Good idea: Home sweet home

The phrase "domestic violence" tends to dictate the way that we think about the physical, sexual and psychological abuses that partners visit on one another. When violence occurs within a relationship, it is rarely analysed in terms of what happens outside the home. So a study in the current issue of the Lancet, joining the dots between political violence and "intimate-partner violence", makes for compelling, if disturbing, reading.

In a survey of just over 4,000 married Palestinian couples, Cari Clark, of the Harvard School of Public Health, and colleagues looked at how living in a war zone affected domestic life. They found that where a husband was exposed to political violence, directly or indirectly, the wife or wives were much more likely to be suffering some form of domestic violence, too. The extreme poverty that affects families in the Gaza Strip also increases these odds.

Although in areas of conflict, everyone suffers, men - the ones doing much of the fighting - tend to bear the brunt of violence. The abuses suffered by women in conflict, meanwhile, are generally framed as part of the theatre of war. "Girls and women, old and young, are preyed upon by soldiers, militia, police and armed thugs wherever conflict rages," wrote Yakin Ertürk, the UN special rapporteur on violence against women, in 2007, the year that the UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict initiative was launched. While this is undoubtedly true, the Lancet report points to a more insidious, equally ingrained problem, at the same time making a point with international significance: that domestic abuse does not occur in isolation.

Among women whose husbands had suffered the effects of political violence, the study found hugely increased odds that the wives had experienced abuse - the odds of physical violence increased by 89 per cent, and the likelihood of sexual violence rose by a staggering 123 per cent. When men had been affected indirectly, rates still leapt; and, again, sexual violence rose most (97 per cent).

This kind of violence plays on conventional gender roles and inequalities: men humiliated by their inability to protect and provide for their families, or who become victims of conflict, may be compelled to re-establish their dominance through violence.

In cases of child abuse, a link is often drawn between violence the abuser suffered when young and crimes committed as an adult. Clark's study makes the case for looking at violence between partners in the same way, but on a socio-political scale. And it provides yet another reason to decry the Palestinians' situation. As if you needed one.

This article first appeared in the 01 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Unforgiven