Gender-Based Violence

This study guide explores the root causes of GBV like gender inequality, power, patriarchy and other types of oppression.

This study guide was made collaboratively with the contribution of many younger and older feminists active in movements and the Beijing+25 process. Read about our contributors on the about page. Explore all 7 sections at your own pace!

Course summary

  • Level: Intermediate
  • Estimated time: 2.5 hours
  • Audio: English 
  • Online and at your own pace


Welcome to the Gender-Based Violence (GBV) study guide. 

To live free of violence is a fundamental human right and yet GBV continues to be pervasive and on the rise. Mainstream understandings of GBV often individualize violence, casting a typical “victim” and “perpetrator”. Feminist movements challenge this narrative and make the personal much more political. Feminist movements have helped analyze the root causes of violence like gender inequality, power, patriarchy, fundamentalisms, and other systemic forces.

This study guide starts with video dialogues featuring younger and older feminists followed by key concepts, examples of movements & advocacy, a toolbox and quiz. An e-certificate is available if you ace the quiz!

Note: The Feminist Action Lab is meant to be a starting point, not a comprehensive guide. Content updated June 2021.

Intergenerational Dialogue

What is GBV and why is a feminist and intergenerational approach to advocacy important? Women’s rights activists Suneeta Dhar and young feminist Chamathya Fernando, from WAGGGS and the Beijing+25 Youth Task Force, discuss the history of advocacy on GBV. Learn more about Suneeta and Chamathya on the about page.

1. Gender Based Violence (GBV)

Historically, Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) was thought to be the violence perpetrated against women by men. The term Gender Based Violence (GBV) introduced the inclusion of sexual identity and orientations, as well as violence against men or masculine-identifying people who do not fit into “traditional”, binary, or culturally-accepted forms of masculinity. 

GBV can be defined as any act of violence that results in physical, sexual, mental/emotional or economic harm. It can occur within a relationship, in the family, in a community, in institutional settings, during humanitarian contexts or war, and in public and private. It is one of the most systematic and widespread forms of violence today with 1 in 3 women globally having experienced VAWG in their lifetime (WHO).  While there is a significant data gap, violence against gender diverse and transgender people are on the rise. The following is a snapshot of GBV today:

  • 90% of rape victims are women. 
  • Over 90% of offenders never see justice.
  • Gender-based violence is incredibly expensive. The costs of healthcare, psychosocial counseling, legal services, and lost wages from time spent recovering total in the trillions of dollars every year. This is comparable to the total amount of military spending by all countries each year. (UNFPA)
  • 44% of lesbian women experience intimate partner violence.
  • Women and girls with disabilities are 2 to 4 times more likely to experience domestic violence than women without disabilities. (UNWOMEN)
2. The Myth of Public vs Private Violence

GBV has historically been seen as a “private matter” that could not be regulated by states, let alone International Law. Feminists movements have fought for decades to push back on this myth and ensure that violence, whether private or public was socially unacceptable.

In 1979 when the historic Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) was established, violence against women was “largely considered to be a ‘private’ matter …nor a human rights concern.” (IWRAW Asia Pacific). Only in 1992, thanks to the advocacy of feminist movements, did CEDAW recognize GBV as a human rights and public issue requiring public condemnation.

For many years GBV was not recognized as a problem – with very little state investment in anti-violence work, little or no responsiveness from police and community governance, and a lack comprehensive legal protections and accountability. The lack of accountability for acts of sexual violence like rape (which continues to be socially and legal acceptable within marriage in some countries) and domestic violence, feminist argue, are connected to systems of oppression like patriarchy. The slow cultural shift between the 1970s and 1990s shows the necessity of sustained and long-term advocacy.

3. Intersectionality & GBV

Feminists movements take an “intersectional” approach to GBV. They believe that violence is deeply rooted in patriarchy and other systems of oppression like racism, heterosexism, colonialism, class, caste etc. Different women, girls, and gender diverse people face different structural obstacles as well as privileges shaping their access to justice and rights. 

For example, criminalization and stigmatization of trans people, of certain sexualities (i.e. lesbian and bisexual women), professions (i.e sex workers), or the non-recognition of the ability to consent (such as laws around legal capacity of people with disabilities or laws around age of consent which young people face) makes these groups more vulnerable and at a higher risk of GBV. This inequality in accessing full protection and freedom from violence means that anti-GBV movements are incomplete unless they center the most marginalized.

