Violence Against Women and Social Changes in Postcommunist Societies

Vesna Nikolic-Ristanovic, Sociology, Institute for Criminological and Sociological Research, Belgrade

Research Grant, 2000

The main aim of the survey was to examine the ways in which social changes in postcommunist and war-affected societies influence the vulnerability of women to violence (domestic violence and sex trafficking). Having in mind that preliminary findings suggested the hypothesis that the impact of social changes on women’s vulnerability to violence is mediated by changes in the everyday life of both women and men, the subject of research was determined as an examination of the impact of social changes on changes in everyday life of women and men as well as the impact of the latter on women’s vulnerability to violence. Also, the impact of social changes, primarily the impact of the creation of civil society and the women’s movement, on the attitudes of both citizens and the state toward the problem of violence against women is examined. Comparison of data for four countries (Serbia, Hungary, Macedonia, and Bulgaria) allowed me to learn about similarities and differences in the impact of social changes on everyday life and violence against women. The comparative research of these processes in countries which belonged to different models of communism, which were on different levels of economic development and which—because of these differences and some additional influences, such as war and inter-ethnic conflicts—achieved different levels of macro social change, allowed me a deeper examination of the nature of realized changes and, at least at an analytical level, differentiation between the impact of war and social transition on everyday life and violence against women.

The focus of my analysis is on the changes and transitions in the life of adults in postcommunist society, including both changes in comparison with life during communism and different changes that occurred over the last ten years. Looking at the biographical and subjective perceptual processes of individual women and men, based on the use of intergenerational and historical dimensions, I analyze them in relation to broader structural changes in their countries. I explore in particular the dynamic relations between the individual women and men and other members of the family and household, and relations between the household and the changing economy within the wider society. The impact of socioeconomic and war-related changes on family structure, gender identities, relationships and violence against women is the focus of my analysis. I assume that a comprehensive understanding of the causes and consequences of violence requires that it be placed within the context in which it occurs and that it be examined from the perspective of both women and men. Forty-five women’s group activists, judges, lawyers, social workers, researchers, professors, psychiatrists and psychologists, as well as ninety-eight persons (thirty-six men and sixty-two women) were interviewed during 1999 about the influence of social changes to their everyday life and women’s vulnerability to violence.

Structural violence contributes to gendered interpersonal violence both by causing it and by preventing society and victims from confronting it effectively. 

My survey findings showed that global economic and political changes and war produce micro level changes, i.e., changes in everyday life and gender, generational, and ethnic structures/identities. Privatization and a market economy led to the development of both a traditional gender ideology and retraditionalization of gender structures. War, militarism, dissatisfaction with the quasi equality of women and men, emasculation of men, and “masculinization” of women during communism as well as antifeminism contributed as well. Moreover, “capitalism generates massive inequalities in the social structure” (Mooney, 2000, 216) and privatizes family and women’s secondary status within it, which, as observed by Schechter (1982, 225), is dangerous “because it allows violence to accelerate while everyone says ‘Mind your own business. This is a family problem.’ ” Moreover, a market economy also limits women’s body to a sexual object and marketable good. Thus, patriarchy, structural violence brought by capitalism, and macro violence may be considered the main macro structural factors which affect women’s vulnerability to violence.

Both a high level of structural violence and few resources for social programs result in a large part of the population in postcommunist and war-affected societies being vulnerable to interpersonal violence—as victims but also as perpetrators. Structural violence contributes to gendered interpersonal violence both by causing it and by preventing society and victims from confronting it effectively. Therefore, it is not surprising that, in spite of all the positive political changes, and despite the efforts made by civil society and women’s movements, not much has changed in terms of legal and institutional reforms regarding violence against women in postcommunist countries. A close connection between the welfare state and a decrease of both shaming and violence is obvious. The problem is, however, that, because of the global expansion of neoliberal capitalism, the welfare state is presently difficult to build even in developed countries, let alone in developing ones.

  1. Nikolic-Ristanovic, V. Social change, gender and violence: post communist and war affected societies. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2002.

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