Archive for the Defining Violence Category

Turning the Tide: Part 1

Posted in abortion, activism, child abuse, child marriage, child molestation, child pornography, child prostitution, child rape, Defining Violence, domestic violence, dowry crimes, elderly abuse, female genital mutilation, female infanticide, feminism, gender stereotypes, gender violence, HIV, honour crimes, human rights, India, intimate partner violence, mail-order brides, male perpetration, men, misogyny, molestation, pedophile, pedophiles, pedophilia, politics, porn, Pro-Feminist Men, Prostitution & Trafficking, rape, reproductive rights, sati, school violence, sex selective abortion, sex trafficking, sexual assault, sexual harassment, single mothers, slavery, social work, son preference, united nations, war, widow cleansing on December 6, 2007 by breatheinspirit

The below text is copyright, Broken Bodies – Broken Dreams: Violence against Women Exposed

The fight to end violence against women is both historic and universal. Historic, because gender inequality, which lies at the root of this violence, has been embedded in human history for centuries and the movement to end it challenges history, custom and, most critically, the status quo. Universal, because no society is an exception to the fact that violence against women is perpetrated through social and cultural norms that reinforce male-dominated power structures. The struggle is nothing less than a demand for full human rights to be unconditionally extended to all people everywhere.Those engaged in this struggle recognize that despite important advances that have laid the foundation for universal human rights, the work has only just begun. In October 2004, on the 25th anniversary of the landmark Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the committee monitoring international implementation stated, “In no country in the world has women’s full de jure and de facto equality been achieved.”

In most countries, in fact, the reality remains bleak. Discriminatory social norms and practices continue to impede women’s full enjoyment of their human rights. Insufficient political will, the extensive under representation of women in decision-making positions and a lack of resources to address the issue are further impediments to progress.

Asserting human rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted without dissent by the United Nations in 1948, recognizes the “equal and inalienable rights” of all people, “without distinction of any kind.” Violence against women contravenes a number of the fundamental human rights laid out in this Declaration such as the right to security of person; the right not to be held in slavery or subjected to inhuman treatment; the right to equal protection before the law; and the right to equality in marriage. Nevertheless, states sometimes deploy the argument of cultural relativism to defend practices that abuse women. According to the first United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, “The universal standards of human rights are often denied full operation when it comes to the rights of women.”

This book highlights through written description and visual representation many of the persistent expressions of gender-based violence. The testimonies of women and girls emphasise that there is no room for complacency or a false sense of rapid progress in the fight against inequality. To the countless women still suffering today, any positive changes that have been achieved must bear little relevance to their immediate reality. Nevertheless, remarkable developments have taken place in recent years, due in large part to the commitment of a few to change the behavior of many. In the face of formidable forces maintaining the patriarchal systems that give rise to both discrimination and violence against women, there is evidence that the tide may be turning.

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Dowry crimes and bride-price abuse

Posted in Asia, Defining Violence, domestic violence, dowry crimes, gender stereotypes, gender violence, India, intimate partner violence, male perpetration, politics on December 17, 2006 by breatheinspirit

 The below text is copyright, “Broken Bodies – Broken Dreams: Violence against Women Exposed.”:

“The persistence of dowry crimes

As many analysts and women’s activists are quick to point out, femicide by husbands is not unique to India, nor is it more prevalent there than in many other parts of the world. The rate of intimate-partner violence in the United States, for example, is at least commensurate with that of India when compared on the basis of population. The women’s movement in India, however, has gone to great lengths to publicize this particular form of violence against women, shedding light on the combined forces – including the lack of basic human rights and the tolerance of violence against them – that put some women and girls in mortal danger at the hands of their partners.

Although India outlawed the modern dowry system in 1961, the practice has escalated among the expanding middle class, crossing religious, socioeconomic and ethnic boundaries. The National Crimes Record Bureau of the Government of India recorded 6,917 dowry-related deaths in 1998, a 15 percent increase over the number reported in 1997. Because incidents are grossly underreported, these statistics probably represent only a small sampling of the violence occurring across India every day. In 1999, the founder of the International Society against Dowry and Bride Burning in India estimated that 25,000 brides are killed or maimed each year as a result of dowry disputes. In 2000, a United Nations report estimated that on average five Indian women a day were killed in “accidental” kitchen fires by husbands whose demands for dowry payments had not been met. “Mina” is one of these statistics.