For a deeper dive into GBV and intersectionality check out these resources:

4. Patriarchy

Patriarchy is an unequal system of power where men hold dominant positions in public and private spheres, subordinating women and gender diverse people, as well as other men who do not fit ideal standards of “masculinity”. Patriarchal power plays out in our social, cultural, political, and economic institutions as well as in our everyday relationships. Because it is so present in how our world is organized, legal advocacy is only one way of addressing this inequality. Feminists challenge unequal power structures as well as unequal power relations by shifting culture and the many ‘invisible’ ways we think and act out gender inequality.

For example, a common patriarchal narrative pushes blame on victims and survivors of violence rather than on the perpetrators. Many girls are brought up hearing that they shouldn’t dress in a certain way, or freely move in certain areas at night because they may face a higher risk of sexual assault or violence. Controlling, shaming and blaming survivors of GBV instead of holding perpetrators of violence accountable shows us how deeply rooted patriarchy is in our societies. Women, girls and gender diverse people ought to freely be able to enjoy their rights and freedoms without the fear or threat of violence.

“Matriarchy” is not the opposite or solution to patriarchy. Feminists instead support gender equality where all people, regardless of their gender and sexual orientation have equal rights and power.

5. The Charmed Circle

A diagram with two circle overlaid on top of each other, the inner circle and outer circle are marked with 6 lines representing different identity markers.

In 1985 the feminist scholar Gayle Rubin coined the term the ‘Charmed Circle’ (see illustration). The Charmed Circle is part of what Rubin describes as ‘sexual hierarchy’ – or how society considers some types of sex and sexuality as “good”, “normal” and “accetable” while others as “bad”, “abnormal” and “unacceptable”. 

For example, heteronormativity – or sex between married men and women for the purposes for bearing children, is not only highly accepted in all societies but is also legally protected and incentivized. This type of sex is in the center of the charmed circle. When we think of sexual violence against a heterosexual woman by any person who is not her husband – society also recognizes this form of violence as the gravest of forms. 

Now let’s flip the script. As the circle expands, forms of sex and sexuality which are not between a man and women, which is outside of marriage, and not for the purposes of reproduction are looked down upon. As a result these people generally have less legal protection and even social sympathy. This is how patriarchy as a structure is biased against those who don’t fit it’s ideals. GBV against those who are marginalized are less widely recognized, and in certain societies actually accepted. This further interacts with race, caste, class etc.

The charmed circle and sexual hierarchy are feminist tools of analysis that help reveal the deep social, cultural and political inequalities that keep people from accessing their full right to live free of violence. It also helps us identify when narratives of an “ideal victim” are used – for example when survivors of sexual violence are blamed or questioned because of their perceived promiscuity, profession, marital status (being outliers of the charmed circle) etc. The “ideal victim” and resulting victim-blaming falsely promotes the idea that some people ‘deserve’ less protection than others.


6. Gender Ideology

There is a growing set of special interest groups and conservatives promoting “gender ideology” – or a type of extreme narrative defining who can be a “real boy” or “real girl”, and even what “families” are supposed to look like. Contemporary feminists movements (sometimes referred to as “fourth wave feminists”) strive for intersectional and radically inclusive movements. Feminists believe that all kinds of families are valid, that trans and gender diverse people are part of feminism, and question any ideologies insisting on gender essentialism (i.e. that women and men are born into predetermined behaviors or ways of being including the binary of “men” and “women”). 

As young feminists in advocacy spaces, it is important to identify and question groups who actively exclude trans people or practice gender ideology. This rising minority is popularly referred to as “TERFS” or Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists. Both states and non-state groups are embracing these ideas which can result in promoting discriminatory policies against families using the rhetoric of “family values”, laws criminalizing young people’s sexuality, curbing trans gender rights, and resulting in a closing civic space for feminists questioning these ideas. 

The GEF Action Coalition leader CREA has created a series of videos on gender ideology and how this thinking is endangering the human rights space, including the United Nations. Here is one of their videos from feminist activist Sonia Correa elaborating on this troubling trend. 


7. Domestic Violence and Intimate Partner Violence

While Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) and Domestic Violence (DV) may appear to be the same thing, and certainly have many overlaps, the two terms are different. DV is violence that takes place within a household and can be between any two people within that household i.e. parent and child, siblings, or just people living within the same household, IPV is specific violence between persons in an intimate relationship.

