Programming Essentials, Monitoring & Evaluation
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Causes, protective and risk factors

Last edited: October 31, 2010

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Gender inequality and discrimination are root causes of violence against women, influenced by the historical and structural power imbalances between women and men which exist in varying degrees across all communities in the world.

Violence against women and girls is related to their lack of power and control, as well as to the social norms that prescribe men and women’s roles in society and condone abuse. Inequalities between men and women cut across public and private spheres of life, and across social, economic, cultural, and political rights; and are manifested in restrictions and limitations on women’s freedoms, choices and opportunities. These inequalities can increase women’s and girls’ risks of abuse, violent relationships and exploitation, for example, due to economic dependency and limited survival and income-earning options, or discrimination under the law as it relates to marriage, divorce, and child custody rights.

Violence against women and girls is not only a consequence of gender inequality, but reinforces women’s low status in society and the multiple disparities between women and men. (UN General Assembly, 2006)

Risk Factors

A variety of factors at the individual, relationship, community and society (including the institutional/state) levels intersect to increase the risk of violence for women and girls. These factors, represented in the ecological model, include:

  • witnessing or experiencing abuse as a child (associated with future perpetration of violence for  boys and experiencing violence for girls);
  • substance (including alcohol) abuse (associated with increased incidences of violence);


  • women’s membership in marginalized or excluded groups;


  • low levels of education (for boys associated with perpetrating violence in the future and for girls, experiencing violence);
  • limited economic opportunities (an aggravating factor for unemployed or underemployed men associated with perpetrating violence; and as a risk factor for women and girls, including of domestic abuse, child and forced marriage, and sexual exploitation and trafficking);
  • the presence of economic, educational and employment disparities between men and women in an intimate relationship;
  • conflict and tension within an intimate partner relationship or marriage;
  • women’s insecure access to and control over property and land rights;
  • male control over decision-making and assets;
  • attitudes and practices that reinforce female subordination and tolerate male violence (e.g. dowry,  bride price, child marriage);
  • lack of safe spaces for women and girls, which can be physical or virtual meeting spaces that allow free expression and communication; a place to develop friendships and social networks, engage with mentors and seek advice from a supportive  environment.
  • normalized use of violence within the family or society to address conflict;
  • a limited legislative and policy framework for preventing and responding to violence;
  • lack of punishment (impunity) for perpetrators of violence; and,
  • low levels of awareness among service providers, law enforcement and judicial actors. (Bott, et al., 2005;

Additional risk factors related to intimate partner violence that have been identified in the context of the United States include: young age; poor mental health levels related to low self-esteem, anger, depression, emotional insecurity or dependence, antisocial or borderline personality traits and social isolation; history of physical discipline as a child; marital instability and separation or divorce; history of perpetrating psychological abuse; unhealthy family relationships; poverty-related issues such as overcrowding or economic stress; and low levels of community intervention or sanctions against domestic violence. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2008)

Protective Factors

On the other hand, there are protective factors that can reduce women and girls’ risk of violence, including:

  • completion of secondary education for girls (and boys);
  • delaying age of marriage to 18;
  • women’s economic autonomy and access to skills training, credit and employment;
  • social norms that promote gender equality;
  • quality response services (judicial, security/protection, social and medical) staffed with knowledgeable, skilled and trained personnel;
  • availability of safe spaces or shelters; and,
  • access to support groups.

Other factors that require further research and analysis, but may be associated with risk of and protection from domestic violence include: women’s prior experience as a survivor of violence (any form) at any age; men’s communication levels with their female intimate partners; men’s use of physical aggression against other men; as well as women and girl’s restricted mobility. (WHO, 2005)

It is important to remember that risk and protective factors are not direct causal links, but rather correlated – that is to say, for example, that a boy who witnesses abuse of his mother by his father as a child will not necessarily become a perpetrator later in life; nor is a women of high socio-economic status and highly educated immune to domestic violence. Violence against women is a complex social, economic and cultural phenomenon.