Beaten and harassed by her husband for almost four years for not bringing in enough dowry, Mina eventually left him and filed a harassment case with the local police. Her husband convinced her to return to him, however, and shortly thereafter she suffered a fatal “accident”. According to her husband and his family, Mina “fell on a chimney.” As she lay dying from the burns that covered more than 94 percent of her body, Mina was asked by police – as is customary – to make a declaration regarding the accident. She did so, absolving her husband and his family of any responsibility for her death.

From empowerment to exploitation

A chief historic motivation for bestowing dowry, as practiced in ancient Greece, Rome, India and medieval Europe, was to provide a degree of financial autonomy to a bride, how otherwise had little or no right to property after marriage. According to various traditions, dowry might flow from the groom and/or his family to the bride – thus ensuring her economic wellbeing in the event of her husband’s death or the dissolution of the marriage – or from the bride’s parents to the bride and her new husband, as a form of bequest, or premortem inheritance, for their daughter.

Now practiced primarily in Asian cultures, dowry payment in its current manifestation typically involves the transfer of wealth from the parents of the bride to the groom and his family. Although women and girls are no longer the direct beneficiaries, some researchers maintain that the practice still confers benefits to the bride by enhancing her status in the marital home. Evidence from India, however, indicates that the positive effects of dowry for wives have more than diminished. Once considered a beneficent and even spiritual act observed only by the wealthiest and holiest castes (with the lower castes practicing the more pragmatic tradition of bride price, involving compensation by the groom’s family to the bride’s family for the loss of human capital), the dowry system today often functions more as a commercial transaction and has been resolutely embraced by the middle and lower classes.

India’s modern dowry: groom price

Several theories have been advanced to explain why the middle and lower classes in India replaced the custom of bride price with the dowry system. Some suggest that it was an attempt by lower casts to emulate higher castes. Dowry payment became a status symbol, one that bestowed greater respectability on the bride and her family and increased the likelihood of the bride “marrying up”. It continues today because of caste-related systems of wealth dispersion. Another hypothesis contends that the interrelated influences of colonialism and the rise of a male-dominated market economy led to the devaluation of women, who lost their productive worth.

Others cite demographic shifts in South Asia as a possible reason for the change. Reductions in overall mortality that began about 60 years ago have resulted in there being more young people than old in the region. Because women are likely to marry at a younger age than men, there is a surplus of marriageable women. Increasingly inflated dowry payments are sometimes six times the bride’s family’s annual income. These dowries now function as a groom price – a means for young women to compete for respectable husbands. According to this hypothesis, recent declines in fertility and increases in sex-selective abortions should reverse the trend of escalating dowries over time and may even result in a return to bride price as the shortage of eligible women and girls results in men competing for wives.”

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Sexual Assault and Harassment: Part 2

Posted in child marriage, child rape, Defining Violence, feminism, gender stereotypes, gender violence, intimate partner violence, male perpetration, rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment on December 4, 2006 by breatheinspirit

The below text is copyright, “Broken Bodies – Broken Dreams: Violence against Women Exposed“:

“Generating reliable data on sexual violence

According to a sexual violence expert from the United States, “rape appears in many guises” and, as such, requires careful investigative methods that capture the range of women’s and girl’s experiences. When researchers use narrow definitions of sexual violence, the reported rates of sexual crimes are likely to be relatively low. Crime-victim surveys reflect this: While they are useful because of their broad scope and comparable methodology, questions on sexual violence may not discriminate between different types of sexual assaults and/or perpetrators. In data presented by the WHO on a select number of crime-victim surveys, rates of reported sexual victimization (recorded in the five years to each survey) range from less than 2 percent in Bolivia, Botswana, China and the Philippines to 5 percent or more in Albania, Argentina, Brazil and Columbia.

Although still scarce and somewhat difficult to compare because of differences in data-collection techniques and definitions used, more targeted sexual violence surveys typically generate higher rates of reporting among participants. A variety of such surveys from the United States, for example, suggest that between 14 percent and 20 percent of the general population of women in that country will be raped at least once in their lifetime. In the Czech Republic, 11.6 percent of women responding to a national survey reported that they had experienced forced sexual contact, most commonly in the form of vaginal intercourse. Forty percent of a random sample of 420 women in Toronto, Canada, reported at least one episode of forced sexual intercourse since the age of 16. Specific subgroups are at an even greater risk. Research from the United States on women with disabilities, for example, indicates they are at one-and-a-half time greater risk of sexual victimization than women without disabilities.

