Last Sunday marked the start of #16days of Activism, a global campaign against gender-based violence. Championed by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, UN Women, and many other groups, the campaign is designed to generate momentum towards eliminating the pervasiveness of all forms of gendered violence, including the physical and sexual violence that one-third of women across the globe will be subjected to in their lifetime.
This campaign comes at a time when thousands of Central American migrants are attempting to cross the US-Mexico border, where they have been met by militarized border police and tear gas. These refugees are fleeing from myriad forms of violence—including forcible recruitment to gangs, targeted assassinations, and widespread abuse and sexual violence from community members, security forces, and intimate partners alike. Many have continued to face tremendous levels of violence along their route to the US from smugglers, other migrants, or government officials—women in particular face gender-based abuse in transit or upon arrival, including high rates of sexual assault.
Under the Obama administration, those fleeing from gangs or domestic violence had standing to seek asylum in the US. In June of this year, however, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions overturned this precedent by stating, “claims by aliens pertaining to domestic violence or gang violence perpetrated by nongovernmental actors will not qualify for asylum.” This means that many of the refugees fleeing life-or-death situations will face an uphill battle to find refuge in the US.
Sessions’ ruling reinforces a common but false separation between “political” and “private” violence, one which contends that domestic violence belongs in the realm of the personal and everyday, and as such does not deserve protection under international law. This false division creates deeply troubling hierarchies of victimhood—a woman raped by an enemy during war is seen as “grievable,” while one raped by a boyfriend or beaten by a father less so.
Critically, this separation obscures the shared patriarchal and militarist forces driving all forms of violence. Such a simplification views domestic violence as an issue to be remedied through the better behavior of husbands, fathers, and other family members; through legal provisions that deter potential perpetrators; though institutions that provide protection for victims; through justice and reparations for survivors. But the origins of such “private” violence do not lie solely with the male perpetrator: they lie instead in a web of structural and political factors that shape and perpetuate the oppression of women, which must be unraveled to remedy the harm.
What is at the root of violence against women and girls, and gendered-based violence more broadly? Feminist scholars have long shown that intimate partner or family violence is, at its most simple, a result of unequal relations of power. The greater gender inequality within a relationship or family structure, the more likely that dominant parties will use force or discipline to enforce gender norms. Violence becomes an expression of masculinity that is deployed in the service of disciplining these norms.
But we can only understand gendered violence if we break down the false binary between “private” and “political” violence and think about unequal relations of power more broadly. Between men and women, yes, but also between the rich and the poor; between white bodies and brown bodies; between sovereign states and what Mahmood Mamdani has called “trusteeship territories”; between colonial regimes and the colonized.
Asymmetrical relations of power between the US and Central American regimes are at the root of the violence driving so many to flee and seek refuge—it was US support for El Salvador’s right-wing political establishment, for example, that fueled the bloody war in the 1980s that left 75,000 dead and caused tens of thousands to flee to safety in the US, where—upon losing their temporary protected status in the 1990s—they were deported back to El Salvador and subjected to widespread economic devastation and insecurity linked to neoliberal economic policies, catalyzing the formation of the gangs driving people to flee to the US today.
Feminist groups and champions of the #16days campaign call for attention to gendered violence at a moment when women’s rights are under attack. Beyond Sessions’ ruling to eradicate domestic violence as a legitimate grounds for asylum, the Trump administration is more broadly deliberately erasing references to gender based violence—the 2017 US State Department Human Rights reports, for instance, included 32% fewer references to women’s rights and issues than the comparable 2016 reports under Obama.
To push back on these erasures and to truly make progress towards ending violence against women will require eradicating the false separation between personal and political violence. During #16days, I am eager for our conversations to move past demands for accountability or reparations for gendered-based crimes; beyond telling stories of personal violence and advocating for enhancing the rule of law—though all of these things are essential.
Instead, we need to center an understanding of violence as a continuum that stretches between war and peace, across battlefields and streets and homes, and which cannot be eradicated in one sphere without looking at how it thrives in other spheres. The same patriarchal power relations that facilitate domestic violence also facilitate armed conflict and war, which in turn fortify the militarized and chauvinistic masculinities that perpetrate domestic violence. It is in breaking down broader systems of oppression—in fundamentally challenging and dismantling the imperial, patriarchal militarism that characterizes our global system—that we stand a chance of eliminating violence against women.