Revisiting Traditional Approaches to Gender Violence

By Martha Albertson Fineman

Martha FinemanThe conference Violence and Vulnerability, cosponsored by the Institute for Developing Nations, will be held November 13 to 14, 2009.

Violence against women is understood as a global phenomenon. According to the United Nations Population Fund: “Gender-based violence both reflects and reinforces inequities between men and women and compromises the health, dignity, security and autonomy of its victims. It encompasses a wide range of human rights violations, including sexual abuse of children, rape, domestic violence, sexual assault and harassment, trafficking of women and girls and several harmful traditional practices.”

As this quote suggests, the use of the word gender to modify violence tends to channel discussion into an individualistic, legalistic mode, emphasizing victimization and the abuse of women by men. Thus, most of the work on gender violence has focused on the law, improving the security sector, and finding forms of punishment that will deter violence. Although this pattern of male on female violence is prevalent, it does not exhaust the full range of our collective and universal vulnerability to violence. In particular, this focus excludes the significant violence that can be perpetrated by the state and its institutions on both men and women. It also fails to realize that criminal and human rights laws built around the principle of punishment can provide only a partial, often ineffective, response to violence in its many and varied manifestations.

what can we learnThe phenomenon of gender-based violence also transcends dichotomous categories often used to characterize states (such as “developed” or “developing,” or “strong” and “unstable”) and it also transcends recognized cultural divisions (such as religious or cultural and ethnic traditions). Even though violence against women may be “universal” in this regard, we can learn a great deal from exploring how violence is perpetrated, justified, and addressed across different societies and within distinct legal and political cultures. How does gendered violence manifest itself differently in different cultural contexts? What can we learn from looking at gender-based violence (broadly conceived) in cultures that are very different in terms of religious traditions, economic status, and legal frameworks for gender equality? How do different states and civil society respond to gender violence and what are the effective methods that can transfer well to other societies?

This conference is designed to break open the traditional approaches to gender violence and to consider how violence in various forms is experienced across society and its institutions. The organizers begin with the premise that we need a better and more complex understanding of the relationship between individual and collective acts of violence and the organization of societies. We are concerned with how the state acts in conjunction with religious, cultural, social, and economic institutions both to alleviate and perpetuate the vulnerability of individuals to violence. What is the relationship between institutional arrangements and instances of violence? We are particularly interested in comparing the different approaches of these institutions and exploring the diverse perspectives on violence reflected in disciplines such as law, medicine, public health, anthropology, political science, ethics, and religion.

In addition, we are interested in considering what are the best ways to approach the widespread societal problem of violence in its various forms. Are there benefits to asking how and why violence happens from a societal, rather than an individual, criminal justice perspective? How would a society designed to eliminate domestic violence look? How can we distinguish the “domestic” from the public manifestations of violence and what are the consequences of doing so? What are the various forms of “public” violence and how do they interact with violence in its “private” forms? What are the responsibilities of society and its institutions—including religious, cultural, and educational institutions—to prevent violence? Are there ways in which these same institutions are implicated in fostering violence? 

Scholars, activists, and practitioners will gather to consider these and other questions in a conference that will begin with a luncheon on Friday, November 13, and conclude the afternoon of Saturday, November 14. The final schedule of speakers and the registration material will be available on the websites of the Feminism and Legal Theory Project, the Institute for Developing Nations, and the Race and Difference Initiative in early September.

Martha Albertson Fineman is a leading authority on gender, comparative and family law, and feminist legal theory. She is the founding director of the interdisciplinary Feminism and Legal Theory Project. IAs an aspect of her co-leadership role in Emory’s Race and Difference Initiative, she recently has been developing the concept of “vulnerability” as the basis for calling for state policies more responsive to social inequality.