The use of explicit questions in these surveys helps to overcome underreporting related to biases or preconceptions associated with the semantics of rape. Even employing the language of forced or coerced sex, rather than rape, can produce more accurate estimates of women’s and girl’s exposure to sexual violence. In a South African Study, 11 percent of the adolescents surveyed said they had been raped, but further 72 percent reported being subjected to forced sex. A survey of unmarried adolescents seeking abortions in 17 hospitals in China found that 48 percent had experienced sexual coercion at least once.

An increasing number of studies have focused on the issue of coerced or forced sexual initiation among adolescent girls. Average estimates of coerced first sex among adolescents around the world range from 10 percent to 30 percent, but in some settings, such as Cameroon and Peru, the number is closer to 40 percent. In a survey of high school students in Korea, 39 percent of sexually active females reported that their first experience of sex was the result of force or pressure from their partner. Studies of nine countries in the Caribbean estimated that incidents of forced first intercourse were as high as 48 percent.

 Identifying the Perpetrators

Many studies have confirmed that most perpetrators of sexual violence are known to the victim. In fact, according to the WHO, “One of the most common forms of sexual violence around the world is that which is perpetrated by an intimate partner.” In a recent study of a representative sample of married and unmarried young men and women in Kenya, more than one in five sexually experienced young women had been subjected to nonconsensual sex. Those who had been married were at a greater risk of coercion than respondents who had never been married, and husbands were often identified as perpetrators. Other studies from around the world that have specifically investigated intimate-partner violence suggest that on average one in five women has been forced to have sex by her partner – in some settings those numbers are much higher. In general, sexual assaults by intimate partners are reported tow to eight times more often than assaults by strangers.

One sexual violence expert concluded, “The most important lesson learned about interpersonal violence in the past 20 years is how frequently it is perpetrated by apparently normal individuals.” Rather than verifying assumptions that rape is committed by a small number of disturbed men, research suggests that many men around the world share the attitudes and beliefs necessary to commit an act of sexual violence. In other words, the “high prevalence of rape largely reflects a high level of social tolerance of the crime.”

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Male Perpetration: Part 2

Posted in Defining Violence, domestic violence, feminism, gender stereotypes, gender violence, intimate partner violence, male perpetration, politics, Prostitution & Trafficking, rape on November 2, 2006 by breatheinspirit

The below text is copyright, “Broken Bodies – Broken Dreams: Violence against Women Exposed.”: 

“Making man myths

Cross-cultural studies reveal that in most communities simple anatomical maleness is not enough to be a man. Real manhood lies elsewhere and is often a “precarious or artificial state that boys must win against powerful odds.” Does this “masculine mystique” encourage toughness, dominance and extreme competitiveness at the expense of honest emotion, empathy and communication?

Violence against women is more predominant in cultures where the idea of manhood is linked to entitlement to power or male honor. Historically, wars have been intensely masculine endeavors and the majority of all warriors, soldiers, admirals, police, militias and prison wardens are and have been men. In addition, bureaucrats, politicians and those who monopolize the systems of collective institutional violence throughout the world are men.

As boys become men within these societies, attributes of action, decisiveness, aggression and supremacy are prized and closely associated with “manhood”. These qualities, however fallacious, are perpetuated and considered the “natural” order and the preserve of masculinity. The expression of these characteristics in different societies can range from subtle to overt. Socialization of this kind negatively impacts both women and men. A recent publication from Brazil called Dying to Be Men – based on studies of violent male behavior in the United States, the Caribbean, Brazil and Nigeria – suggests that because young men are losing their lives in their attempts to embody certain models of masculinity, they are literally “dying to be men”.

In many non-Western societies, strict social rules that perpetuate the notion of the dominant male also deny women access to public life, private property, or even joint custody of their children. A woman is the protected possession of a man – his housekeeper, cook, monogamous sex partner and mother of his children. Even in countries that are considered more advanced in terms of democracy and representation – those with gender-sensitive legislation and significant structural equality between the sexes – violence against women continues. Many observers blame the influence of modern media, in particular television, films and advertising, for both subtly and explicitly perpetuating patriarchal role models for men and women.

Myriam Miedzan’s Boys Will Be Boys: Breaking the Link Between Maculinity and Violence examines how and why males are increasingly resorting to violence and what society can do about it. “As long as male behavior is taken to be the norm,” she writes, “there can be no serious questioning of male traits and behavior. A norm is by definition a standard of judging; it is not itself subject to judgment.”

