Family Planning, U.S. Foreign Assistance

Gender-based violence and the U.S. presidential race – what is the connection?

As we near the end of a long presidential race in the United States, there are still many policy issues to discuss.   Those working on the many aspects of sexual reproductive health and rights (SRHR) are following the campaign carefully and discussing positions passionately.

This post is not about who to vote for in the presidential race or to weigh in on candidates’ policy positions related to SRHR – it is to comment on an aspect of the race that is central to our work that I think has been lost in the dialogue.  I am commenting on this based on more than 20 years working on and writing about gender issues related to SRHR.

Gender-based violence (GBV) is one of the most insidious outcomes of gender inequity and while men and boys can be subject to GBV, by and large it is perpetuated on women and girls.  The roots of gender-based violence include gender norms that can result in women being valued less in society than men and turn them into  sexual objects to be controlled by men.  When we think of GBV, physical violence first comes to mind, particularly violence inflicted by intimate partners. A multi-country study by the World Health Organization (WHO) found that about one in three women experience some form of violence in their lifetime.

Physical violence is not the only form of gender-based violence,
though, and that is where I think the U.S. presidential election comes
in. According to the UN General Assembly in 1993,
gender-based violence is “any act of violence that results in, or is
likely to result in, physical, sexual, or psychological harm or
suffering for women, including threats of such acts, coercion, or
arbitrary deprivations of liberty, whether occurring in public or
private life.” From my perspective, while they have not, thank
goodness, been subject to physical sexual assault, the female
candidates in the race from both the Democratic and Republican parties
have been subject to gender-based psychological abuse.

Let me give some examples. Recall the nut cracker dolls, used to make
fun of Hillary Clinton as a strong woman? I see that as linked to
gender norms suggesting that men are strong and women are supposed to
be weak.   And that rap song about Hillary the Ho’? A demeaning song
to “put that b*tch in her place.”

Sarah Palin has also been subject to gender-based psychological abuse,
in my opinion and based on my professional experience working on gender
issues. There are pictures on the internet of young women and men
wearing “Sarah is a C*nt” t-shirts. Some find it amusing that porno
movies are being made with Palin’s face superimposed on another woman’s
body. The comedian Sandra Bernhard, in an act at a local venue in
September, said that if Sarah Palin came to Manhattan, she should be
gang raped by a group of black men. You can catch that class act that
manages to be both sexist and racist on YouTube. Remember that line
about why women “deserve” to be raped? So, too, some people are saying
that the way Palin dresses and winks somehow justifies the
psychological attacks. These examples, to me, fit the internationally
agreed upon definition of gender-based violence listed above.

Yes, I know, all’s supposed to be fair in politics, but, to me, the
tone of the discourse around gender this political season has been
destructive and damaging to society as a whole. And to see women
heaping abuse on other women makes it all the more poignant to me.  So,
my plea to others working on SRHR, is that no matter what you think of
their policies and positions on issues, please don’t condone
gender-based assaults on candidates. They don’t deserve it any more
than you, your sister, your daughter or your mother would.

8 Responses to “Gender-based violence and the U.S. presidential race – what is the connection?”

  1. anonymous

    While I agree that this campaign season has been filled with sexism, it is a stretch to categorize the comments of pundits and comedians as gender-based violence (for completion of the UN definition quoted in the blog, see Art. 2 of the same resolution).
    Sandra Bernhard’s comment is offensive, but so is the choosing of Palin as a vice presidential candidate to capture the interest of female Hilary supporters. Instead of picking at random media quips, we should be spending our time rallying against an entire political party’s belief that any woman- regardless of intelligence, ideology, or job qualifications- will do for the female voters of America.
    No woman should be objectified, and this campaign has made clear how far we still have to go in obtaining women’s equality in the U.S. But to label what has happened to Palin and Clinton over the past months as gender based violence demeans the experiences of women who have been the victims of actual gender based violence- whether physical or psychological. And, as the blogger says, our mothers, sisters and daughters deserve better than that.

  2. Béatrice

    I am happy to see this central issue treated in a non partisan way. These questions are important to all of us, men or women and they deserve a better treatment than being reduced to party line politics only.

    Being aware that European feminism and American feminism differ on many points, my intention is not to provoke anyone but to offer a different perspective.

    I would strongly disagree with the previous commentator saying “While offensive language should be a concern, it should in no way become a priority.” Physical and verbal violence are intrinsically linked and cannot be separated from one another. Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin might well be strong women, but the effects of the attacks go far beyond theoretical considerations of gender construction. Gender construction is much more than a theoretical concept to be studied by the academic world; it is a pervasive mental frame that manifests itself in all aspects of everyday life. Our actions are directly derived from the way we have internalized the gender dichotomies and gender-based violence might it be verbal or physical is a direct product of it. I don’t know whether verbal violence fits within the United Nation’s definitions of violence but tackling verbal violence is in my view the only way to get at the causes of physical violence.

