Violence against women and girls is one of the world’s most prevalent human rights violations, taking place every day, many times over, in every corner of the globe. It has serious short- and long-term physical, economic and psychological consequences on women and girls, preventing their full and equal participation in society.
The magnitude of its impact, both in the lives of individuals and families and society as a whole, is immeasurable. Conditions created by humanitarian, health and environmental crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic, conflicts, and climate change have further intensified violence against women and girls, exacerbated existing challenges and generated new and emerging threats.
This article provides an overview of the main forms of violence against women and girls, along with other commonly used terms, that any gender equality activist should have in their vocabulary toolkit.
Types of violence against women
Intimate partner violence refers to behaviour by an intimate partner or ex-partner that causes physical, sexual or psychological harm, including physical aggression, sexual coercion, psychological abuse and controlling behaviours. This is one of the most common forms of violence experienced by women globally.
Intimate partner violence is one of the manifestations of domestic violence. Domestic violence is violence that occurs within the private, domestic sphere, generally between individuals who are related through blood or intimacy. Domestic violence is not confined to women, for example it also includes child abuse and elderly abuse in the domestic sphere.
Intimate partner violence can include acts of physical violence such as slapping, chocking or burning, sexual violence including spousal rape, psychological violence such as fear by intimidation or forced isolation, and economic violence by maintaining total control over financial resources, withholding access to money, and/or forbidding attendance at school or employment, among others.
Learn more: The signs of relationship abuse and how to help
Sexual violence is any sort of harmful or unwanted sexual behaviour that is imposed on someone. It includes acts of abusive sexual contact, forced engagement in sexual acts, attempted or completed sexual acts with a woman without her consent, sexual harassment, verbal abuse, threats, exposure, unwanted touching, incest, and others.
Sexual violence can include the following:
Sexual harassment may involve any conduct of a verbal, nonverbal or physical nature, including written and electronic communications. Sexual harassment can take a variety of forms – from looks and words though to physical contact of a sexual nature. Examples of sexual harassment include sharing sexual or lewd anecdotes or jokes; unwelcome touching, including pinching, patting, rubbing, or purposefully brushing up against another person, repeatedly asking a person for dates or asking for sex and making sexual comments about appearance, clothing, or body parts, among others.
Rape is any non-consensual vaginal, anal or oral penetration of a sexual nature of the body of another person with any bodily part or object, including through the use of physical violence and by putting the victim in a situation where they cannot say no or complies because of fear. This can be by any person known or unknown to the survivor, within marriage and relationships, and during armed conflict.
Corrective rape is a form of rape perpetrated against someone on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. It is intended to force the victim to conform to heterosexuality or normative gender identity.
Sexual violence in conflict: Acts of violence against women include violation of the human rights of women in situations of armed conflict, such as systematic rape, sexual slavery and forced pregnancy, as well as forced sterilization, coercive/forced use of contraceptives, female infanticide and prenatal sex selection.
Femicide is the intentional killing of a woman or a girl because she is a woman or a girl. The gender-related motivation of the killing may range from stereotyped gender roles, discrimination towards women and girls, to unequal power relations between women and men in society
Gender-related killings of women and girls (femicide/feminicide) are the most extreme and brutal manifestation of violence against women. They can take place in a wide range of situations within the private and public spheres, and within different contexts of perpetrator–victim relationship. They include for instance cases with previous record of physical, sexual, or psychological violence/harassment, killings occurring in situation of trafficking in persons, forced labour or slavery; or killings where the body of the victim is disposed of in a public space.
Gender-related killings can also include so-called honor killings, which are the murder of a family member, usually a woman or girl, for the purported reason that the person has brought dishonor or shame upon the family. These killings often have to do with sexual purity, and supposed transgressions on the part of female family members.
Human trafficking is a global crime that trades in people and exploits them for profit. Physical and sexual abuse, blackmail, emotional manipulation, and the removal of official documents are used by traffickers to control their victims. Exploitation can take place in a victim's home country, during migration or in a foreign country.
Human trafficking has many forms. While men, women and children of all ages and from all backgrounds can become victims of this crime, women are the primary targets and girls are mainly trafficked for sexual exploitation.
Female genital mutilation
Female genital mutilation (FGM) refers to all procedures involving partial or total removal of the female external genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. It is most often carried out on young girls between infancy and age 15.
FGM has no health benefits and can lead to serious, long-term complications and even death. Immediate health risks include hemorrhage, shock, infection, HIV transmission, urine retention and severe pain. Psychological impacts can range from a girl losing trust in her caregivers, to longer-term feelings of anxiety and depression. In adulthood, girls subjected to FGM are more likely to suffer infertility or complications during childbirth, including postpartum haemorrhage, stillbirth and early neonatal death.
Numerous factors contribute to the persistence of the practice. Yet in every society in which it occurs, FGM is an expression of deeply rooted gender inequality. In every form in which it is practiced, FGM is a violation of girls’ and women’s fundamental human rights, including their rights to health, security and dignity. It was first classified as violence in 1997 via a joint statement issued by WHO, UNICEF and UNFPA.
Child, early and forced marriage
Child marriage is any marriage where at least one of the parties is under 18 years of age.
Forced marriage is a marriage in which one and/or both parties have not personally expressed their full and free consent to the union. A child marriage is considered to be a form of forced marriage, given that one and/or both parties have not expressed full, free and informed consent.
It is widely recognized that child marriage is a violation of children’s rights and has several harmful effects on the lives of children (overwhelmingly girls), including early and frequent pregnancies, higher risks of maternal mortality and morbidity, limited decision-making in family matters and school dropout.
Online or technology-facilitated violence
Technology-facilitated violence against women is any act that is committed, assisted, aggravated, or amplified by the use of information communication technologies or other digital tools, that results in or is likely to result in physical, sexual, psychological, social, political, or economic harm, or other infringements of rights and freedoms. It can occur in online spaces, and it can be perpetrated offline through the use of technological means, such as controlling a woman’s whereabouts by using a GPS tracker. Technology-facilitated gender-based violence exacerbates existing forms and patterns of violence against women, such as intimate-partner violence, and also comes with new forms of violence such as online stalking and image-based abuse through artificial intelligence like deepfake videos.
While all women and girls who are online or who use digital tools may face violence online, some groups are at greater risk. These include women who are most visible online, including women in public life, journalists, human rights defenders, politicians and feminist activists.
Online violence can include the following:
- Cyberbullying: involves sending intimidating or threatening messages.
- Non-consensual sexting: sending explicit messages or photos without the recipient’s consent.
- Doxing: public release of private or identifying information about the victim.