Violence has many shades. When someone experiences violence because of his/her gender identity, it is known as gender-based violence. The term ‘gender-based violence’ (GBV) is used inter-changeably with ‘violence against women’ (VAW) because more often than not, the victim/survivor is female and the perpetrator is male. However, GBV is a more inclusive term — if a gay man or a transwoman were to be attacked because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, it is still a case of gender-based violence even though the victim/survivor may not be biologically female.
Why does gender-based violence occur? There could be many motives behind such a crime but underlying it all is the perpetrator’s belief that the victim deserves the violence because of his/her gender. Or is asking for it because s/he did not conform to social norms. For example, in 2009, activists of a group that calls itself the Sri Ram Sene, entered a pub in Mangalore and beat up women there because they were drinking alcohol. The ‘crime’ committed by the women was that they were going against ‘traditional Indian values’ and the punishment they ‘deserved’ was the beating — even though the women were not doing anything illegal — they were above the legal age for drinking! Typically, the perpetrators of such acts believe they are teaching a lesson to the victim(s) and putting them in their place even though what the perpetrators are doing is against the law. This position of righteousness often comes from a deep-rooted anxiety to ensure that power equations are maintained in society — the dominant group continues to remain dominant and the oppressed continue to remain oppressed. In the view of the perpetrators, they are not doing anything wrong because the oppressed are ‘naturally’ inferior to them.
Sometimes, gender-based violence is used to ‘teach a lesson’ or ‘dishonour’ an entire community. Such acts are commonly committed during conflict situations like riots or wars. It is intended as a form of psychological warfare wherein the enemy believes in shaming the opposite camp by performing such acts. The idea is to ‘emasculate’ the men of the opposite camp because they failed to ‘protect their women’. These notions are built on gender stereotyping — men must be protectors and women must be virtuous. So often in our movies, the victim of a rape is shown as committing suicide because her ‘honour’ is lost. Even the word ‘rape’ in several Indian languages is centered around the victim’s loss of ‘honour’, ‘virtue’, ‘modesty’ rather than the act of violence itself. GBV can work in combination with other forms of hate crimes. For instance, there have been several cases in India in which upper caste men have raped Dalit women to ‘degrade’ the entire community and ‘put them in their place’.
There are several forms of gender-based violence. Since gender identity is one of the basic ways in which we define ourselves, GBV can start even before the victim is born! Female foetuses are illegally aborted because girls are considered unwanted in many Indian families. Sexual harassment, domestic violence, trafficking, rape are some examples of such violence. There are laws that exist to curtail such crimes and they do help to a certain extent but we must understand that laws don’t function in a vacuum — unless we question the norms and stereotypes imposed on us by this construct in everyday life, we cannot expect such crimes to disappear overnight.