Understanding gender: how culture influences gender roles and norms and how it contributes to GBV

By Nasri Hassan
Edited by the Gender Equity and Protection Office

Domestic abuse is a pervasive societal problem that cuts across national boundaries and affects people from different cultural backgrounds. While acknowledging that the influence of culture is important, it is also important to understand that culture does not necessarily lead to domestic violence. Instead, abusive behaviors can be sustained and perpetuated through the interaction of cultural variables with other social dynamics. To properly handle domestic violence, it is essential to comprehend these complexities.

Gender roles and cultural norms: Culture has a tremendous impact on how people see gender roles and the dynamics that arise in relationships. Rigid gender norms and expectations might support the normalization of domestic violence in particular cultural situations. Intimate relationship abuse and power imbalances can be sustained by traditional ideas of male authority, female submissiveness, and the idea of upholding family honor.

One compelling example is the story of a woman who endured two years of physical abuse and mistreatment in her marriage, driven by the desire to preserve family honor and adhere to traditional gender roles. The fear of societal judgment and gossip was overwhelming, leading her to suffer in silence rather than risk tarnishing her family's reputation. The weight of external perceptions and the fear of being labeled as someone who failed to fulfill societal expectations hindered her from seeking help.

Socialization and the acquisition of learned behaviors play a significant role in the connection between culture and domestic violence. When individuals are socialized within cultures where violence is prevalent or accepted, they may internalize the belief that such behavior is normal or even desirable. Witnessing violence between parents or experiencing it firsthand can lead to the normalization of abusive behavior, perpetuating the cycle of violence in their future relationships.

Normalizing domestic violence shows how the behavior and act has been justified in some communities to the extent that spouses, partners view it as an act of love and not an act of abuse or harmful practice that can not only affect a person’s mental well-being but also their physical health.

Cultural Practices and Customs: Certain cultural practices, traditions, or rituals can inadvertently enable or mask domestic violence. Practices like early marriages, forced marriages, female genital mutilation, or honor-based violence are examples where cultural norms and customs intersect with domestic violence and continue gender based violence. These practices reflect deeply ingrained social structures that can be resistant to change, perpetuating violence within communities.

Stigma, shame, and silence are significant challenges that victims of domestic violence face due to cultural norms. In some cultures, there is a strong emphasis on preserving family reputation, which can make it difficult for victims to seek help. They fear being judged, isolated, or rejected by their communities. The pressure to maintain the appearance of a harmonious and united family often outweighs their urgent need for support and intervention.

In a survey that was carried out by the afro barometer surveys of 2021, Kenyans overwhelmingly opposed the use of physical discipline against women. 88% of women did not justify the use of physical discipline while 75% of men were of the same view. Despite that many Kenyans said that gender based violence is not a common occurrence and that it should be treated as a private matter and resolved within the family.

Afro barometer Surveys conducted another survey in 2021 on the same topic in Kenya following the death of the world class runner Agnes Jebet Tirop attributed to domestic violence. The survey was asking Kenyans on whether domestic violence is a private matter. 55% of Kenyans strongly agreed while 15% just agreed. Secondly, on the question of whether domestic violence is a criminal offence,22% strongly agreed while 7% disagreed.

Changing Cultural Norms: It is important to remember that culture itself is not to blame for domestic violence. However, some cultural practices and beliefs can contribute to harmful behaviors. To address domestic violence, we need to challenge and change these cultural norms. This means promoting equity and equality between genders, breaking down traditional structures that favor men, and educating, sensitizing and creating awareness in communities about healthy relationships, consent, and the importance of non-violence in relationships.

Being Respectful of Culture: When dealing with domestic violence, it is crucial to consider cultural contexts and be sensitive to them. Interventions should be tailored to respect the diversity of individuals' experiences. Support services, programs, and campaigns should be designed to be culturally appropriate, helping to bridge gaps and encourage open discussions within communities. Engaging community leaders, religious institutions, and cultural organizations can foster understanding, challenge harmful norms, and promote positive change from within.

In Summary culture is a complicated part of our lives that shapes how we think, act, and live together. It's important to remember that culture alone doesn't cause domestic violence, but can contribute to it. By being sensitive to different cultures, challenging harmful beliefs, and empowering individuals and communities, we can make progress in ending domestic violence and also respond to gender based violence. We strive for societies that value respect, equality, and non-violence for everyone.


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