Violence and Sexual Abuse in marriage

In South Africa, researchers for the Medical Research Council estimated in 2004 that male partners kill their girlfriends or spouses at the rate of one every six hours – the highest mortality rate for domestic violence ever recorded, they claim. According to the United Nations report that same year, domestic violence accounted for more than 60 percent of murder cases in court in Harare, Zimbabwe. In Zambia, a recent study found that nearly half the women surveyed had been beaten by a male partner.

Outside Africa and throughout the world, similar statistics for domestic abuse are staggering, with only a small minority of communities apparently free from violence. “For God’s Sake!” exploded one Nigerian when questioned about his wife-beating. “You are head of the home as the man – you must have a home submissive to you.”

A high number of women who report domestic violence also report rape within their relationship. “My sex life in marriage has been dominated by rape, rape, rape – and nothing to do with love,” concluded one woman from Latin America, echoing similar claims by women interviewed in different contexts around the world.

All too often sex in marriage is not a mutually pleasurable act but a brutal service exacted by force, threat or social convention.

According to one expert on domestic violence, “At an individual level, some men are more likely to sexually assault women: men who have hostile and negative sexual attitudes towards women, who identify with traditional images of masculinity and male gender role privilege, who believe in rape stereotypes, and who see violence as manly and desirable. … Men with more traditional, rigid and misogynistic gender-role attitudes are more likely to practice marital violence.”

The perpetrators of rape within marriage are not readily characterized as any particular group. Using force in marriage to gain sexual access is a cross-cultural and cross-societal is not the monopoly of any economic or social class. In many cases those who are accused or – in isolated instances – convicted of rape in marriage may not conform to popular notions of what a rapist is. Perpetrators of rape in cultures that expect and condone the brutal deflowering of a young bride (sometimes with knives) may be committing a severe assault and rights abuse, but they would be surprised to be labeled a rapist, which illustrates the complexity of dealing with these issues on a global basis.

There are common myths about perpetrators of domestic violence. These include the notion that domestic violence is rare or that perpetrators are somehow “abnormal” men who cannot control their anger. In reality, most men who beat their wives do not exhibit violent or antisocial traits outside the home. The idea that perpetrators are driven to violence by the behavior of their partners is also a myth, as perpetrators are often unaffected by their partners’ efforts to change or avoid so-called “provocative” behavior. The notion that poverty causes violence is a myth as well: Poverty can be a contributing factor to domestic abuse, but intimate-partner violence exists at every socioeconomic level.

Whatever the myths may be, it is indisputable that domestic violence has especially frightening and tragic implications for victims, who are locked socially, economically and often emotionally into the abusing relationship and share a home with their abuser. In many countries, the environment outside the home is fiercely unwelcoming to women who leave or divorce violent husbands, seek refuge or protective custody away from their partners, or seek legal redress. In Nigeria, where there are over 130 million people and wife battering is widespread, there are only two shelters for battered women.

Law enforcement in many countries will not intervene in what is still regarded as a domestic quarrel, despite evidence indicating that without intervention (legal or social) abusers are unlikely to seek rehabilitation or stop their battering behavior. In most cases law enforcement and the judiciary are run entirely by men, who are part of the patriarchal society that tacitly or overtly perpetuates attitudes that tolerate beating women. Numerous reports from Latin America, the Middle East and Central and South Asia cite examples where law enforcement officials have delivered wives who had been beaten back to the very families and perpetrators from whom they sought refuge.

Training programs and special units of law enforcement to assist victims of domestic violence have been developed only recently in a select number of countries. It was originally believed that if a victim of domestic violence could leave the abusive relationship the violence would stop, but now it is widely accepted that leaving does not guarantee an end to the abuse. In fact, separation is often the riskiest time for women, as many abusive men continue to harass, stalk and harm their victims long after the separation, sometimes resulting in murder. In one United States study, 70 percent of the reported injuries from domestic violence occurred after a couple separated.

Many working in the field maintain that the most effective way to stop perpetrators abusing their partners is arrest and incarceration. Legally and socially, however, societies still struggle with the complexities of domestic violence, the gravity of the crime and their overall commitment to tackling it.

