Violence against women: The ‘hidden’ mainspring

Violence against women (VAW) by its nature makes us think too often about its worst manifestations, and this is not to undermine the seriousness of physical violence, rape and sexual harassment, but it tends to bias us when we think about solutions.

We pointed out last year that too little attention is given to the enabling conditions for VAW, bullying ad incivility as cultural, patriarchal practice.

It is evident that all forms of VAW have serious consequences for women, whether intentional or not, and whether physical or not.

However, bullying and incivility attract much less attention than other forms of VAW, presumably because the perception is that the consequences are less severe.

 Drawing a parallel with torture where all research shows the long-term persistent effects are psycho-social, it must be understood the psycho-social effects of VAW are not trivial.

Most work on bullying and incivility has focused on the workplace, with men twice as likely as women to be the perpetrators, as one group of researchers point out, “it is also possible that the higher incidence of perpetrations by men reflects society’s greater tolerance for men to treat others in a manner that is normally considered unacceptable”.

Bullying and incivility are not confined just to the workplace, and are frequently embedded in cultures.

As RAU pointed out in 2021: Thus, for cultures in which patriarchy is valued (as in many African countries) and those in which “respect” systems are dominant (and explicit or implicit in patriarchy) there must be the strong presupposition that incivility is normalised.

This has much broader implications than incivility merely being a pathology of the workplace, but raises for women the lifelong experience of being treated in uncivil ways, running from childbirth to the grave.

Does this mean that incivility as culturally normative has no consequences for women?

What does it mean when cultures are in transition from patriarchy to gender equality?

This now is the case in many countries in the world, as in Zimbabwe for instance where gender equality is now constitutionally mandated.

 It is evident that incivility is not trivial either in the frequency of its occurrence or its effects on the victims, both their physical and mental health, their performance, and loyalty in the workplace, but does incivility outside of the workplace have other, more serious consequences?

Has incivility become the default option in discrimination when more overt forms of discrimination have been suppressed?

 Is incivility more embedded in cultures that are patriarchal.

 In fact, is incivility the default position for the treatment of women by men in patriarchal societies?

There are clear answers to some of these questions.

Incivility is certainly prevalent in Western societies, and probably selective incivility too, and has significant adverse effects on physical and mental health.

It is a significant contributor to poor working environments, leading to lack of job satisfaction and leaving employment.

However, it is incivility as a modern, “hidden” form of discrimination that may be common cultural practice in many societies, with broader implications for women, and implications beyond the workplace where most research has been conducted.

If the propensity to incivility is acceptable cultural practice for the treatment of women, especially prevalent in patriarchal cultures such as Zimbabwe, what are the implications for the development of girls and women?

In 2021, RAU raised the issue about the “deep structure” behind the violence against women and girls.

As we pointed out in our statement, too little attention is given to “incivility” and “bullying” as the cultural precipitant to gender-based violence.

The major difference between bullying and incivility lies in the intention behind the behaviours: bullying is intentional, aimed at a person or group whilst incivility is argued to be ambiguous in its intention.

 It is too easy to see both incivility and bullying as minor forms of abuse of women, but it is clear that incivility creates the sustained disrespect of women from birth to adulthood, it’s embedding in cultural imbalances of gender power, and the disproportionate power given to men.

One of the important issues in dealing with violence against women is the power that women need to influence policies.

As the concept note on the UN Secretary-General’s Campaign puts this: “Evidence demonstrates that the presence of a strong and autonomous feminist movement is the single most critical factor to drive policy change in ending violence against women and girls both in transnational contexts and in domestic policy making, signalling the importance of investing in women’s movement building.”

 RAU pointed out in a number of reports following the 2018 elections about the lack of effective power that women have in public life in Zimbabwe.

The failure by the major political parties to select women for directly contested parliamentary and council seats, and the appallingly low vote for women candidates meant that the much-touted increase in the gender composition in parliament was not actually matched by power in parliament.

In the deeply polarised political environment and the first-past-the post system in Zimbabwe, women elected on the gender quota will also be subject to the “whipping” system and at the mercy of the party line.

Since there is little interest generally by the political parties in policies that reflect women’s issues, the substantial addressing of the imbalance in political, economic, social, and cultural power, women in parliament remain in thrall to the issues that the dominant male constituency chooses to prioritise.

Here RAU has consistently argued for the need for a change to proportional representation (PR) to give real, not token effect to the constitutional requirement for 50/50 in everything.

What does this have to do with incivility and violence against women?

Women need the political power to undertake a birth-to-death transformation in gender power relations, and to create the policies that stretch from the home through the school and into the workplace to ensure that the “deep structure” of gender discrimination is removed.

Political power and gender power are inextricably linked and this is the task for an autonomous women’s movement: it is 365 days activism, as all women know daily.

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