06/09/2011 04:50 pm ET | Updated Aug 09, 2011

Making Noise About Violence and Women

Violent women are making news these days. Last week, the singer Rihanna released a music video, Man Down, depicting a woman (herself) assassinating the man who had sexually assaulted her. This week, the BBC reports that the number of women convicted for domestic violence in England and Wales has more than doubled between 2005 and 2010. These news pieces, while obviously very different in nature, challenge prevailing notions that societal violence is perpetrated almost entirely by men. Do they signify social change?

The vast majority of domestic violence is directed against women and girls. The same BBC report that shows an increase in women convicted for domestic violence also shows that in over 90% of convictions for domestic violence, the perpetrator is a man. In the United States, the National Institute for Justice estimates that 25 percent of adult women are affected by domestic violence at some point, as opposed to 7.6 percent of men.

Statistics also show that while US women are less likely than men to be murdered, when they are killed, they are more likely to be killed by their husband or boyfriend. Thirty percent of female homicide victims were killed by their intimate partner, as opposed to 5 percent of male murder victims. In 70-80 percent of intimate partner homicides, no matter which partner was killed, the man physically abused the woman before the murder.

This admittedly superficial review validates the notion of men as the main perpetrators of violence and women as the victims. It is, however, a very unsatisfactory read. Not just because it overlooks male victims of violence and their suffering, which is substantial and real. And not just because it overlooks the fact that domestic violence, regardless the victims' gender, is damaging to society as a whole, which it clearly is.

It is particularly unsatisfactory because it suggests that we cannot change.

In fact, everything we know suggests that domestic and intimate violence is not inevitable, and that women and men, whether victims or perpetrators, are effective agents for change. While this may seem counterintuitive in the face of continued domestic violence worldwide, it is notable that in those societies or communities where intimate violence is stigmatized and reviled, the violence abates.

Consider the cases of local communities in South Africa and India where women and men respond to the beatings of a neighbor by assembling outside the perpetrator's house and banging on pots and pans, or ringing the doorbell. While the sample sizes on these projects are too small to say whether a scaled-up version would help to stop domestic violence altogether, the involvement of a small number of very vocal activists lead to broader community involvement and desire for change.

Moreover, in countries where the elimination of domestic violence is seen as a political priority, supported by comprehensive policies, strong political rhetoric from the highest level, and resources, the prevalence of violence does go down over time.

Indeed, the clearest success factor in interventions on domestic violence seems to be societal. The violence continues where it is ignored and abates where it is stigmatized. In this sense, both Rihanna's video and the BBC report could contribute in a positive way to combating domestic violence. Violence against women in the home, sadly, is rarely newsworthy. Violence against men and music videos are.

Hopefully, the discussion generated by Rihanna and the BBC will, in time, move away from whether or not a music video should show murder and whether men are more or less victimized than women. The truth of the matter is that we are all affected by living in a society that does not, summarily, condemn violence in intimate relationships. We need to start banging our pots about that.

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