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Defining Violence Against Women

JDI looks to national and international movements for leadership on addressing violence against women as a human rights abuse.  Through various international conventions, legal instruments, administrations, and systems, a definition of violence against women has emerged. While the language might be different, the essence is the same: violence against women is a tool for undermining the rights and liberties of women and girls around the globe. Check out what the United Nations and the World Health Organization have to say.

The United Nations General Assembly defines “violence against women” as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or mental harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.” The 1993 Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women noted that this violence could be perpetrated by assailants of either gender, family members and even the “State” itself.

The UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women states that "violence against women is a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women, which have led to domination over and discrimination against women by men and to the prevention of the full advancement of women, and that violence against women is one of the crucial social mechanisms by which women are forced into a subordinate position compared with men.”

The World Health Organization reports that “Violence against women and girls is one of the most widespread violations of human rights. It can include physical, sexual, psychological, and economic abuse, and it cuts across boundaries of age, race, culture, wealth, and geography. It takes place in the home, on the streets, in schools, the workplace, in farm fields, refugee camps, during conflicts and crises. It has many manifestations — from the most universally prevalent forms of domestic and sexual violence, to harmful practices, abuse during pregnancy, so-called honour killings and other types of femicide.”

The United Nations Population Fund describes "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. Any one of these abuses can leave deep psychological scars, damage the health of women and girls in general, including their reproductive and sexual health, and in some instances, results in death.

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Read our latest newsletter: February 2017.

Meet the Jane Doe Inc. Team

"The staff at Jane Doe Inc. is privileged to work with our membership to elevate awareness about and to correct social injustices, to eliminate structural barriers to ending sexual and domestic violence, and to promote safety and justice for everyone." ~ Debra Robbin, Executive Director

Violence Against Women

When an estimated one of every three women in the world will be beaten, raped, or otherwise abused during her lifetime, the safety of all women and the stability of their families and communities are put at risk. Violence against women, sometimes also referred to as gender-based violence, specifically perpetuates male power and control, either by intention or effect. Violence against women is sustained by a culture of silence and denial of the seriousness of the abuse, its consequences on the personal and social level, and its use as a tool of domination. Ultimately, violence against women is a human rights violation that creates obstacles to efforts for peace and gender equality in the United States and around the world.

By adopting a human rights and gender analysis of sexual and domestic violence, JDI stands for more than an end to individual instances of violence. We are working toward a world without gender inequity on a personal, community, institutional, and societal level. This requires us to look to the margins to identify victims, members, advocates, communities, and populations that may be underrepresented, overlooked, disenfranchised, or otherwise made invisible.

It also means that we take an expansive view of violence, from physical and sexual to economic and political. Using a violence against women lens helps us understand the impact of sexual and domestic violence not only on individual victims, but also on their children, family members, friends, neighborhoods, communities, and entire countries.

JDI continues to focus on the foundational needs of human rights, safety, and liberty in our aim to create effective solutions that truly meet the complex needs of survivors/victims and their families. With our membership and others partners, we address the systemic, structural, and societal factors that foster violence against women and sexual and domestic violence against anyone.

History of violence against women and the movement to stop it

Violence has been and continues to be a tactic used to target a specific group to maintain the status quo and enforce domination of one group over another. Around the world, the term “violence against women” is used to refer collectively to violent acts that are primarily or exclusively committed against women. The legacy of violence against women is tied to the history of women being viewed as property and assigned a gender role that is subservient to men and also other women. (3) 

This violence is perpetuated, fostered, and tolerated by institutional practices and social norms (values). For instance, a look at the legal system reveals some of the ways that violence against women has been institutionalized. It was not until the 1870s that courts in the United States stopped recognizing the common-law principle that a husband had the right to “physically chastise an errant wife”.6 In the United Kingdom, the traditional right of a husband to inflict moderate corporal punishment on his wife in order to keep her “within the bounds of duty” was removed in 1891.78 In the more recent past, until 1976, marital rape was legal in every state in the United States. Today, very few reports of rape end in a conviction of rape and many victims face barriers in terms of time and the difficulty of the process when attempting to utilize the criminal justice system to seek accountability.

It wasn’t until the early 1970’s that women first organized take back the night marches and formed rape crisis centers and battered women’s programs and shelters. By naming these crimes, these activists exposed the violence that had been relegated to secrecy and too often seen as normal.

The anti-violence against women movement grew out of the bravery, resilience, and hope of survivors and the compassion and the dedication of advocates working beside them. When women shared their stories with one another, they were able to name the issues and realize they were not alone. Over the past forty-plus years, the movement has evolved as we continue to listen to the voices of victims and survivors everywhere. We’ve learned that the experience of violence is both different and the same for women of color, for lesbians, for gay men, and for straight men. We’ve learned how people who have physical and cognitive disabilities, live in rural communities, come to this country as immigrants and refugees, or experience poverty, are at more risk for abuse and have a harder time accessing services and support.

In recent years, sexual and domestic violence organizations such as JDI have reinvigorated their efforts to prevent violence against women.

Together with our member programs, we recognize that ending gender-based violence will mean changing cultural concepts about masculinity, and that process must actively engage men, whether they be policy makers, parents, spouses, or young boys.

Gender-Based Violence Analysis

In the case of violence against women, women are targeted because of their gender. People who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer and transgender (LGBQ/T) are targeted because they challenge gender norms and roles. Another way of looking at this is that because of their position in society, women in general and people who are LGBQ/T in particular face increased vulnerability for violence. Naming violence against women does not negate the experience of male or LGBQ/T victims and survivors of sexual and domestic violence. It offers a framework for understanding that these acts are strategies to keep people in their socially-prescribed gender roles.

The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that more than 90% of all domestic violence victims are female and that most abusers are male. Other studies show that one in seven adult women and one in thirty-three adult men will be raped in their lifetime; in most cases, the offenders are also male.

It is important to recognize violence against women and also acknowledge that women are not the only ones impacted by sexual and domestic violence. Men and boys are impacted as victims, as perpetrators, and as friends, family and community members.

Impact around the world and here in Massachusetts

The World Health Organization (WHO) states that “Violence against women and girls is one of the most widespread violations of human rights.” In describing the world-wide impact of violence against women, WHO reports that violence against women puts an undue burden on health care services with women who have suffered violence being more likely to need health services and at higher cost, compared to women who have not suffered violence.(9) Several studies have shown a link between poor treatment of women and international violence. These studies show that one of the best predictors of inter- and intranational violence is the maltreatment of women in the society.(10)


The violence against women movement is about liberty, dignity, and justice. It’s not only about ending violence. It’s about understanding that the violence will only end when we’ve ended sexism, racism, classism, heterosexism, ableism, and other oppressions.

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