IPV involves all categories of violence; physical, sexual, psychological and economic violence by a current or former partner or spouse. IPV occurs in both heterosexual and same sex relationships although the World Health Organization acknowledges that “the overwhelming global burden of IPV is borne by women” and girls. (World Health Organization, 2012, p. 1)  

Marital rape remains widely unrecognized and/or unimplemented in criminal courts in African and Asian countries, with many countries still using ‘customary laws’ to justify a reluctance to criminalize it. The power imbalance between partners also reduces the chances of women and girls to use contraception. Reproductive outcomes i.e. whether to use contraception, what form of contraception to be used – these decisions can often be taken advantage of by an abusive partner to manipulate women, girls and people with reproductive capacity and lead to physical or other forms of abuse.

Additionally, with criminalization of certain identities (transgender people for example), sexualities (lesbian and bisexual women), and professions (sex work) etc., IPV becomes graver because they have little to no recourse to security or protection. 

"Victim" or "Survivor"?

The term ‘survivor’ is preferred by some because it implies that you have an identity and life after the harm/act of violence. It can be an empowering term that symbolizes a person’s ability to overcome their experiences of violence. Many people also prefer to be called “victim” to shift back the focus to the perpetrator and acknowledge the impacts on their lives. 

It is important to understand and respect each individual’s experience and identify them based on their preference

More important perhaps is visibilizing accountability and the role of perpetrators in GBV. For example, reporting that a women was harassed may incite feelings of pity towards the survivor. However, it also obscures the harasser and may even normalize the event. Reporting that a man harassed a woman, shifts the event from a passive incident to active breach of consent by a perpetrator who can be held accountable.

8. Decolonizing Gender and Sex

In some countries, feminism and even homosexuality are accused of being “foreign” exports from the “West”. Feminists have contributed to our understanding of GBV by discussing colonialism’s impact on sexuality and gender to recognize the many indigenous and pre-colonial expressions of gender identity and sexuality. Here is one example from the indigenous people of Hawaii that helps historicize colonialism’s enforcement of gender norms and sexual binaries from the film KUMU HINA (2015). Decolonizing gender and sexuality by recognizing sexual diversity and plurality means ensuring that everyone can practice bodily autonomy and live lives free of violence.

9. SOGIESC, Yogyakarta and Sexual and Gender Diversity (SGD)

The Human Rights Council (HRC), one of the most significant human rights platforms in use today, adopted the following definition of GBV in 2011:

“All people, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) persons, are entitled to enjoy the protections provided for by international human rights law, including in respect of rights to life, security of person and privacy, the right to be free from torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, the right to be free from discrimination and the right to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly” (A/HRC/19/41, 2011, para. 5) 

In many advocacy spaces you will encounter the language of ‘SOGIESC’ or Sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and sex characteristics. A useful list of terminologies on SOGIESC can be found here from Parliamentarians for Global Action. An important convening on SOGIESC was the 2006 Yogyakarta Principles, a document created by key LGBTQI experts and advocates outside of the formal UN space. Since then, in 2021, some feminists are recognizing even the limitations in using LGBTI/SOGIESC terminology, and moving towards a discourse of Sexual and Gender Diversity (SGD). SGD aims to challenge the heteronormative understanding of sex, gender and sexuality while centering an intersectional and political approach to LGBTI/SOGIESC. In the SGD approach, GBV is not a ‘women’s issue’, rather it is an issue relevant to all genders and all sexualities, with an imperative of centering diverse lived realities.

10a. Consent

Consent is a feminist value central to all GBV work. It must be given freely without force, threat or coercion. There are multiple forms of consent such as “informed consent” where the consent giver must at all times be well informed of the nature of the act being consented to. Consent is specific and revocable too. That means the consent giver can at any point revoke consent. It is not a one-time or permanent approval; it needs to be given each time. 

While consent is defined in law is often in the context of violence (in most jurisdictions the definition of consent is usually associated with rape), our experience of consent happen outside the law and is often negotiated entirely outside the context of violence. In fact, we negotiate consent every day in all aspects of our lives.

Take a look at this video, aimed at young children, talking about creating a culture of consent from Blue Seat Studios.

10b. Myths/Facts on Consent

Myth: If two people have had sex with each other before, or are in a relationship, consent is automatically present.
Fact: Consent in relationships is the same as consent outside of them! It must be freely given and can be revoked by the giver at any time. It’s not a one-time or permanent approval!

Myth: Consent is only necessary when it comes to penetrative sex.
Fact: Penetrative sex as well as non-penetrative sex, or any sexual act requires consent of both parties. Consent is part of our sexual as well as non-sexual lives! 