Great strides have been made in terms of highlighting the scale and scope of intimate-partner violence over the last two decades. While the problem remains great, there is some evidence of progress, particularly in settings where women’s rights and choices have increased and they have gained more economic independence. But in more traditional societies, where a woman is secondary to the male head of the house and where male domination or patriarchy is more overt, the overwhelming majority of violence against women goes unreported, forcing women to suffer in silence. Documenting the prevalence of male violence against women in the home in more traditional cultures warrants further research.

In recent years, much has been made of certain studies indicating that men are also victims of domestic abuse where the perpetrators are women. Some suggest that there is a degree of “gender symmetry” in domestic violence – that women abuse their partners at similar rates as men – but a closer look at the methodology used in these studies casts doubts over the veracity of these claims. Opposing studies show that only 5 percent of domestic violence cases involve female perpetrators. An examination of the reality of power relations, access to economic resources and possibilities for separation or divorce indicates that by any standards the violence and vulnerability of men who are abused by female partners is of a different calibre that the pandemic of abuse of women by male partners throughout the world.”

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Defining Violence against Women

Posted in Defining Violence on August 19, 2006 by breatheinspirit

“I feel threatened because if he did not kill me this time he will kill me the next time…We women are alone. There is no one to protect us.” – Seventeen-year-old survivor of intimate partner violence who was stabbed by her husband, Nicaragua

The quote above and all the quoted text below is from, “Broken Bodies – Broken Dreams: Violence against Women Exposed” (IRIN):

“It has been estimated that at least one in every three women around the globe “has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime.” In many settings, the percentage is even higher. From birth to death, millions of women are directly exposed to violence, and an even greater number are forced to live with the fear its pervasiveness instils. As numerous investigators and activists have highlighted and as this book graphically reiterates, violence against women may begin even before birth: In certain parts of the world, sex-selective abortions of female foetuses, female infanticide, and fatal neglect of girl children have caused dramatic imbalances in sex ratios between males and females. Some researchers place the global number of “missing” females – those who should currently be living but are not because of discriminatory practices – at between 50 million and 100 million.

During childhood, girls may be up to three times more likely to experience sexual abuse than boys, and some data indicate that they are the majority of all incest victims. Of the almost two million children being exploited in prostitution and pornography worldwide, 80 percent to 90 percent are girls in most countries. In the rapidly increasing global trafficking market well over a half-million human beings are forcibly or coercively transported across international borders each year – an estimated 80 percent of these victims are women and girls, and most of the are believed to be trafficked into the commercial sex industry.

In adulthood and even into old age, women continue to be at risk of specific forms of violence simply by virtue of being female. Most of their abusers are known to them – they are boyfriends, husbands and other family members, people from their community and, in the case of older adults, those specifically designated as caregivers.

The inconceivable repercussions

The human injustice of such violence is almost inconceivable in its scale. An estimated 100 million to 140 million girls alive today have undergone some form of medically unwarranted genital cutting. In 2000, a United Nations report estimated that on average five Indian women a day were killed in “accidental” kitchen fires by husbands or in-laws whose demands for dowry had not been met. In other parts of the world, thousands of women are murdered each year in the name of family “honour”, and in most instances, their murderers receive little to no punishment. In times of war, women are increasingly targeted for rape and other assaults so extreme in their brutality that in the Democratic Republic of Congo violence against women has been coined “murderous madness”. Only a negligible fraction of these perpetrators will ever be prosecuted for their heinous crimes.

Just as difficult to conceive are the public-health implications of violence against women. Complication from pregnancy and child-bearing are the leading cause of death for 15- to 19-year-old girls worldwide, a fact made all the more alarming by widespread child marriages. A projected 82 million girls around the world who are now between the ages of 10 and 17 will be married before their 18th birthdays. The health risks of marriage are not limited to pregnancy. In 1997, the United States Surgeon General concluded that violence committed against women by their intimate partners posses the single largest threat to all American women, and similiar conclusions have been drawn from studies in Europe and Australia. According to a 1993 World Development Report, violence “is as serious a cause of death and incapacity among women of reproductive age as cancer, and a greater cause of ill-health than traffic accidents and malaria combined.”

The development implications are no better. In the words of the United Nations Secretary-General, any society which fails to take measures to protect the safety and well-being of half of its members “cannot claim to be making real progress.” Violence against women drains a country’s existing resources and handicaps women’s ability to contribute to social and economic progress. According to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, women are nine times more likely than men to leave their jobs as a result of sexual harassment. In some industrialised settings, the annual costs of intimate-partner expenses for one act of rape in the United States, when accounting for both tangible and intangible costs, may amount to US $100,000.

