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Definitions of sexual and gender-based violence

Gender-based violence 

The term “gender-based violence” refers to violence that targets individuals or groups on the basis of their gender. The United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) defines it as “violence that is directed against a woman because she is a woman or that affects women disproportionately”, in its General Recommendation 19.

This includes acts that inflict physical, mental or sexual harm or suffering, the threat of such acts, coercion and other deprivations of liberty. Together with “sexual violence” and “violence against women”, ”gender-based violence” is used interchangeably.

This does not mean that all acts against a woman are gender-based violence, or that all victims of gender-based violence are female. The surrounding circumstances where men are victim of sexual violence could be a man being harassed, beaten or killed because they do not conform to view of masculinity, which are accepted by the society.

Violence against women

Violence against women is defined by the UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, adopted by the General Assembly on 20 December 1993, as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life”. It is a form of gender-based violence and includes sexual violence.

The Declaration states in its introduction that “[Violence against women] is a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women, which have led to domination over and discrimination against women by men and to the prevention of the full advancement of women, and that violence against women is one of the crucial social mechanisms by which women are forced into a subordinate position compared with men”.

Sexual Violence

Sexual violence includes sexual exploitation and sexual abuse. It refers to any act, attempt, or threat of a sexual nature that result, or is likely to result in, physical, psychological and emotional harm. Sexual violence is a form of gender-based violence. 

Expanded Definition of Sexual and Gender-based Violence used by the UNHCR and implementing partners, Article 2 of the UN General Assembly Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (1993):

“Violence against women shall be understood to encompass, but not be limited to, the following:

  1. Physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring in the family, including battering, sexual abuse of female children in the household, dowry-related violence, marital rape, female genital mutilation and other traditional practices harmful to women, non-spousal violence and violence related to exploitation;
  2. Physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring within the general community, including rape, sexual abuse, sexual harassment and intimidation at work, in educational institutions and elsewhere, trafficking in women and forced prostitution;
  3. Physical, sexual and psychological violence perpetrated or condoned by the State, wherever it occurs.”


Sex is defined as “biological characteristics of males and females. The characteristics are congenital and their differences are limited to physiological reproductive functions”.


Gender is the term used to denote the social characteristics assigned to men and women. These social characteristics are constructed on the basis of different factors, such as age, religion, national, ethnic and social origin. They differ both within and between cultures and define identities, status, roles, responsibilities and power relations among the members of any culture or society. Gender is learned through socialisation. It is not static or innate, but evolves to respond to changes in the social, political and cultural environment. People are born female or male (sex); they learn how to be girls and boys, and then become women and men (gender). Gender refers to what it means to be a boy or a girl, woman or man, in a particular society or culture. Society teaches expected attitudes, behaviours, roles, responsibilities, constraints, opportunities and privileges of men and women in any context. This is learned behaviour known as gender identity. 


Violence is a means of control and oppression that can include emotional social or economic force, coercion or pressure, as well as physical harm. It can be overt, in the form of physical assault or threatening someone with a weapon; it can also be covert, in the form of intimidation, threats, persecution deception or other forms of psychological or social pressure. The person targeted by this kind of violence is compelled to behave as expected or to act against her will out of fear.

An incident of violence is an act or a series of harmful acts by a perpetrator or a group of perpetrators against a person or a group of individuals. It may involve multiple types of and repeated acts of violence over a period of time, with variable durations. It can take minutes, hours, days, or a lifetime. 


Abuse is the misuse of power through which the perpetrator gains control or advantage of the abused, using and causing physical or psychological harm or inflicting or inciting fear of that harm. Abuse prevents persons from making free decisions and forces them to behave against their will. 


Coercion is forcing, or attempting to force, another person to engage in behaviours against her will by using threats, verbal insistence, manipulation, deception, cultural expectations or economic power. 


Power is understood as the capacity to make decisions. All relationships are affected by the exercise of power. When power is used to make decision regarding one’s own life, it becomes an affirmation of self acceptance and self-respect that, in turn, fosters respect and acceptance of others as equals. When used to dominate, power imposes obligations on, restricts, prohibits and makes decisions about the lives of others. 


A person consents when he or she makes an informed choice to agree freely and voluntarily to do something. There is no consent when agreement is obtained through the use of threats, force or other forms of coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, or misrepresentation.

Threatening to withhold, or promising to provide a benefit in order to obtain the agreement of a person constitutes an abuse of power. Any agreement obtained in such a way, or from a person who is below the legal (statutory) age of consent, or is defined as a child under applicable laws, is not considered to be consensual. 


A perpetrator is a person, group, or institution that directly inflicts, supports and condones violence or other abuse against a person or a group of persons. Perpetrators are in a position of real or perceived power, decision-making and/or authority and can thus exert control over their victims.

Types of Sexual and Gender-based Violence

There are 5 types of Sexual and Gender-based violence; Sexual Violence, Physical Violence, Emotional and Psychological Violence, Harmful Traditional Practices and Socio-Economic Violence.

