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How History and Theory Inform the Violence Against Women Movement

The month of October is nationally recognized as Domestic Violence Awareness Month. We devote the month of October to raising awareness and support for survivors, and the advocates who provide life-changing, life-saving services in their communities. We also want to raise awareness about domestic violence by providing context about how history and theory inform the violence against women movement.

Theories about how and why violence affects individuals influence how we respond and create meaningful change. The theory of power and control is what we use to understand gender-based violence today. It identifies a pattern of abuse based on the lived experiences of survivors of rape and abuse. This type of violence involves tactics of power and control described in the popular wheel diagram (DV 101: Understanding and Responding to Domestic Violence, page 18), but gender-based violence doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

Historically, violence against women, or gender-based violence, has been institutionalized and supported by societal norms. For example, in Missouri prior to 1991, an advocate would have a difficult time finding a legal remedy for a survivor who was sexually assaulted by her spouse because state law did not recognize marital rape as a form of sexual violence. At that time, our culture valued a traditional view of marriage that normalized a husband’s authority over his wife. Legislators had not passed laws that protected survivors of rape within a marriage, which gave power to husbands to control their wives without legal consequence. In a system based on sexism, there was no incentive for individuals to stop this abusive behavior.

Laws criminalizing family violence, including intimate partner violence, are recent; most passed within the past 40 years. This is due partially to a lack of recognition of the immediate and long-term negative effects of trauma combined with a culture of keeping private matters out of the public eye. However, private interactions between individuals are influenced by societal and community norms about gender-based violence.

Prevention involves educating to change the behaviors of individuals and their relationships with others while ensuring that the institutions in their community reject harmful policies and implement practices that are equitable and inclusive. An anti-oppression approach gives us a lens to shift unequal power and control, and provides a pathway to dismantle the norms that tolerate rape and abuse.

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