    I would also disagree with the statement that Palin’s campaign is fundamentally anti-women. Her program reflects certain values that are respectable as such even if one does not share them. Some would see them as anti-women; some would not, depending on the set of one’s core values. Regardless of these, it is the translation of these values into a political program that is, in my opinion, highly problematic. It implies the intention of imposing these values on those who don’t share them. As long as a large proportion of the people disagree with these, imposing them by the rule of law is undemocratic. If democracy is about the desire to make people with widely different views coexist peacefully thanks to set of common shared values, Palin’s campaign reflects a distorted view of what democracy is.

    I have been very surprised by attacks on Palin’s private life implying that having 5 children; the last one with specials needs would disqualify her for running as a president and would reflect bad judgment. If any judgment had to be made, I would say that her ability to juggle between a career as a successful governor and her role as a mother makes her on the contrary very well equipped for the multitasking character of the presidential role.

    However, I find these considerations out of place. Her choices of the number of children she wishes to have as well as the timing for having them are highly private ones and are totally irrelevant for judging her ability of being president. The intertwining between the private and the political sphere is doomed to produce divisions among citizens and to empty from its very substance the concept of democracy.

    It is exactly this mix between private beliefs and political programs and its non-inclusive character that makes me condemn Palin’s political message as non-democratic. I personally don’t share her beliefs and the implementation of her program can in my view potentially harm not only women but society as whole — women, men and children equally. The main problem about Palin’s political campaign is however not that it is anti-women or that it is harmful for both women and men, its main problem is that it reflects a distorted view of democracy that disqualifies her for being vice-president.

  3. Steven Earl Salmony

    Recognizing that which is a product of arrogance and also shameful behavior.

    Our lexicon of business activities is being expanded daily, thanks to the “wonder boys” on Wall Street. We are learning about derivatives, collateralized debt obligations, credit default swaps, recapitalization, puts, short selling and so on. We are gaining a new vocabulary from the recent meltdown of the financial system and expected slowdown of the real economy worldwide.

    Where did this debacle begin? Well, it began in the center of human community’s banking and investment houses in the financial district of NYC. Supposedly, the “brightest and best” among us go to Wall Street, know what they are doing and do the right thing. Unfortunately, such assumptions turn out to be colossal mistakes.

    How did this calamity occur and why is the human family in such dire economic straits? It appears that grotesque greed and a culture of corruption have come to dominate significant operating systems of the global political economy.

    Powerful people in high offices within huge business institutions with access to great wealth are recklessly and deleteriously manipulating the unbridled expansion of the global economy in the small, finite planetary home God blesses us to inhabit.

    Self-proclaimed Masters of the Universe have surreptitiously “manufactured” a sub prime “asset bubble” and perversely fostered its uneconomic growth within the world economy. Not unexpectedly, this asset bubble did what bubbles do. The sub prime bubble burst and made a mess. Global credit markets have frozen, stock prices are tumbling and the value of the dollar is gyrating.

    Evidently organizers, managers and whiz kids overseeing the global economy, and the unraveling {ie, deleveraging} of the worldwide sub prime swindle, are running the artificially designed financial system of the global economy as a pyramid scheme. This is to say that the international financial system is being operated so that most of the wealth funneled pyramidally into the hands of a small minority of people at the top of the world economy where this wealth is accumulated and consolidated. Note that thirty percent of annual corporate profits end up in the accounts of a tiny number of people. At the same time, the vast majority of people on Earth, near the bottom of the global economic pyramid, are left with very little wealth. Does the economy of the family of humanity exist primarily to provide wealth to the already stupendously wealthy? The “bankstas” among us evidently think so.

    In the 1980s, this extremely inequitable method of distributing wealth and arranging business activities was called a “trickle down” economy. We have been repeatedly told how this ‘rational’ economic scheme is good because it “raises all ships.” And yet, from my limited scope of observation, the billion people living on resources valued at less than one dollar per day and the additional 2.7 billion people being sustained on two dollars per day of resources now appear to be stuck in squalid conditions. The ‘ships’ carrying these billions of less fortunate people {ie, more people than lived on Earth in the year of my birth} do not appear to be lifting them out of poverty.

    Steven Earl Salmony
    AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population, established 2001

  4. MWL

    While I respect the perspective of this blog, by invoking ‘gender violence,’ the author is distracting and deflecting attention from a platform that is is much more destructive to our society and places women in much greater danger of violence than any shirt with an offensive word upon it.

    It is precisely Sarah Palin’s views on sexual education and reproductive rights that make her such a viable and potentially game changing threat to the heath and physical, sexual, and psychological well being of women across this nation and abroad. Rather than dealing with the tangible issues of governmental policy that will have a direct effect on people’s lives, messages like the above take attention away from institutional and structural forms of gender discrimination and limits on health and direct attention towards individual words and hurt feelings, which mask a conservative anti-women’s rights agenda.

