The conducive context of violence against women and girls

The conducive context of violence against women and girls

Liz Kelly

As a sociologist the contexts in which events take place have always been a touchstone in my thinking.  With respect to violence against women and girls one of the earliest insights from feminist research was the challenge the notion of the home/family as a safe place, a ‘haven in a heartless world’.  The family turned out to be an extremely unsafe space for women and children.

Theorising about contexts became more significant when successive United Nations, and therefore globally influential, definitions of violence against women conflated forms of violence and the contexts in which they take place.  This much cited descriptive definition is contained in the 1993 Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women:

(a) Physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring in the family, including battering, sexual abuse of female children in the household, dowry-related violence, marital rape, female genital mutilation and other traditional practices harmful to women, non-spousal violence and violence related to exploitation; (b) Physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring within the general community, including rape, sexual abuse, sexual harassment and intimidation at work, in educational institutions and elsewhere, trafficking in women and forced prostitution;  (c) Physical, sexual and psychological violence perpetrated or condoned by the State, wherever it occurs. 

The elisions that take place here are unhelpful, serving to disguise the ways forms of violence traverse contexts: sexual abuse of girls can take place in and outside the family; rape in households is not limited to those that take place in the context of marriage; family members may be involved in sexual exploitation and trafficking.  In teaching, I began to encourage students to separate forms and contexts and to explore what makes some contexts more conducive.

The actual concept of a ‘conducive context’ was formulated when undertaking research in Central Asia on trafficking.  We travelled by car from Tashkent to Samarkand, past huge tracts of empty fields and through villages where the ‘labour market’ was crowds of men and women standing by side of the road.  When a truck stopped people literally threw themselves on it to gain access to whatever work was on offer.  The title of that report, ‘Fertile Fields’, referred to legacies of Soviet centralised control – the under-used land, unemployed adults with no sustainable livelihood – and argued that these constituted a conducive context for trafficking and exploitation.  This analytic lens also clarified that no amount of ‘awareness raising’ would dissuade desperate people from risking their lives and freedom.  Rather than focusing, as much anti-trafficking prevention does, on the supposed naivety of individuals and the unscrupulous individuals and networks who are hidden under the concept of ‘organised crime’, it was necessary to analyse and understand the interconnecting social, political and economic conditions within which exploitative operators profit from the misfortunes of others.

Conducive contexts
Feminists have long noted that certain contexts are conducive to VAW: the family; institutions; conflict and transition; public space and more recently online environments.  What is less common is exploration, at a theoretical level, of what connects them, what makes these spaces ones in which men are enabled to abuse women and girls.

The analysis of the family focused on the convergence of layers of power and authority – as fathers and heads of households – which accorded men status and an expectation of control over women and children.  An expectation that, combined with the notion of the family as a private space, which theoretically, should be beyond the reach of the State.  Thus we have institutionalised power and authority that creates a sense of entitlement, to which there was, and arguably still is, limited external challenge.  Other conducive contexts where these conditions apply include residential and locked institutions: children’s homes, mental hospitals, prisons, police stations have all been identified as spaces in which violence is commonplace and is all too often tolerated.  Institutionalised gendered power relations can also be identified in educational institutions, faith organisations and workplaces: all are contexts where men’s status and authority, rather than inducing an ethic of care, can be used by abusive men to intimidate and silence.

Not all conducive contexts fit this model, however, there are a number where the usual hierarchies of gender are in flux, jeopardy or transition.  Here conflict, dislocation and migration constitute contexts in which the vulnerability of women and girls is accentuated by external conditions over which they have little if any control.

Jackie Turner (2013) has developed this analytical frame with respect to trafficking, noting that in international human rights thinking women’s vulnerability derives from their subordinate status in gender orders (Connell, 2009).  They are, in turn, disproportionately affected by conflict, economic crises and the deepened inequalities heralded by globalisation.  At the same time women migrants have fewer options for legal migration and are thus more reliant on the irregular routes controlled by smugglers and traffickers.  In failing to analyse this wider context

… critical connections are lost, not just between international and domestic trafficking, but also between intersecting structural and systemic discriminations which render some women more vulnerable to trafficking than others… It removes violence from the among the ‘push’ factors and conceals its role in how, within the trafficking process, push and pull factors graft onto one another to create ‘the fertile field’ or conducive contexts in which some women are driven, and others exercise what choice they have, to leave their homes, by whatever means, and to seek survival and sustainable livelihoods elsewhere (p64).

The conducive context here includes localised gender orders which govern women’s mobility and labour, at the same time as building gendered and racialised constructs of victimhood which constrict women’s ‘space for action’ (Kelly 2007: 89).