Sexual Violence

  1. Rape and marital rape
    The invasion of any part of the body of the victim or of the perpetrator with a sexual organ, or of the anal or genital opening of the victim with any object or any other part of the body by force, coercion, taking advantage of a coercive environment, or against a person incapable of giving genuine consent (International Criminal Court).
  2. Child sexual abuse, defilement and incest
    Any act where a child is used for sexual gratification. Any sexual relations/interaction with a child.
  3. Forced sodomy/anal rape
    Forced/coerced anal intercourse, usually male-to-male or male-to-female.
  4. Attempted rape or attempted forced sodomy/anal rape
    Attempted forced/coerced intercourse; no penetration.
  5. Sexual abuse
    Actual or threatened physical intrusion of a sexual nature, including inappropriate touching, by force or under unequal or coercive conditions.
  6. Sexual exploitation
    Any abuse of a position of vulnerability, differential power, or trust for sexual purposes; this includes profiting momentarily, socially or politically from the sexual exploitation of another; Sexual exploitation is one of the purposes of trafficking in persons (performing in a sexual manner, forced undressing and/or nakedness, coerced marriage, forced childbearing, engagement in pornography or prostitution, sexual extortion for the granting of goods, services, assistance benefits, sexual slavery).
  7. Forced prostitution (also referred to as sexual exploitation)
    Forced/coerced sex trade in exchange for material resources, services and assistance, usually targeting highly vulnerable women or girls unable to meet basic human needs for themselves and/or their children.
  8. Sexual harassment
    Any unwelcome, usually repeated and unreciprocated sexual advance, unsolicited sexual attention, demand for sexual access or favours, sexual innuendo or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature, display or pornographic material, when it interferes with work, is made a condition of employment or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.
  9. Sexual violence as a weapon of war and torture
    Crimes against humanity of a sexual nature, including rape, sexual slavery, forced abortion or sterilisation or any other forms to prevent birth, forced pregnancy, forced delivery, and forced child rearing, among others. Sexual violence as a form of torture is a defined as any act or threat of a sexual nature by which severe mental or physical pain or suffering is caused to obtain information, confession of punishment from the victim or third person, intimidate her or a third person or to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.

Physical Violence

  1. Physical Assault
    Beating, punching, kicking, biting, burning, maiming or killing, with or without weapons; often in combinations with other forms of sexual and gender-based violence.
  2. Trafficking, slavery
    Selling and/or trading in human beings for forced sexual activities, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slaver, servitude or removal of organs.

Emotional and Psychological Violence

  1. Abuse/Humiliation
    Non-sexual verbal abuse that is insulting, degrading, demeaning; compelling the victim/survivor to engage in humiliating acts, whether in public or private; denying basic expenses for family survival.
  2. Confinement
    Isolating a person from friends/family, restricting movements, deprivation of liberty or obstruction/restriction of the right to free movement.

Harmful Traditional Practices

  1. Female genital mutilation (FGM)
    Cutting of genital organs for non-medical reasons, usually done at a young age; ranges from partial or total cutting, removal of genitals stitching whether for cultural or non-therapeutic reasons; often undergone several times during life-time, i.e., after delivery or if a girl/woman has been victim of sexual assault.
  2. Early marriage
    Arranged marriage under the age of legal consent (sexual intercourse in such relationships constitutes statutory rape, as the girls are not legally competent to agree to such unions).
  3. Forced marriage
    Arranged marriage against the victim’s/survivor’s wishes, which is exposed to violent and/or abusive consequences if he/she refuses to comply.
  4. Honour killing and maiming
    Maiming or murdering a woman or a girl as a punishment for acts considered inappropriate with regards to her gender, and which are believed to bring shame on the family or community (e.g. pouring acid on a young woman’s face as punishment for bringing shame to the family for attempting to marry someone not chosen by the family), or to preserve the honour of the family (i.e. as a redemption for an offence committed by a male member of the family).
  5. Infanticide and/or neglect
    Killing, withholding food from, and/or neglecting female children because they are considered to be of less value in a society than male children.
  6. Denial of education for girls or women
    Removing girls from school, prohibiting or obstructing access of girls and women to basic, technical, professional or scientific knowledge.

Socio-Economic Violence

  1. Discrimination and/or denial of opportunities, services
    Exclusion, denial of access to education, health assistance or remunerated employment; denial of property rights.
  2. Social exclusion/ostracism based on sexual orientation
    Denial of access to services or social benefits, prevention of the exercise and enjoyment of civil, social, economic, cultural and political rights, imposition of criminal penalties, discriminatory practises or physical and psychological harm and tolerance of discriminatory practices, public or private hostility to homosexuals, transsexuals or transvestites.
  3. Obstructive legislative practice
    Prevention of the exercise and enjoyment of civil, social, economic, cultural and political rights by women.


Sexual and Gender-Based Violence against Refugees, Returnees and Internally Displaced Persons” 
UNHCR, May 2003 

Its in our hands Stop the Violence Against Women
Amnesty International publication, 2004 

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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