The Emperorís Clothes: How the UN Hides the Truth of Domestic Violence
by Mark B. Rosenthal
February 26, 2005
Over the years the United Nations has issued numerous statements about domestic
violence (DV). It began in 1980 at a UN-sponsored conference in Denmark, which
adopted a resolution on “battered women and violence in the family.” Five years
later, the UN General Assembly adopted its first resolution on the subject.
Since then, the UN has
sponsored various conferences, reports, and recommendations on DV. At the Fourth
World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995, violence against women was
identified as one of 12 critical areas of concern. In 2000, an Optional Protocol
to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against
Women (CEDAW) was enacted which allowed individual abused women to directly
Now, efforts to stop violence
against women have become mainstreamed into the full range of UN agencies that
address health, human rights, and refugee protection. These agencies include the
World Health Organization, UNICEF, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the
UN Population Fund, and the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) [
The assumption behind all these
efforts is the same: Women are the victims -- and never the aggressors – in
incidents of partner aggression.
But does that assumption agree
with the research?
Research on Domestic Violence in Western Countries
Over 100 studies have examined
the extent of DV in developed countries such as the United States, Canada,
United Kingdom, and Australia. These studies have reached a consistent
conclusion: men and women are equally likely to engage in partner aggression [http://www.mediaradar.org/media_fact_sheet.php].
As Linda Kelly recently noted
Florida State University Law Review, “leading sociologists have
repeatedly found that men and women commit violence at similar rates.” [http://www.law.fsu.edu/journals/lawreview/downloads/304/kelly.pdf].
In fact, some studies have found that women are slightly more likely to
instigate partner aggression.
But what about partner
aggression in non-Western societies, many of which are less developed
economically? Is it possible that males are the sole or primary aggressors in
Research in Non-Western
Two compilations were searched
to locate studies that compared sex-specific rates of domestic violence in
non-Western countries. The two compilations were:
Program: Ending Violence Against Women. Population Reports Series L, No. 11,
Martin S. Fiebert:
References Examining Assaults by Women on their Spouses or Male Partners: An
Annotated Bibliography. 2005 [http://www.csulb.edu/~mfiebert/assault.htm].
Five studies were identified. Following are summaries of those research projects:
Kim, K., & Cho, Y. (1992). Epidemiological
survey of spousal abuse in Korea. In E. C. Viano (Ed.) Intimate Violence:
Interdisciplinary Perspectives. (pp. 277-282). Bristol, PA: Taylor and
Francis. Utilized the Conflict Tactics Scale in interviews with a random sample
of 1,316 married Koreans (609 men, 707 women). Compared to findings with
American couples, results indicate that Korean men were victimized by their
wives twice as much as American men, while Korean women were victimized by their
spouses three times as much as American women.
Kim, J-Y., & Emery, C. (2003). Marital
power, conflict, norm consensus, and marital violence in a nationally
representative sample of Korean couples. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 18,
197-219. A sample of 1,500 South Koreans were surveyed. Marital power, conflict,
and norm consensus were correlated with marital violence. Findings reveal that
the incidence of husband-to-wife violence was 27.8%, while wife-to-husband was
Steinmetz, S. K. (1981). A
cross cultural comparison of marital abuse. Journal of Sociology and Social
Welfare, 8, 404-414. Using a modified version of the CTS, examined marital
violence in small samples from six societies: Finland, United States, Canada,
Puerto Rico, Belize, and Israel. Total sample: 630 persons. Concluded that "in
each society the percentage of husbands who used violence was similar to the
percentage of violent wives." The major exception was Puerto Rico, where men
were more violent. The author also reported, "Wives who used violence... tended
to use greater amounts."
Straus, M. A. (2001).
Prevalence of violence against dating partners by male and female university
students worldwide. Violence Against Women, 10, 790-811. Dating aggression was
studied at 31 universities in 16 countries worldwide. Responding to the revised
Conflict Tactics Scale were 8,666 students (2,747 men, 5,919 women). Results
reveal that overall, 25% of men and 28% of women assaulted their dating partner
in the past year. At 21 of the 31 universities, a larger percentage of women
than men assaulted their dating partners. In terms of severe assaults, a higher
rate of perpetration by women occurred in a majority (18 of the 31) of the
Tang, C. S. (1994).
