De-Provincializing Development

By Sameena Mulla

This entry in our “De-Provincializing Development” series examines SDG #5: achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. 

Sustainable Development Goal #5 charges nation-states to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.”[1] One element requiring attention is gender-based violence, which continues to be a serious threat in the US, impacting many women and girls. While most often referring to violence in the context of sexual assault, domestic and intimate partner violence, and human trafficking, anthropologists have recently called for an expanded understanding of gender-based violence that explores the ways in which gender creates vulnerability and susceptibility. Such an expanded definition allows scholars and activists to explore the ways in which one’s gender compromises one’s safety in a range of different institutional and social settings, including health care, education, employment, and incarceration. They also allow us to look at how age, race, and citizenship inflect patterns and experiences of gendered violence—and government’s responses to it.

In the US, sexual assault is normalized in early adolescence, intimate partner violence is experienced by nearly a quarter of all women and accounts for about half of women’s homicides, and marginalized racial and ethnic groups are often demonized in state-sponsored sexual health interventions. Addressing gender inequality as the SDGs describe them will require grappling with various forms of gender-based violence, and our current responses to it. It will also require contending with the antifederalist nature of US governance, and the varied and sometimes contradictory interventions proposed and implemented at city, county, and state levels.

FROM EARLY CHILDHOOD TO ADOLESCENCE

A recent study by Heather Hlavka demonstrates that school-age girls as young as eleven have already normalized experiences of sexual violence and assault, particularly in the school setting. Early childhood would therefore seem to be a key period to address healthy intimate relationships and respect for sexual and bodily autonomy. Research demonstrates that age-appropriate and frank antiviolence and sexual health curriculum are effective in improving sexual health and preventing pregnancy, but the culturally fraught nature of sex-education debates in the US makes it difficult to implement in many school districts.


In the US, sexual assault is normalized in early adolescence, intimate partner violence is experienced by nearly a quarter of all women and accounts for about half of women’s homicides, and marginalized racial and ethnic groups are often demonized in state-sponsored sexual health interventions. Addressing gender inequality as the SDGs describe them will require grappling with various forms of gender-based violence, and our current responses to it.


At the forefront of national debates, particularly on college campuses, is Title IX policy, which prohibits sex-based discrimination in education and federally funded programs. The Obama administration, in an April 2011 guidance letter from the Office of Civil Rights, offered an expanded interpretation of Title IX policies. It required universities to protect students from sexual violence and sexual harassment on college campuses. The expansion of Title IX under the Obama administration was partly in response to research demonstrating extremely high rates of sexual victimization on college campuses—19 percent in this oft-cited study. The Trump administration has rescinded the letter, citing concerns about due-process rights for college students who face student conduct hearings as a result of sexual misconduct.[2]

The campus rape crisis is symptomatic of a broader rape crisis; that is, prevalence rates among college students (19 percent) is similar to that of women in the general population (18.3 percent). While it is commendable to prevent sexual violence and support survivors so they can achieve their educational goals, universities are in the position to affect the communities in which they’re embedded. What if university admissions communicated to their feeder schools how much they value the inclusion of healthy-relationship and antiviolence modules in high school curricula? Such a move would surely affect a group beyond the 65 percent of US high school graduates who go on to college.

A domestic violence awareness display stands in the Fitness Center during domestic violence awareness month on Tyndall AFB, Fla. Oct. 21. The t-shirt display is used as a means to raise awareness of domestic violence in relationships. (US Air Force photograph by Airman 1st Class Ty-Rico Lea)

THE DANGER OF INTIMATE PARTNERSHIP

The 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, which captures prevalence data on intimate partner violence, stalking, and sexual violence, showed a 24 percent prevalence rate for intimate partner violence. While other types of violent crime have been decreasing, domestic-violence-related homicide remains steady, or, in some instances, is on the rise. An unsettling follow-up study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention examined the relationship between homicide and intimate partner violence and concluded that homicide was one of the leading causes of death of women under the age of forty-four. Of these homicides, 55.3 percent were committed by an intimate partner.

These cases suggest that examining the lived dimensions of marriage as an institution in US policy and everyday life is itself a productive exercise. Antipoverty policy, for example, frequently posits marriage as a goal and presumes that it will bring about economic and social stability, particularly for low-income and racially marginalized individuals. But the CDC study suggests that marriage and conjugal relations, rather than being a source of stability, may pose a threat to women. Anthropologist Dana-Ain Davis has documented how economic opportunities make it easier to leave abusive households. Economic empowerment gives women recourse to navigate, and indeed exit, dangerous relationships.