That sexual violence takes place during conflict has long been recognised, and is increasingly documented. The work of Elizabeth Wood (2009) has challenged the assumption that it is ubiquitous.  She offers a more complex analysis of what makes conflict situations conducive to sexual violence, noting that if it is not inevitable there is even more reason to hold those who perpetrate it to account.  Whilst brutalised military masculinities are a foundation, they are in her view an insufficient explanation, since there are often multiple modalities of power at play in conflict situations.   In some sexual violence is authorised from the top, in others it becomes part of the ‘repertoires of violence’ of smaller groups of men and here the reach of military and state control, and whether there is a sense of impunity, play a role in determining  in which conflicts and which locations sexual violence becomes embedded.

Each of these analyses offers more complex theoretical frameworks for understanding why specific forms of violence are more or less common in specific contexts.  In turn they alert us to the conditions which need to change if they VAW to be prevented.

The connections to intersectionality
In her ground-breaking paper Kimbele Crenshaw connected violence against women to intersectional analysis.

… [t]hese roads are seen as separate and unconnected but in fact they meet, cross over and overlap, forming complex intersections. Women who are marginalized by their sex, race, ethnicity, or other factors are located at these intersections. The intersections are dangerous places for women who must negotiate the constant “traffic” through them “to avoid injury and to obtain the resources for the normal activities of life” (Crenshaw 1991: 1241).

Being located at an intersection, in a matrix of domination (Hill Collins, 2000) is a conducive context for both experiencing violence and having fewer resources to deal with its aftermath.  As research becomes more sophisticated and global in reach, it is clear that rates of violence are not consistent across social groups, or between societies.  Heightened rates of violence are more common for women of colour, and especially Aboriginal women (Tjaden and Thoennes, 2000).  Research is also drawing attention to the intersection of material and emotional disadvantage with increased burdens in coping with violence: Ava Kanyeredzi (2013) shows this to be the case for African Caribbean heritage women.  Recent work on child sexual exploitation (Beckett et al., 2013) suggests that class stereotypes result in girls as young as 13 being deemed by professionals to be ‘choosing’ a lifestyle of exchanging sex for money and material goods: they are thus abandoned to ongoing and repeated abuse.

Contexts conducive to undoing harms
As I write this I find myself thinking about what contexts might be conducive to mitigating the many harms of violence and abuse. Philosopher Susan Brison’s book Aftermath (2002) offers both a personal and intellectual engagement with what it means to be a survivor.  The book charts her own process of negotiating the aftermath of a brutal stranger rape and how reflecting on this changed her approach to theories of the self.

I develop and defend a view of the self as fundamentally relational – capable of being undone by violence, but also of being remade in connection with others (pxi).

Brison’s assertion that the self can be ‘remade in connection to others’ echoes the practice of feminist specialist violence against women services.  Theirs is not a medical model of ‘recovery’ as in ‘return to normal’, but a joint exploration of how violence changes a woman’s life, sense of self and relations to others and how they may wish to ‘remake’ themselves as a consequence.

The conducive context concept, therefore, opens out analysis of the spaces in which violence is most commonly encountered by women and girls: spaces in which forms of gendered power and authority and matrices of domination are in play.  These must be addressed if prevention is to move beyond individuals.  It also enables us to identify contexts which are conducive to undoing some of harms of abuse.

Beckett, H et al (2013) ‘It’s wrong, but you get used to it’: A qualitative study of gang associated sexual violence towards, and exploitation of, young people in England.  London Office of the Children’s Commissioner.
Brison, S (2002) Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of a Self. Princeton, Princeton University Press.
Connell, R. W. (2009) Gender (2nd edition). Cambridge, Polity Press.
Crenshaw, K. (1991) ‘Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color’, Stanford Law Review, 43(6): 1241-1299.
Hill Collins, P (2000) Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. New York, Routledge.
Kanyeredzi, A. (2013) ‘Finding a voice: African and Caribbean heritage women help seeking’, in Rehman, Y., Kelly, L. & Siddiqui, H. (eds), Moving in the Shadows: Violence in the Lives of Minority Women and Children.  London, Ashgate.
Kelly L. (2007) ‘A conducive context: trafficking of persons in Central Asia’, in M. Lee (ed) Human Trafficking. Cullompton: Willan Publishing.
Tjaden, P and Thoennes,  N (2000) Full Report of the Prevlaence, Incidence and consequences of Violence Against Women.  Washington DC, Department of Justice.
Turner, J (2013) ‘Violent intersections: re-visiting the traffic in women and girls’. in Rehman, Y., Kelly, L .& Siddiqui, H. (eds) Moving in the Shadows: Violence in the Lives of Minority Women and Children.  London, Ashgate. Pp59-76.
Wood, E. (2009) ‘Armed Groups and Sexual Violence: When Is Wartime Rape Rare?’, Politics & Society,  37(1): 131-161


Liz Kelly  is Director of the Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit at London Metropolitan University and she holds the Roddick Chair on Violence Against Women.  She is also co-chair of the End Violence Against Women Coalition, a unique linkage of specialised women’s services, academics and human rights organisations.  CWASU endeavours to create useful knowledge that speaks to diverse audiences: survivors, activists, practitioners and policy makers.