Opportunities for Prevention: Addressing the Intersections of VAW & VAC?

[Photo: Raising Voices]

Written by Sophie Namy, Raising Voices and Catherine Carlson, Global Mental Health Program/New York State Psychiatric Institute

Around the world, violence against women (VAW) and violence against children (VAC) are happening in the same communities, homes, and families.  Prevalence estimates are sparse, though existing data (largely from high and middle income countries) suggest that as many as 40% of households are characterized by co-occurring VAW and VAC (The co-occurrence of spouse and physical child abuse: a review and appraisal). Despite this reality, research and programs have tended to address each form of violence in isolation.  In fact, the fields of VAW and VAC have largely evolved via separate trajectories, with little theoretical or practical integration.   

In recent years, more questions are being raised about how and why VAW and VAC intersect.  For example, earlier this year Alessandra Guedes at WHO and colleagues published a paper articulating six intersections between VAW and VAC (Bridging the gaps: a global review of intersections of VAW and VAC).  Policy attention is also growing; the Know Violence in Childhood Global Learning Initiative has a multi-disciplinary working group dedicated explicitly to the potential synergies between VAW and VAC (see their summary blog piece here).   

These efforts are exciting, signaling deeper cross-learning between the two fields with the potential to inform more streamlined and effective prevention programming.  Our experiences, however, also suggest some points of caution, highlighting several questions that merit further consideration.  For instance, women and children inhabit different life stages, with distinct personal and societal expectations for self-agency, relationships, and autonomy. Can integration accommodate these nuances?  Relatedly the power dynamics underlying intimate partnerships and parent-child relationships fundamentally differ – as children will continue to depend on adults in many facets of their lives. We ask ourselves, can an integrated approach tackle these diverse manifestations of power effectively?  And there are also some practical considerations and even trepidations, such as the fear that one issue will take priority while the other is swallowed up, or de-emphasized.  

These are open questions that – at present—undermine more meaningful intersectional work.  In 2014, Raising Voices and Columbia University initiated a research partnership to deepen our learning around the opportunities (and limitations) to an integrated approach to preventing VAW and VAC.  Over the last two years, we have spoken with over 156 mothers, fathers, daughters and sons in Kampala, Uganda to discuss their perceptions and lived experiences of intersecting violence.  In addition, we are conducting a quantitative analysis on the co-occurrence of VAW and VAC and the unique risk factors that make families susceptible to either form of violence, or both.  The broad aim of this work is to identify salient entry points for aspirational programming that fosters loving, equal, and non-violent dynamics between all family members.

Early quantitative results suggest a significant overlap between VAW and VAC in Ugandan families. At the same time, qualitative data are helping us better understand why.  For example, findings reveal how patriarchal norms frequently underlie both forms of violence, as well as the complex ways in which VAW and VAC don’t just co-occur, but more profoundly intersect—with the potential for one form of violence to trigger the other. We thank the SVRI for supporting this research , and look forward to sharing more findings early next year.

Do you think that pursuing an integrated approach to preventing VAW and VAC risks moving the focus away from women? Or children? What might be some of the benefits … and the unintended consequences?

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Sophie Namy is the learning coordinator at Raising Voices, where she works with the VAW and VAC prevention teams to integrate research and practice-based learning for stronger programming. Sophie can be reached at sophie@raisingvoices.org

Catherine “Cady” Carlson is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Columbia University Global Mental Health Program and the New York State Psychiatric Institute.  She conducts research on violence against women and children, mental health consequences, and interventions to prevent violence and promote positive mental health.  She can be reached at cadycarlson@gmail.com

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