Cisgender women are not alone as victims of sexual and gender-based violence. Trans, queer, and gender-nonconforming individuals also find themselves the targets of intimate partner and sexual violence as well as forms of oppression and harm, such as outing, that are predicated on queer gender identities. These communities face the additional challenges of depending on health care, legal, and criminal justice systems that are unprepared to support and advocate for them.

RACE, ETHNICITY, AND CITIZENSHIP

Race, ethnicity, and citizenship shape vulnerability and the types of interventions developed for nonwhite populations. Alarming research on Native American and Indigenous Alaskans shows high rates of gender-based violence among these populations, with more than half of all women experiencing one or more instances of sexual assault. Antiviolence workers often fail to account for the harms of settler colonialism that have, for example, created reservation systems that expose Native Americans to human trafficking. Instead, they pathologize individual Indigenous men and women, implementing interventions focused on individual choice that fail to transform larger structural dangers.

Citizenship is yet another axis of vulnerability. News outlets are flooded with reports of undocumented women who cannot make reports of domestic violence or assault because they fear deportation. The border itself and US immigration policies leave women vulnerable to sexual violence at the hands of immigration authorities, border patrol, and traffickers. Anthropologist Jason De Leon describes the northward journey for migrants from Mexico as a traversal of a “minefield” in which, “assault, robbery, murder, rape and extortion are virtually guaranteed” (2016, 285).

COMPLICATING INTERVENTION

In the US, many of our solutions are responsive and carceral; that is, police units and specialized courts respond after intimate partner violence and sexual assault have already taken place. We have criminal-justice-focused health care in the form of forensic intervention, which promises a techno-scientific approach that theoretically should yield better evidence collection while offering specialized treatment for victims of sexual violence, particularly in the form of nursing care. Yet these interventions often prioritize ongoing investigations over victims’ needs for therapeutic care, and, as I illustrated in my book, The Violence of Care (2014), they often reproduce the racist and racializing practices of US medicine. Prevention efforts, a major charge of SDG #5, are diffuse and scattered, in part because of our antifederalist tradition and the expansive nature of the administrative governing structures. Thus, while federal guidelines may move us in one direction, state, county, and city governments have interpreted, resourced, and deployed prevention programs in other directions.


In the US, many of our solutions are responsive and carceral; that is, police units and specialized courts respond after intimate partner violence and sexual assault have already taken place. We have criminal-justice-focused health care in the form of forensic intervention, which promises a techno-scientific approach that theoretically should yield better evidence collection while offering specialized treatment for victims of sexual violence, particularly in the form of nursing care. Yet these interventions often prioritize ongoing investigations over victims’ needs for therapeutic care, and . . . often reproduce the racist and racializing practices of US medicine.


Gender-based violence is persistent, deadly, and widely prevalent in the US. It is transnational, and it is reproduced through global and national flows of capital. Gender-based violence is amplified through inequality. Interventions can reproduce sexist, racist, and imperialist logics, which ultimately must be interrupted in social transformation work.

Sameena Mulla is associate professor in the Department of Social and Cultural Sciences at Marquette University.

 

NOTES
[1] SDG #5 draws heavily on the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which was drafted during the United Nation’s 1995 World Conference on Women. Its authors noted that “the status of women has advanced in some important respects in the past decade but that progress has been uneven, inequalities between women and men have persisted and major obstacles remain, with serious consequences for the well-being of all people.” Perhaps some things are improving, but we should be wary of what counts as “progress” since the SDG #5 repurposes much of this earlier document without signaling what an innovative path forward might entail.

[2] To date, there is no research that suggests that universities have a due process problem in holding students accountable for sexual misconduct. Men’s rights activists have promoted this myth to advance their cause, and are highly effective when media attention focuses on the very rare false allegation, such as the highly publicized University of Virginia case reported by Rolling Stone magazine in 2014.

REFERENCES CITED
De Leon, Jason. 2016. The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail. Oakland: University of California Press.
Hlavka, Heather. 2014. “Normalizing Sexual Violence: Young Women Account for Harassment and Abuse.” Gender and Society 28 (3): 337–58.
Mulla, Sameena. 2014. The Violence of Care: Rape Victims, Forensic Nurses and Sexual Assault Intervention. New York: New York University Press.

CITE AS
Mulla, Sameena. 2018. “Gender-Based Violence in the US.” American Anthropologist website, April 3.

Share this article:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *