The International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women

A look into the worldwide epidemic of violence against women and girls, how it happens and what help is available
25 November 2020
CW: Abuse TW: Domestic abuse, Violence

The issue of violence

It’s easy to forget how common domestic abuse is, that it doesn’t just happen in other countries or to someone else out there somewhere. Violence Against Women and Girls can happen to everyone, not because they are poor, uneducated, of a certain cultural or religious background. Worldwide, 30% of women who have been in a relationship report experiencing some form of physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner (WHO, 2017). If you have spoken with more than three women today, be it face-to-face or via Zoom, then the chances are you have spoken to a survivor of domestic abuse.

Perhaps one of the good things to come of the COVID-19 pandemic is that it has focussed the world’s attention on the issue. Repeatedly, data and reports from across the world have shown that all types of Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) increased during the lockdown, but that this was particularly true of domestic abuse. During lockdown the UN referred to VAWG as a shadow pandemic and here in the UK on 9 April 2020 Dame Vera Baird QC, Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales, described domestic abuse “as an epidemic within the pandemic”.

In the UK, there were sixteen domestic abuse killings of women and children between 23 March and 12 April 2020, the highest for at least 11 years. Similarly, calls and contacts to the UK national domestic abuse helpline were reported as 49% higher than average. Over a 24-hour period, traffic to its website increased by 700%.

Since 1981, the 25 November has marked the International Day of the Elimination of Violence Against Women - a date which was chosen to remember the brutal murders of the Mirabel sisters. The three sisters were political activists in the Dominican Republic, protesting against the “corrupt and tyrannical” regime of the Dictator Rafael Trujilln. Beaten to death in a cane field by Trujillo’s henchmen, a car accident was faked to explain their deaths. Known in their country as ‘The Butterflies’, the sisters have become symbols of democratic and feminist resistance.

But International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women isn’t just about one day. It is the beginning of 16 days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, which ends on the 10 December, the International Day for Human Rights. The intention is to have a symbolic link between the two, to emphasise that violence against women is a violation of human rights and that this form of abuse is unacceptable.

The sinister traits

Violence Against Women and Girls is not just physical or sexual and it doesn’t have to leave bruises and can take many forms. The Domestic Abuse Bill is currently on its second reading in the House of Lords and recognises that emotional, psychological and economic mistreatment also constitutes abuse. It doesn’t usually happen suddenly or necessarily come from out of the blue - sometimes the problem is that because we don’t know what it looks like, we don’t recognise the behaviour as abuse until it leaves a physical mark or injury.

Standard tactics used by perpetrators include isolating their partner from family or friends. This is usually subtle at the start - it's not that he doesn’t want her to see anyone else, but it’s because he loves her so much that he can’t bear to be without her. It is very common in relationships to want to spend all your time together, especially at the start. Most, if not all of us understand how nice it is to the centre of his attention; his dedication and unfaltering devotion can be flattering, comforting and a safe place to be.

But typically, over time in an abusive heterosexual relationship, he’ll still want to be with her, but it’s stopped being nice when he’s around. He might persuade her to stay at home or insist that she must, but then he’ll ignore her, be rude or go on himself with his mates. One day she’ll realise that it's been so long since she last saw your mates it's too awkward to get in touch. Or perhaps he’s fallen out with all her friends and it’s too embarrassing to reach out, or maybe, just maybe she's too scared of the consequences if he finds out she's called.

Sometimes an abusive partner will control how much money she has, decide how much she needs to live on, or make it difficult or impossible to hold down a job. If she is financially independent there is a risk, he could undermine this through other forms of economic abuse. For example, he might take out a loan in her name or access her personal bank accounts and spend her money without her permission or knowledge.

Usually, abusers will try to undermine their partner, call her names, make out she’s ugly, stupid, boring wherever her insecurities lie. Because she loves him and trusted him, he knows her vulnerabilities and triggers, so he knows when and how to provoke her and when and how to hurt her. He might make threats, to harm her, himself or others, make out the abuse is nothing important, that she has exaggerating or even to blame for what he has done. Isolated from her friends and family, this emotional abuse goes unchecked, and there’s no yardstick against which to measure it, no-one to tell you that this isn’t right.

There is a danger that women in this situation subconsciously take on board the faults he finds, internalise the abuse and start to believe the criticisms made of them. Who wouldn’t if it’s what you hear every day? As your self-esteem and confidence plummet, the power he wields over you grows and you become a shadow of your former self. This behaviour is not acceptable - it is never your fault or responsibility.

You are never alone

What people (friends, family, professionals and the woman herself) tend to forget is how resourceful survivors can be. More often than not, they have learnt to manage the abuse, they know when to speak and when to stay quiet, they know when to reason and when to give in.

If any of you have or are experiencing any of this, remember you are strong, and you are brave, and it is not your fault. Help is available and you will know when it is safe to ask for it. The numbers provided below are to resources where people will understand what you are going through, they will believe you and they will work with you to help you stay safe.

Support is available from:

National Domestic Abuse Helpline - 0808 2000 247 - Free 24/7

Women's Aid - offers support via email, forums and online chat which can be accessed here. There is also specific guidance and resources for COVID-19 here.

RESPECT's webpage for men and women who abuse; or call: 0808 8024040

Surviving Economic Abuse

Report and Support webpage 

Dr Tirion Havard and Brendan Conlan