United Nations Security Council members vote to approve a resolution condemning the use of sexual violence against women in conflict during a Security Council meeting on women, peace, security, and sexual violence in conflict at UN Headquarters in New Yor
United Nations Security Council members vote to approve a resolution condemning the use of sexual violence against women in conflict during a Security Council meeting on women, peace, security, and sexual violence in conflict at UN Headquarters in New York, June 2013. 
Lucas Jackson / REUTERS

On October 6, U.S. President Donald Trump signed into law a bill for which feminists had long campaigned: the Women, Peace, and Security Act of 2017. This law recognizes how critical women are to achieving global security and aims to increase their participation in U.S. conflict mediation and negotiation efforts around the world. Yet the act, although laudable in and of itself, fails to acknowledge the most widespread threat to women and girls: domestic violence, especially violence perpetrated by intimate partners. By focusing explicitly on conflict-related sexual violence—defined as crimes committed by armed organizations—both the Women, Peace, and Security Act and the broader agenda it advances prioritize violence perpetrated by combatants, as opposed to intimate partners. Such a focus sends the wrong message—that violence occurring over the course of a war is somehow more egregious than the violence that over one-third of women experience inside their homes.  

The shocking narratives of wartime rape and sexual slavery perpetrated by combatants are certainly attention grabbing. But social scientists have found that violence committed by intimate partners is the more pervasive threat to women’s physical security.

The World Health Organization estimates that almost one-third of women who have been in a relationship have experienced physical or sexual violence by their intimate partner. And 38 percent of female murders are committed by a boyfriend or spouse. By comparison, sexual violence done by armed groups is much less prevalent. According to the best available data set on sexual violence in armed conflict, between 1989 and 2009—a 20-year time span that included the civil wars in the Balkans, central Africa, and West Africa—7,331 incidents of sexual violence by armed groups were recorded (against both male and female victims).

Even in some conflict settings, new research suggests that the frequency of sexual violence by armed actors is significantly less than that by intimate partners, acquaintances, and other caregivers. According to a survey of 12 rural communities in Côte d’Ivoire during the 2000–2007 conflict, only four percent of women endured forced sex by perpetrators other than intimate partners. Another survey of 15 conflict-affected municipalities in Colombia found that the reported rate of rape by family members was triple the reported rate by combatants. Finally, a recent study of violence against adolescent girls in refugee camps in Ethiopia and South Kivu, Democratic Republic of the Congo, found that the most frequently reported perpetrators were intimate partners, followed by caregivers or relatives. 

New research also suggests that intimate partner violence may be a predictor of other forms of mass violence, conflict, and state insecurity. According to one study, in more than half of U.S. mass shootings between 2009 and 2016, the male killer shot an intimate partner or another family member. Both the 2017 Texas church shooter and the man who killed 49 people at an Orlando, Florida nightclub in 2016 had histories of domestic violence. In the 2012 book Sex and World Peace, the scholar Valerie M. Hudson and her colleagues used quantitative measures and found a statistically significant relationship between the physical security of women, which included measures of domestic violence, and the overall peacefulness of states.

Intimate partner violence may be a predictor of other forms of mass violence, conflict, and state insecurity.

Hudson and her colleagues have also posited a causal theory that could explain the relationship between domestic and mass political violence. They suggest that when violence against women and girls in the home is not checked and controlled, “dysfunctional templates of violence” are diffused throughout society. Another way of saying this is that men rehearse scripts of violent behavior against women in the home and, once these aggressions are normalized and accepted, are then empowered to act out in similarly destructive ways on more public stages.

What, then, can be done to ensure that domestic violence against women and girls is prioritized in U.S. foreign policy and international security policy more generally? First, the Trump administration can build on its passage of the Women, Peace, and Security Act and strengthen the institutions within the U.S. government that are spearheading global efforts to prevent domestic violence.

Within the U.S. government, a State Department office created by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—the Office of Global Women’s Issues—has worked to make the empowerment of women and girls a cornerstone of U.S. foreign security policy. One of its landmark achievements was to collaborate with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to draft the first-ever U.S. Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-Based Violence Globally. Guided by this strategy, over the past few years the U.S. government has supported many promising programs to prevent domestic violence against women and girls, such as advocacy to pass domestic violence laws, training of law enforcement personnel to enforce these laws, legal aid clinics for women, community sensitization campaigns to change norms and attitudes about violence against women, and female economic empowerment programs. This office, however, is still operating without the appointment of an ambassador-at-large, and there needs to be a high-profile ambassador to forcefully promote the agenda.

In addition, the Trump administration should ramp up funding to prevent domestic violence against women and girls globally. The fiscal year 2018 foreign assistance budget request included about $102 million for gender-based violence programming globally, which is lower than the fiscal year 2017 funding of about $157 million. Given the astonishing scale of violence against women worldwide, this number needs to be increasing, not decreasing.

Finally, women’s rights activists can themselves do more to ensure that domestic violence is prioritized by implementers of the women, peace, and security agenda, as well as in international security conversations more generally. This means refusing to accept any artificially rigid distinction between domestic violence and other forms of violence described as political or conflict related—a distinction that has resulted in a privileging of certain types of victims over others. Any discussion of peace and security must begin to account for the security of women in their homes; it is not enough to include women at the conflict resolution table if the agenda continues to exclude violence perpetrated by intimate partners.

November 25 marked the beginning of the 16 days of “Activism Against Gender-Based Violence,” initiated in 1991 by the first Women’s Global Leadership Institute to call attention to women’s rights as human rights. This year’s campaign has been preceded by a confluence of events in the United States that have highlighted the enduring challenges of harassment, abuse, and violence against women. The theme of this year’s activities, “Leave No One Behind: End Violence Against Women and Girls,” reinforces the international community’s commitment to reaching the most marginalized women and girls. It is an ambitious agenda, and one that will be achieved only if violence in the home is treated with the seriousness that its prevalence demands. 

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • MICHELLE SIEFF consults on violence against women, conflict, and development for the World Bank, USAID, and other organizations. 
  • More By Michelle Sieff