What is domestic violence?

Domestic violence is any abusive act within a single or common household, family or intimate relationship between actual spouses or former spouses. In most societies, domestic violence affects more women than men and it is the most common type of gender-based violence.

Gender-based violence is any violence that is directed against a woman because she is a woman or that affects women disproportionally. 

Domestic violence is any act of physical, sexual, psychological, verbal, emotional or economic violence that occurs within a couple, i.e., when the victim and perpetrator are or were in a romantic relationship. Domestic violence applies to all types of couples, whether it occurs between actual or former spouses, existing or former partners in an unregistered relationship or in a civil partnership,  and whether or not the perpetrator shares or has shared the same residence with the victim.

All forms of domestic violence are prohibited and punishable by law, whether physical, psychological, financial, or sexual in nature. Domestic violence is punishable even if the couple is divorced or separated or have broken their civil union.

Domestic violence & Discrimination

Domestic violence is considered to be a form of discrimination against women as it affects proportionally more women than men. Indeed, the vast majority of domestic violence is perpetrated against women by men, however it can also occur in same-sex relationships, and there are also cases of women abusing their male partners.

Moreover, domestic violence should be addressed in a wider context than interpersonal relationships, as abusive relationships, in which it is mainly women who suffer from men, is not the root problem. Instead, it is believed that domestic violence is encouraged by other forms of discrimination which women encounter in the labour market, the public space, the media etc. Indeed, gender inequality and violence against women are closely interconnected issues: gender discrimination is a root cause of violence against women (including domestic violence) and on the other side, violence against women is likely to reinforce and perpetuate gender inequality.

One explanation for this is that gender inequality and discrimination often leads to power imbalance between men and women, with men holding more power and control in society. This power imbalance can lead to male dominance and the belief that men have the right to control and dominate women. These attitudes are reinforced by the social and cultural environment, which can lead to acceptance and perpetuation of violence against women. It can also make women more vulnerable to violence as they may have limited means to protect themselves or seek help.

The special character of domestic violence

Domestic violence is a cycle of physical, sexual, verbal, emotional or economic invasion, which is repeated more and more often, and is realized against the victim by his or her partner  with the aim of gaining power, control, and authority over the victim. It includes any behaviours that frighten, intimidate, terrorize, manipulate, hurt, humiliate, blame, injure, or wound someone. Domestic violence is very specific because it is a relational type of violence, and therefore the dynamics are very different from violent incidents occurring among strangers.

The power and control over a victim of domestic violence is a particular characteristic of domestic violence and differentiates it from other acts of violence. Indeed, it is important to distinguish between marital disputes and domestic violence. In marital disputes, both partners exchange their points of view in a relationship of equality, whereas cases of domestic violence involve a relationship of domination where the perpetrator takes power over the victim. Thus, to help victims of domestic violence to safely exit their relationship, it is not only necessary to understand the phenomenon of domestic violence, but also to create safe exit strategies and provide State guaranteed protection and assistance to victims.

About this section

This section of the Guide will explain how to recognize domestic violence and which human rights may be violated as a result of it. 


Last updated 26/10/2023