Gender-based violence is the biggest pandemic of all

Violence against women and girls is a huge problem. Both in the Netherlands and abroad. One in every three women worldwide experiences physical or sexual violence. The Netherlands works around the globe to prevent and oppose gender-related violence. Youth ambassador Laura Bas talked about this issue with Renée Römkens, professor by special appointment of gender-based violence. ‘If this had been a disease, alarm bells would have been ringing long ago.'

Professor Renée Römkens at a training course for South Indian fisherwomen wanting to start their own business.

Renée works as a researcher in the field of violence against women. Laura is the Youth Ambassador for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, Gender Equality and Bodily Autonomy, appointed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the organisation CHOICE for Youth and Sexuality. ‘I grew up without a father, and my mother worked nearly full-time. Even as a child, I felt the stigma of that,’ Laura says. ‘I’m 25 now, but I see that things haven’t changed very much.’ It’s an issue that Renée is familiar with. She sees a huge divide here between research and society: ‘The knowledge that there is doesn’t seem to be getting through.’

Not just about violence against women

Renée defines gender-based violence as violent behaviour towards people who do not conform to the customary, traditional behaviour associated with femininity and masculinity. ‘In practice it’s often about women and girls, because they are most often the victims of violence.’ When the United Nations launched the term ‘gender-based violence’, it was synonymous with violence against women.

Gender-based violence takes different forms, including domestic violence, sexual violence, genital mutilation, human trafficking, and economic and psychological violence. It’s about more than violence in the strict physical sense. ‘It extends to the role that women occupy, socially and culturally speaking. So the term also covers efforts to keep women in their place, inferior to men.’

Men, too, are victims of gender-based violence, Laura emphasises. ‘The difference is that men don’t dare talk about it, because they feel they must adhere to masculine norms. Boys who tell their parents about being bullied are often told to hit the bully. And so the cycle of male aggression continues. I think we should educate boys – teach them that vulnerability can be a good thing.’

‘Members share nude pictures of women with the rest of the group – sometimes up to 50,000 men. The awful thing about it is that these men don’t think that they’re doing anything wrong.'

Cyberviolence

Another form of gender-based violence that is increasing sharply is cyberviolence: online intimidation and threats. It mainly affects women, but more and more boys are experiencing it too. Forms of violence are expanding. Renée doesn’t see much ground for optimism, either. ‘The public debate on the subject and the growth of national and international measures to counter the issue has not led to a reduction in violence.’

Intimidation is a big problem, Laura goes on to say, as shown by the ‘expose’ groups on the Telegram app, for instance. ‘Members share nude pictures of women with the rest of the group – sometimes up to 50,000 men. The awful thing about it is that these men don’t think that they’re doing anything wrong. They believe the victim had it coming, because they took these nudes in the first place.’ But they were originally shared in good faith – or under coercion. ‘This shows how serious the problem is. People just aren’t aware of the consequences.’

Pandemic

Renée quotes some shocking figures. ‘If we look at gender-based violence across the board, at least 50% of women will experience one or more forms of it in the course of their lives.’ That applies to women in the Netherlands and Europe, too. ‘Domestic violence is the most frequent form: worldwide, at least one third of women experience it. That’s an average. There are countries with much higher rates. Sexual violence is also a big problem. Figures show that, depending on the definition, between 33% and 50% of women experience it. You could rightly call it a pandemic.’

‘If this was a disease, alarm bells would have been ringing long ago. After all, it’s taking hundreds of thousands of lives a year. And that’s just the worst forms.’ The United Nations is also calling attention to the issue. The head of the UN, Antonío Guterres, recently stated that COVID-19 has led to a ‘shadow pandemic of violence’. ‘We are glad that our prime minister heard this, and has emphasised on international podia that this is a serious problem and requires more attention.’

Laura Bas at the one year event of Youth at Heart.

Role of government

There is some debate on whose responsibility it is to provide sex education. Some people think it’s a job for parents. Laura doesn’t agree. ‘Parents and other relatives don’t always have the right knowledge, which means they can pass on certain prejudices. As a government, you have an obligation to make sure that young people are properly equipped for life. You can only do that by taking control of information flows.’

That’s why one of Laura’s main goals is for young people to be given comprehensive sexuality education. ‘This includes looking at how people behave towards one another and how to deal with your own desires and boundaries, and those of others. At the moment, we still tend to teach boys from a young age that it’s macho and masculine to defend yourself.’

What is the government’s role in this? Renée believes that the Istanbul Convention provides a clear basis. It’s an important international human rights convention on gender-based violence, especially against women, and the Netherlands is among the countries that advised on it and signed it. ‘One of the things stressed in the Convention is that the government has an important tool at its disposal in the form of education. That’s something the Netherlands can profit from. I heartily endorse it to become an attainment target in Dutch education.’

New generation

Finally, looking at Laura’s generation, Renée is optimistic that social media can be effectively used to raise awareness of this issue. In her role as Youth Ambassador, Laura is extremely active on social media. ‘I see that lots of young people want to make their voices heard. Take Greta Thunberg,’ Laura says. ‘That’s why I’m so glad we could do a dual interview. I believe that we as the younger generation can only bring about change if we’re supported by the previous generation with all its knowledge.’ Renée agrees. ‘It’s about passing on the baton to the next generation and them being motivated to change things for the better. So I’m delighted by the passionate way you talk about the subject.’