Prevalence of spouse aggression in Hong Kong. Journal of Family Violence, 9,
347-356. Subjects were 382 undergraduates (136 men, 246 women) at the Chinese
University in Hong Kong. The CTS was used to assess students' evaluation of
their parentsí responses during family conflict. Fourteen percent of the
students reported that their parents engaged in physical violence. The author
concluded, "Mothers were as likely as fathers to use actual physical force
toward their spouses."
What Conclusions Can We Draw?
These five studies compared
partner aggression rates in the following non-Western countries: Korea, Puerto
Rico, Belize, Israel, Mexico, India, Hong Kong, Brazil, and Singapore. The
Conflict Tactics Scale (CTS) was the most widely used survey tool.
Among the five studies, the
Straus study had by far the largest sample -- 2,747 men and 5,919 women – and
was carried out in 16 Western and non-Western countries. The participants were
university students enrolled in social science classes, however, so the results
may not be generalizable.
The Straus study reported that
in Singapore, 27.8% of females and 11.6% of males had perpetrated partner
assaults – more than a two-fold difference. In India, 25.8% of females and 12.5%
of males had committed
assaults. Straus concludes, “the most
important similarity is the high rate of assault perpetrated by both male and
female students in all the countries.” [http://pubpages.unh.edu/~mas2/ID16.pdf].
The other studies suggest that
in countries such as Korea (Kim and Cho, 1992; Kim and Emery, 2003) and Puerto
Rico (Steinmetz 1981), the males in the groups studied were more likely to
commit assaults. And in Belize and Israel (Steinmetz 1981) and Hong Kong (Tang
1994), the assault rate was similar for both sexes.
Overall, the results from these
surveys of over 12,000 persons in nine non-Western countries are generally
consistent with the findings in Western societies: men and women are equally
likely to commit partner aggression.
Reconciling the UN Perspective with the Research
The UN resolutions and
recommendations exclusively highlight male-on-female violence. In contrast, the
research in both Western and non-Western countries shows that partner aggression
is split equally. How do we reconcile these conflicting perspectives?
A review of the UN statements
reveals a disturbing fact: they provide no statistics or hard numbers; they
refer only to studies that surveyed women but not men; or they resort to grisly
but one-sided anecdotes.
For example, the UN 1995
Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action is generally viewed as a landmark
document on the issue of womenís rights. The section on Violence Against Women
contains nine single-spaced pages of analysis and recommendations.
But the Beijing Declaration
does not mention even a single study or statistic on domestic violence.
The Declaration offers examples
of DV and speculates on its possible causes. But it never states the incidence,
nor does it give any hint that women are just as likely to engage in partner
aggression as men.
The explanation for this
surprising omission is found in paragraph 120 of the Declaration: “The absence
of adequate gender-disaggregated data and statistics on the incidence of
violence makes the elaboration of programmes and monitoring of changes
But is that explanation true?
The research on domestic violence began in the early-1970s. Almost every study
disaggregated the results by sex. It is almost inconceivable that any study
would not break out the data. So the Beijing Declarationís claim about an
“absence” of disaggregated data is clearly false.
Likewise, the 1999 WHO
publication, Putting Women First: Ethical and Safety Recommendations for
Research on Domestic Violence Against Women, never gives any hint that women are
often instigators of DV. Likewise, the report does not suggest that female
abusers be the focus of research [http://www.who.int/docstore/frh-whd/PDFfiles/Ethical%20Guidelines2.pdf].
Engendering Global Myths About DV
Psychologist John Archer
reviewed and analyzed 552 DV reports from around the world. His study represents
the most rigorous summary ever conducted of the domestic violence literature.
His article, published in the
in 2000, reached
“Women were slightly more
likely than men to use one or more acts of physical aggression and to use such
acts more frequently.” [http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=PubMed&list_uids=10989615&dopt=Abstract].
But you would never suspect
that by reading the many pronouncements on domestic violence from the United
The UN emperor has no clothes.