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Institutional Violence Against Women Victims: Can We Avoid It?

Iro Michael
Wednesday 21 February 2024

Institutional Violence Against Women Victims: Can We Avoid It?

Institutional violence against women victims refers to the systemic violence that can occur when the victim is confronted with attitudes or beliefs, practices and policies that enforce structural oppression and violate the human rights of women, and their rights as crime victims. Examples of institutional violence can: be racist and offensive behaviours by police officers; marginalization by social services; violation of political and social rights of migrant women-victims; non-recognition of domestic violence in family courts in the name of parental alienation of father-perpetrators; impunity of perpetrators in criminal courts through light sentences; inadequate assessment and management of the intersectional needs and risks of victims, etc.

In addition to these, the insufficient recognition, research, prevention and treatment of obstetric violence is in itself a gendered form of institutional violence, since it is practiced by medical or paramedical, nursing/support staff, against pregnant women and mothers.

In consequence, victims lose their trust in the system and in institutions, they avoid reporting the violence, they often cease cooperation with relevant services, and they usually return to the abusive environment and the perpetrator(s). They remain trapped in the cycle of violence and their sense of helplessness grows. Their mental health is significantly affected, while at the same time the risk of losing their lives increases.

Nonetheless, gender-based violence tends to be legalized and society’s tolerance towards violence is increasing. Institutional violence is not just an act by a “bad” professional/officer; for every victim of crime and every professional who supports victims’ rights, institutional violence is a breach in the entire support system.

But can we avoid institutional violence?

The Istanbul Convention is the first legally binding text that aims to protect women and girls from all forms of violence, through the provision of coordinated policies and services for their support and protection; and of prevention, promotion of the gender dimension in policies, and the prosecution/treatment of the perpetrators. The Convention has so far been ratified by 39 states, including the European Union.

However, what seems to be missing is the establishment of internal national control mechanisms which will aim to prevent institutional violence and therefore reinforce the prevention of secondary victimization. More research is needed to identify risk factors –individual, environmental and systemic – that may contribute to or cause institutional violence. Simulataneously, the promotion of community responses that address institutional violence and strengthen social networks to support victims’ rights could also be beneficial.

As a European network for the protection and promotion of victims’ rights, VSE coordinates actions through EU-funded projects, such as the 2gether4victims project, which aim to strengthen the provision of victim support services and address the diverse needs of victims of gender-based violence across the European Union. Violence against women, including institutional violence against women victims, is a public health and human rights issue. As professionals, we must develop a strong dialogue, address the problem and contribute to its solution.

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