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The war in Ukraine, ISIL’s beheadings in Iraq, the barbarity of Latin American drug cartels, the mass shootings in U.S. malls and churches: these stories regularly get front-page coverage. But the public stoning of a young woman in Pakistan, the murder of a wife in the United States, an African girl’s forced genital mutilation, an Indian child-bride’s internal injuries, a nine-year-old girl sold into prostitution in Thailand, and thousands of other such brutalities get a back-page story at best—and more often are ignored. Also ignored is the fact that these are far from isolated instances: they are the tip of the iceberg of a pandemic of intimate violence that claims millions of lives every year—more than all the world’s wars combined.
I coined the term intimate violence over twenty years ago to describe domestic violence, rape, child abuse, female infanticide, and other brutal practices, many of which take place within families and are still not prosecuted in many regions of the world. Some countries in Southeast Asia do not even have laws against wife beating, though beating a stranger is of course a crime. Even human rights organizations have only in recent decades started to address intimate violence. For instance, in 1987, I wrote the first article published in the Human Rights Quarterly on women’s rights as human rights. Subsequently, I argued that violence against children must also be included in human rights theory and action. Recently, in a 2013 Cambridge University book, I proposed that international law, especially the Rome Statute’s sections on crimes against humanity, be expanded to include egregious, customary, systematic, unprosecuted violence against women and children.
Legal remedies—and ensuring their enforcement by holding public officials at all levels accountable if they fail to do so—are certainly essential. But they are not enough. The problem goes much deeper. It is rooted in cultural and religious traditions we inherited that condone, and all too often command, violence against women and children.
This intimate violence was for much of recorded history key to maintaining rankings of domination—man over man, man over woman, religion over religion, race over race, nation over nation—in more authoritarian and chronically violent times. It was not only used to maintain strict paternal rule in families; it also provided training for using violence as a means of imposing one’s will on others, be it in families or among the family of nations.
This is why progressives must make ending intimate violence a top moral and political priority, not only for the sake of all those whose lives are blighted or taken by it, but for the sake of us all.
The Replication of Violence
What we experience or observe in our early years plays a major role in who we become, affecting nothing less than how our brains develop. As children, in our families and in other intimate relationships, we learn either to respect the human rights of others or to accept abuse and violence as normal, even moral. Our first lessons about human relations are learned not in the public but in the private, or intimate, sphere. So while some people transcend these teachings of violence and injustice, many carry them into other relations and accept violence and injustice as “just the way things are.”
Throughout history and cross-culturally, the most despotic and warlike cultures have been those in which violence or the threat of violence maintains domination of parent over child and man over woman. We vividly see this connection in the European Middle Ages and in fundamentalist cultures today. In the violent and authoritarian Roman Empire, the male head of household had power over life and death, not only over his slaves, but also over the women and children in his household. Under English common law, which developed in a time when monarchs maintained their rule through fear and force, even...