulnerabilities to provide a critique of a narrow understanding of ‘victim/perpetrator’. Men are usually cast as perpetrators and women as victims. Where this binary is upheld in laws and policies victimhood is being simplified as feminine and lacking agency. The implication is that this compromises responses with female as well as male victims and does not recognise that victims of violence can also be survivors, and activists or agents of change.

This research has also made visible how discriminations play out in the political positions of different groups, highlighting the role of public institutions, like the police and healthcare workers, in perpetuating and challenging multiple discriminations. In Kenya and South Africa sexual minorities and sex workers have faced institutional discrimination; with survivors being met with hostility and humiliation from police officers which is deeply challenging for the way that gender equality laws and policies become implemented.

We are living in time where levels of gendered violence are still as high as 35 per cent globally for intimate partner violence and non-partner sexual violence. The opportunities for change, made available by global frameworks such as the Sustainable Development Goals, present a chance to reinvigorate national laws and policies, action plans and implementation agendas are therefore critical. However, alongside goals and targets on gender inequality, violence against women and girls, institutional discrimination, and inequalities within and between countries must come explicit engagement with those movements driving change on the ground in order to ensure sustainable strategies that transform inequalities and tackle the roots of gendered violence.

It is through a commitment to and understanding of more inclusive strategies to end sexual and gendered-violence that a more nuanced and effective space for addressing SGBV can be created, insights from this global research study therefore suggest that actors from local to global levels should:

  • Reframe gender as social relations and understand better how gender power differences intersect with inequalities and privileges within specific contexts to fuel and reinforce sexual and gender violence.
  • Build an understanding SGBV grounded in the experiences of those who are most marginalised and living with violence, solutions must be driven from the bottom up in order to leave no-one behind and ensure contextual relevance.
  • Facilitate collective action across movements which can provide a platform to unpack the complex issues around intersecting inequalities and hold those with power and privilege accountable for addressing SGBV; importantly addressing institutional discrimination.
  • Take forward approaches that support men and women to explore their personal connection with political action and work together as agents of change within an accountable relationship that engages men for social and gender justice.

Read more in the new IDS policy briefing, ‘Towards More Inclusive Strategies to Address Gender-Based Violence’. It provides further analysis and recommendations for more inclusive strategies to address sexual and gender-based violence.