6.1 Defining IPV

Defining IPV

It is impossible to form a universal definition of IPV that captures the sentiments of highly varied people groups. Immigrants, refugees, and United States-born citizens come from diverse cultures, ideologies, religions, and philosophies, each of which can impact perceptions of IPV. Even within the same culture or religion, family traditions and norms might greatly influence perceptions of IPV. Recognizing the different perspectives on IPV around the world will help to identify points of ideological tension in order to better understand the factors that initiate and sustain IPV in immigrant and refugee populations.

Cultural Variation in Perceptions of IPV

The World Health Organization (WHO), which is a United Nations recognized agency, defines IPV as “behavior by an intimate partner or ex-partner that causes physical, sexual or psychological harm, including physical aggression, sexual coercion, psychological abuse and controlling behaviors” (2017). While WHO provides us with a standard definition of IPV, past and present contexts of different countries inform their IPV-focused laws and also shape individuals’ and families’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviors regarding IPV. In each culture, different implicit and explicit messages are endorsed through social, political, religious, educational, and economic institutions. The following examples highlight the variance in IPV across countries. In each case, the legal definition of IPV is similar to the WHO definition (including physical, sexual, psychological abuse and controlling behaviors), but there is wide variation in the perceptions of IPV.

  • In South Africa: Gender discrimination in a traditionally male-dominated society has promoted female objectification and discrimination. Women report not feeling permitted to stand up to or refuse male directives, which may reduce any attempts to interrupt violence or leave the relationship. This is further exacerbated by the fact that men typically hold financial control in the relationship. Approximately 50% of men physically abuse their partners (Jewkes, Levin, & Penn-Kekana, 2002).

  • In Columbia: “Machismo” attitudes continue to exist. Patriarchal hegemony seems to reinforce tolerance for violent, neglectful actions of men, while more mild acts by women (i.e., not coming home on time) are considered abusive to men (Abramzon, 2004). A government survey found the majority (64%) of people reported that if they were faced with a case of IPV, they would encourage the partners to reconcile, and a large majority (81%) was unaware that there are laws against IPV (Segura, 2015).

  • In Zimbabwe: The patriarchal framework of communities is linked to biblical texts that seem to support male oppressiveness. Zimbabwean women’s relationship behaviors are also shaped by their religious and cultural beliefs. A study by Makahamadze, Isacco, and Chireshe (2012) found that many women opposed legislation intended to reduce IPV because they believed it went against their religious teachings.

As seen in these examples, the cultural context informs how people and countries perceive and respond to IPV. It is important to be aware of the ways that national contexts and cultures can shape the interpretation and recognition of IPV.

Definition of IPV in the United States

The United States government promotes one understanding of IPV and expects those living within its borders to act in response to that understanding, albeit this view may not be shared by those from other countries-of-origin. There are four primary types of IPV as defined by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC; Breiding et al., 2015):

  1. Physical violence. This is “the intentional use of physical force with the potential for causing death, disability, injury, or harm” (Breiding et al., 2015, p. 11), including a wide range of aggressive acts (i.e., pushing, hitting, biting, and punching).

  2. Sexual violence. This includes both forcefully convincing a person into sexual acts against his/her wishes and any abusive sexual contact. Manipulating vulnerable individuals into sexual acts when they may lack the capacity to fully understand the nature of such acts is also termed sexual violence.

  3. Stalking. This includes “a pattern of repeated, unwanted, attention and contact that causes fear or concern of one’s safety or the safety of someone else” (e.g., the safety of a family member or close friend) (Breiding et al., 2015, p. 14).

  4. Psychological aggression. This includes the “use of verbal and non-verbal communication with the intent to a) harm another person mentally or emotionally; and/or b) exerting control over someone” (Brieiding et al., 2015, p. 14-15).

A single episode of violence can include one type or all four types; these categories are not mutually exclusive. IPV can occur in a range of relationships including current spouses, current non-marital partners, former marital partners, and former non-marital partners.

Are you experiencing partner violence?

Please, seek help. Everyone deserves to be physically safe and respected in their relationships. You can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-SAFE (7233) or 800-787-3224 (TDD) any time of night or day. Staff speak many languages, and they can give you the phone numbers of local shelters and other resources.


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Immigrant and Refugee Families, 2nd Ed. Copyright © 2019 by Jaime Ballard, Elizabeth Wieling, Catherine Solheim, and Lekie Dwanyen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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