Myth: The victim “asked for it” because they were flirting or dressed a certain way, drunk or careless.
Fact: Absolutely no one, regardless of their apparel, perceived behavior or sexuality gives up their ability to consent or practice bodily autonomy. Consent must be freely given and asked for.

Note: The international age of consent to sexual acts is 16 although different states have different age of consent, a person under the legal age of consent cannot give consent.

11. Pleasure versus GBV?

The act of sex is often talked about in terms of violence and rarely in terms of pleasure. For example, how often do we hear that women and girls need to be ‘protected’ from sex rather than “enjoy” and embrace their sexual autonomy? People with disabilities are often overwhelmingly stereotyped as a-sexual or hyper-sexual and in need of ‘protection’. Transgender people and sex workers are often seen as hyper-sexual and not having the ability to consent or revoke consent, and thus can never be “violated”. 

Feminists are fighting these frameworks and demanding that consent, sexual autonomy and the right to pleasure be as much a part of gender equality as living free of GBV. One does not have to undermine the other!

Here is a poem by artist Priya Malik called “The Right to Pleasure” to help illustrate this concept.

Trigger warning – this video mentions forms of GBV.



12. Covid19 and GBV

The Covid-19 pandemic has led to a surge in reported cases of GBV particularly (although not limited to) the domestic sphere. Emerging data indicates “an increase in calls up to five-fold in some countries” (Facts and Figures_ Ending Violence against Women, 2021, p. 1). This global increase in GBV, especially in domestic violence, resulted in what the UN has called a “shadow pandemic” of rising gender-based violence. UN Women has launched a global campaign called the Shadow Pandemic to raise public awareness. 

María-Noel Vaeza, UN-Women Regional Director for the Americas and the Caribbean in her speech at the 2020  UN International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women highlighted how power and patriarchy shape VAW: 

“VAWG was a pandemic long before the outbreak of COVID-19. The underlying causes are not the virus itself or the resulting economic crisis, but rather an imbalance of power and control. This imbalance stems from inequality between men and women, discriminatory attitudes and beliefs, gender stereotypes, social norms that tolerate and perpetuate violence and abuse, and societal structures that replicate inequality and discrimination. “(María-Noel Vaeza, 2020)  

1. My Dress My Choice (Kenya)

Kenyan women gather at a public protest for bodily autonomy in Nairobi

The Kenyan My Dress My Choice campaign began in 2014 after a woman was brutally assaulted outside a Nairobi bus stop for wearing a miniskirt. This kind of sexual violence is not a new phenomenon in Kenya nor in global south countries. The online campaign and demonstration on November 17, 2014 gathered nearly a thousand people in the center of Nairobi and prompted Kenyan leaders to respond.  

The chief of state of the Inspector-General’s Office and the Kenyan deputy president William Ruto responded and condemned the attack, ordering a criminal investigation leading to arrests of perpetrators. The movement signified an outcry against rising GBV incidences in Kenya but also highlighted basic rights to bodily autonomy such as the freedom to dress however one wants without fear of violence. This feminist demonstration was an example of how collective power can challenge fundimentalist attitudes towards gender that aim to control, shame or in this case, violently demonstrate power over women’s sexuality. 

2. Violador En Tu Camino (South America)

A collective art performance demonstrating against GBV in 2019 by the Chilean young-feminist collective Lastesis sparked a national and then continent-wide movement for rights. The artivists began singing and dancing in front of a local police station their song ‘Un violador en tu camino’/’A Rapist in Your Path’. Lastesis had done their research and composed lyrics based on the feminist anthropologist Rita Segato who describes how the state (and associated institutions like the police, legal system etc.) uphold institutional violence against women, often discrediting, doubting, invisibilizing and marginalizing survivors while protecting and giving power to perpetrators. In their analysis (and song) the “oppressive state is a macho rapist”, “patriarchy is our judge that imprisons us at birth” / “ our punishment is the violence you do not see”. From a dozen activists at the station, it grew to hundreds at the capital, to thousands at Chile’s national stadium (itself a historic site used by the Pinochet government during the Chilean military dictatorship which tortured and disappeared thousands of activists including students and feminists).

