Beyond victims and perpetrators: The hidden side of violence against women

dogbod2017, blog

by Catherine Whittaker

Catherine Whittaker is a PhD candidate in social anthropology at the University of Edinburgh. In this post, Catherine discusses the tendency to think about violence against women from a legal or health angle and how this risks blaming violence on victims and perpetrators alone, while obscuring social, cultural, and structural factors – which is what her fieldwork in Central Mexico focussed on.

“Global epidemic.” The phrase evokes an image of a world ravaged by infectious disease and the urgent need for science to find a cure. Violence against women and girls (VAWG) is often framed as a “global epidemic”, for instance, by the World Health Organisation and UN Women.

Yet the neatness of the metaphor is threatened by the messiness of everyday life. During my Mexican Government-funded ethnographic fieldwork in rural Milpa Alta, in the south of Mexico City, I have found that violence against women is not necessarily indicative of pathological behaviour.

Traditionally, the father is the head of the family, charged with punishing other family members’ misdemeanours, while women are tasked with protecting the family’s physical and moral health. So a mother might take her husband to the local priest to ritually cure him of his drug addiction. And while men are often considered to have the right to physically discipline their wives, women may discipline their sons, even beyond childhood. For example, a mother might punish an adulterous son upon his wife’s complaint.

On the other hand, Milpaltenses considered being disrespectful to elders a severe form of violence, as this upsets the social order and triggers rage, which may give the disrespected elder a stroke or heart attack. In addition, Milpaltenses of all ages and both genders expressed greater concern about structural violence: infrastructural problems, land rights, and the protection of the environment. Women are respected, “strong” fighters in this collective rights struggle.

These behaviours and sentiments cannot be dismissed as a case of “backward cultural violence”, but instead stem from a complex worldview, historical experience, and ethical system, which recognises and condemns other kinds of violence and empowerment than we currently do in the UK. The example of Milpa Alta shows that a universal cure for the VAWG “epidemic” does not exist.

The “epidemic” imagery also suggests privileging the perspective of health. Many researchers (e.g. Mulla 2014) look at health or legal contexts because of the problem of access: It is easy to identify a patient or a client, while most cases of VAWG remain in the dark, unexamined and unprosecuted. It is also a question of funding, as governments are particularly interested in the (cost-)effective provision of social and medical services. I would like to highlight one major problem with this focus.

We know that victimhood produces victims. Julia Penelope’s (1990) lesbian critique of language usage illuminates how this works: “Men beat their wives, but the media talk about spouse abuse, battered spouses, and domestic violence … disguising violent acts as well as erasing the male agents”. So, using terms such as “violence against women” deflects attention away from those directly responsible for it.

Similarly, focusing too much on the health and legal side of VAWG risks blaming violence on victims and perpetrators alone, when there are social, cultural, and structural factors to consider. These require long-term ethnographic fieldwork to identify, and sustained, tailored community interventions to address. Far from an “epidemic”, VAWG is often more insidious.

About the Author

Catherine Whittaker is a PhD candidate in social anthropology at the University of Edinburgh


Mulla, Sameena (2014) The violence of care: rape victims, forensic nurses, and sexual assault intervention. New York ; London: New York University Press.

Penelope, Julia (1990) Speaking Freely: Unlearning the Lies of the Fathers’ Tongues. New York: Pergamon Press, p. 206.

More information about Milpaltense cultural symbolism surrounding violence and gender:

Whittaker, Catherine (2017) “Suckling the snake: Motherly goddess worship and serpent symbolism among contemporary Nahua in Milpa Alta, Mexico.” In Maternità e politeismi/ Motherhood(s) and polytheism, ed. by G. Pedrucci, F. Pasche Guignard, and M. Scapini, pp. 505-514. Bologna: Pàtron.