    In my mind, this reading of the General Assembly’s definition does not keep with the spirit or intention of the United Nations. I look specifically to the UNFPA’s issue statement on gender based violence for further clarification: In its statement, the UNFPA asserts that gender based violence, “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.” This is an opinion derived from Article 2 of the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, cited in the original post.

    In that way, it is my understanding that the UNs application of the definition of gender based violence was not meant to be a catch all for all gender based offensive language or actions. The existence of harm or suffering as a result of gender based violence is the key criteria for the application of the United Nation’s definition. Therefore, we must see actual effects of the abuses, before we can term them violence in the sense of the United Nation’s definition. It is unclear the suffering or harm that the language of the current campaign has had on the the lives or liberties of Sarah Palin or Hillary Clinton. The cases of psychological abuse cited above were made by fringe elements in American society. Photoshopped pictures on the internet, Sandra Bernhardt, rap lyrics, and dolls have a far less potent effect on the lives of American women than restricted access to health care or sexual abuse resources. It is these acts of coercion and arbitrary deprivations of liberty, which should be the fundamental priority of domestic and international reproductive organizations.

    Further, the UNFPA draws clear and direct relationships between gender based violence and its effects on women’s reproductive rights. Among the effects it includes: “Unwanted pregnancies and restricted access to family planning information and contraceptives.” In this way the doctrine of the McCain/Palin administration on reproductive rights is a much more egregious violation of the United Nation’s definition than name calling or mudslinging.

    While individual cases of sexist language or actions are serious offenses that may influence cultural concepts of masculinity and femininity, those in the human rights and reproductive rights community must not become distracted from the gender based violence that manifests itself in more direct and pressing ways. Offensiveness should not be a substitution for careful research based evaluations of the effects of gender based violence. While offensive language should be a concern, it should in no way become a priority.

    Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton are strong, smart, and deft politicians. I am yet to be convinced that either is seriously or psychologically harmed from name calling or being the punchline of a crass joke. Failure to be selected as the Democratic nominee or the vice president of the United States in two hard-fought contests should hardly be placed among the United Nation’s definitions of violence. However, a Palin/McCain administration will bring an end to the protection of a woman’s right to choose which will begin an era of gender violence in direct violation of the United Nation’s protection of Human Rights.

  5. Dilly Severin

    I think Sarah Palin presents an interesting contradiction. On the one hand, one could argue that she’s proof of feminism’s success–not that she is a feminist but proof that any woman, regardless of her politics has an opportunity to break into the male-dominated field of politics.
    On the other hand, Palin’s politics are clearly anti-woman and as Jenn mentioned, a big part of her strategy has been to tap into the popular perception of sexism as something women just cry about when they’re not qualified for the job.
    I don’t condone the harrassment and think there is no place for them in the campaign but I do think it’s interesting that Palin’s own behavior has neither left her nor anyone who would want to decry what’s happening a credible place from which to even talk about the sexism she is facing.

  6. Jenn

    This race has been full of discrimination, not just sexism, but racism, ageism,and others. I agree that Sarah Palin has been a victim of sexism, as have almost all women who have come before her to run for public office. This is not to say that attacks against a candidate’s sex should be accepted; they shouldn’t. But I have a serious issue with the fact that Ms. Palin, rather than speaking out about the legitimate verbal attacks against her, has attempted to use her platform to diminish the meaning of the word by crying sexism when asked legitimate questions (ex: policy decisions, her history in public office, etc) that have been asked of every candidate regardless of sex, race, etc.
    To stand idly by, while a woman on a national stage weakens the arguments against sexism and gender based violence by using these terms for her own personal gain and protection against the expectations of her position, is a disservice to every victim of these attacks and crimes. For every individual who has been a victim of gender based violence and/or sexism, I believe that we should condemn the discriminatory acts against all of the candidates, as well as when individuals like Ms. Palin try to change the definition of these terms to suit their own needs.

  7. ECS

    Well written article and to the point. Thanks for bringing up the fact that violence against women is more than physical and oftentimes the mental is more insidious – no visible scars. Our culture has got to change. We need to boycott in every possible way – businesses, institutions and individuals that continue to perpetrate this form of inhumanity towards women. It speaks to the necessity of the Equal Rights Amendment being passed and passed now. With this happening, the other rights and issues that women’s organizations are promoting will follow suit. Have you watched Not For Ourselves Alone -The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony? It had my daughter and I in tears last night. I believe that if women had had any connection to their past herstory, contributions and courage of our foremothers, this election would have had a very different outcome.

  8. Tyler

    It’s ironic that while Sarah Palin is experiencing sexism and harassment (as do most women in the public spotlight), her policies are anti-woman. The fact that she made women pay for rape kits in Wasilla, would force rape victims who become pregnant to carry their pregnancy to term, and supports abstinence-only sex ed — not comprehensive sex ed (which would help prevent those very pregnancies) — is horrible and harms women.

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