From Chile ‘Violador En Tu Camino’ “went viral” and sparked mass feminist demonstrations against GBV across the US, Mexico, Brazil, Venezuela, Peru, Spain, France, Germany and more. Read about the movement and its impact in amplifying GBV, holding states accountable and also shifting policies and law in the following article:

The Fight Against Femicide and Gender Violence in Latin America (Refinery29)

Source: The Guardian


The 1993 Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (DEVAW) became the first UN instrument to recognize Violence Against Women (VAW). It helps define GBV in its multiple forms including; physical, mental, and sexual harm, threats of harm, coercion and deprivation of liberty. Since the 1993 Declaration, there has been a huge number of voices, from many different movements across gender, LGBTQI, disability, and across the feminist community that have built on these standards to make how we talk, think and advocate for GBV even more inclusive and responsive. Feminist for example have emphasized the intersection of GBV with other issues i.e. access to contraception and abortion, sexual liberalization to promote pleasure, inclusiveness in gender identity, sexuality, and intersectional issues of race, social class, and transgender rights to be central to realization of equality.


The Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was enacted in 1979 and although the Convention itself does not directly mention GBV, its Committee in 1992 through General Recommendation No. 19 established that violence against women is a form of discrimination to be included in the definition of discrimination (as found in Article 1). Earlier, in the year 1991, over one thousand feminist groups including the Center for Women’s Global Leadership (CWLG) gathered over half a million signatures from 124 countries petitioning the recognition of women’s rights as human rights. The petition stated the following: “We, the undersigned, call upon the 1993 United Nations World Conference on Human Rights to comprehensively address women’s human rights at every level of its proceedings. We demand that gender violence, a universal phenomenon which takes many forms across culture, race, and class, be recognized as a violation of human rights requiring immediate action.”

5. The Beijing Platform For Action & Generation Equality Forum

The Beijing Declaration is a defining document addressing GBV. In 1995 the Declaration was a result of over 30,000 activists globally coming together and advocating for the rights of women and girls during the Fourth World Conference on Women, in Beijing China. It produced ‘12 critical areas of concern’ and became a non-legally binding global policy platform for gender equality that continues to be active today. The Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) is an annual conference and the official monitoring and implementation body on the Beijing Declaration, governed by UN Women. Though ground breaking, marginalized groups such as LGBTIQ groups, women with disabilities and sex workers were not included in the original drafting and negotiation process and have since been advocating to be included fully as constituencies for the realization of the commitments. 

Today, the 2021 Generation Equality Forum (GEF) hosted by the Governments of Mexico and France is a conference aiming to accelerate what was started in 1995. The GEF has 6 major “Action Coalitions” (AC) or a group of government, UN agency, private sector and civil society/feminist organizations leading a 5 year advocacy process on Gender Based Violence. Some key tools and the AC on GBV has provided so far include: 

  1. A Blueprint for Action on GBV
  2. A Global Acceleration Plan for Gender Equality that includes 4 “Game-Changing” Advocacy Targets on GBV

A Commitment Making Platform to track your government’s, private sector stakeholders and civil society commitments. This platform will also be a way for your organization to sign up as a commitment maker and engage in longer term advocacy with ACs.

Youth Power at the GEF

Power within UN spaces is an active and contested process. Young feminists and youth-led organizations have the right to be equal partners and decision-makers at advocacy spaces like the GEF.

Whether or not the GEF is able to engage youth in meaningful ways will be based on a number of factors including holding donors, states, UN agencies and civil society organizations accountable to intergeneration power sharing, restoring, and resourcing.

In an effort to create more meaningful and youth-led spaces for advocacy, several regional and global youth manifestos and platforms have already been created. We highly encourage Action Lab users to get involved with the following collaborative youth-led initiatives below:

  1. Read, Endorse and Use the GEF Young Feminist Manifesto 
  2. Read, Endorse and Join the NALA Collective’s Africa Young Women B+25 Manifesto
  3. Sign up and Follow the GEF Youth Journey website and calendar 



Action Box

While it can seem overwhelming, we can do so many things to demand an end to GBV. Here are some things to keep in mind when planning your actions and activism!

  1. Do your research!
    That means learning more about the feminist agenda in your country from seasoned activists and emerging ones!
  2. Question and be curious.
    Now that you know some principles in feminism (the importance of power, systemic change, intersectionality) you can better identify feminism from ‘gender ideology’ and other conservative movements! Question people who exclude or reinforce binaries! Break your own binaries!
  3. Organize your community.
    Instead of becoming an individual leader on your own, build your collective voice and organize your community! There are many movements to join and learn from so find your allies and get involved!
  4. Raise your voice & advocate!
    You have the right to be at the table and participate meaningfully in local, national and global spaces. Raise your voice and become a feminist advocate!

Are you ready to get involved in global and national feminist movements? Head to our Action study guide to learn more about the GEF and other networks you can join.

The Feminist Action Lab is coordinated by Restless Development

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