12/03/2013 08:00 GMT | Updated 12/05/2013 06:12 BST

Women, Men, Violence - Neither from Mars Nor From Venus

Recent high-profile cases of gang rapes and murders of young women in India and South Africa have caused anger, anguish and soul-searching across the world. However these brutal cases are only the tip of the iceberg.

Only a tiny minority of the millions of cases of violence are reported - and the survivors who do step forward are often re-victimised, shamed or blamed for what happened. Seldom are fundamental questions raised about how our perceptions of appropriate gender roles, social inequalities or cultural taboos perpetuate this violence.

This year's International Women's Day and the United Nations' Annual Conference on the Status of Women were marked by a focus on violence against women and girls, especially domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. In part, this was spurred on by the horrific cases which have made global news headlines in recent months.

More positively, though, there is increasing political will by the UK government to seriously tackle this issue, for example by making it one of the central points of its G8 Presidency, both through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office initiative on preventing sexual violence in conflict, and increased programming on violence against women and girls by the Department for International Development.

Sexual and gender-based violence, be it in the private or public sphere, in conflict-affected or more peaceful societies, is always an extremely complex issue to tackle. Beyond the personal pain and horror of the violence, it is also about wider issues of power, social norms and vulnerabilities.

Simplifications along the lines of "men are from Mars, women are from Venus" may seem plausible at first sight, but are not very helpful.

First, neither are all men always violent nor all women always peaceful. Gender roles as well as the use of violence are situational and socially learned: we are taught how to act as women and men; we learn when violence is seemingly more and when less acceptable.

Secondly, this glosses over the fact that - although the majority of victims of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence are girls and women - boys and men are also vulnerable. All the more so if the vulnerability is heightened by belonging to an otherwise disadvantaged social group, such as a sexual minority, a persecuted ethnic group or the economically precarious. While discussing sexualised violence against girls and women is difficult enough, in the case of boys and men it is often a virtual taboo.

Thirdly, female and male gender role expectations have not come from different planets, Venus and Mars, but have both been and are being constantly negotiated here, on the planet in between. They do not exist in isolation from each other but develop in relation to each other.

Tackling domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, against boys and girls, women and men, effectively requires taking the broad view. Why are the victims vulnerable? Why do the perpetrators commit their acts of violence? What can be done to support the survivors? What can be done to change societal and individual attitudes that enable the violence to occur time and again? Responding to such questions often requires breaking deeply embedded patterns of violent behaviour.

But these are not only questions that need to be tackled "out there" in the societies where the latest publicised atrocities have occurred, or in conflict zones, where these acts of violence occur on a daily basis below the international media's radar screen.

Rapes, beatings, sexual harassment and humiliation occur here as well, and ending it requires action from and with all of us, women and girls, boys and men. It also requires us to ask deep and disturbing questions about ourselves and our societies.