However immense in scope and impact, violence against women is not inevitable. At the same time that activists have been struggling to expose its magnitude, they have been working towards its elimination. An important part of these efforts has been defining exactly what violence against women entails and, in the process, identifying its root causes.

Defining violence against women

One of the great victories of women’s rights activists over the last 10 years is that “the political climate surrounding the rights of women has shifted from refusing to admit that violence against women is a problem, to an almost universal understanding that it is the ultimate expression of the subordinate status of women globally.”

In 1993, the United Nations General Assemble adopted the watershed Declaration of the Elimination of Violence Against Women, in which violence against women was defined 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 private life.” In emphasising the centrality of gender, the definition speaks to the necessity of examining the societal and relational contexts in which violence against women and girls occurs.

One conundrum of the United Nations definition – especially when taken out of the context of the entire Declaration – is its circularity: Neither gender-based violence nor violence against women is actually defined. Despite, or perhaps because of this, the term gender-based violence has come to be used synonymously with violence against women. When removed from the Declaration’s tautology, however, gender-based violence stands alone to describe harm perpetrated against any person – male or female – that is instigated or exacerbated by exploiting social roles ascribed to men and to women. As such, the term may not only refer to violence against women, but also to certain manifestations of violence against men.

To the extent that this book focuses on violence against women, the term gender-based violence, when it is applied herein, refers to women. While recognising that boys and men in some instances may be exposed to gendered violence, women’s inferior status virtually everywhere in the world means that they are its primary targets. The term is therefore used in this book to emphasise the fact that violence against women is fundamentally related to discrimination, the foundations of which are deeply rooted in nearly universal attitudes and behaviors that reinforce women’s subordination. The preamble to the Declaration makes this clear: “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. ” The Declaration goes on to say that “violence against women is one of the crucial social mechanisms by which women are forced into a subordinate position compared with men.”

Thus, gender is one of the most significant factors around the world in the perpetuation of violence against women, however. Additional measures include class, race, poverty, ethnicity and age. In fact, where gender bias intersects with these “other sites of oppression”, levels of discrimination are likely to be compounded, “forcing the majority of the world’s women into situations of double or triple marginalization.”

Grasping the context of gender-based violence

Any effort to understand violence against women must be located within the larger framework of gender inequality. Women are the majority of the world’s poor. Seventy percent of people living in poverty – those surviving on less than $1 per day – are women. In many countries, women are less likely than men to hold paid and regular jobs within the formal employment sector – where the benefits and security of employment are most reliable – and therefore more likely to suffer the financial instabilities inherent in the informal economy.

In addition, women represent more than two-thirds of the world’s illiterate. While gender disparities in education are shrinking globally, in many parts of the world they still “yawn wide”. The predictable outcome of women’s lack of education, especially when combined with other forms of discrimination, means that they are almost entirely excluded from the corridors of power: Women hold only 15.6 percent of elected parliamentary seats globally. Without admission to decision-making structures, they are less able to determine and enforce the laws and policies that are meant to protect them.

As a result, in many countries women are not accorded the same basic legal rights and social privileges as men. In some settings, women have no right to own or inherit housing, land or property. In fact, they own only 1 percent of the world’s land. Not surprisingly, the majority of the one billion inadequately housed persons in the world are women. In a number of countries, marriage laws discriminate against them, in terms of the legal age of marriage, for example, as well as the right to divorce.

Against a backdrop defined by widespread inequities, women’s ability to assert their rights is crippled. The conclusion of the World Economic Forum’s 2005 study on the global gender gap elucidates the problem: “The reality is the no country in the world, no matter how advanced, has achieved true gender equality, as measured by comparable decision making power, equal opportunity for education and advancement, and equal participation and status in all walks of human endeavour.” Such is the context in which gender-based violence breeds impunity.

Women’s Rights: from invisible to indivisible

Throughout history, acts of gender-based violence have been explicitly endorsed or implicitly condoned by the male-dominated societies in which they are committed. This is in part because these violations must often occur in private spheres – traditionally considered beyond purview of international and national law. It is also due to the self-interest and self-preservation of patriarchy. According to the World Health Organization, “Something that greatly encourages violence – and is a formidable obstacle in responding to it – is complacency. Often, this complacency is strongly reinforced by self-interest.” Violence against women is a method by which men assert their social control; when it goes unchecked it is a method of propagating that control. In the absence of justice and in the presence of fear, women may not challenge the presumption of male dominion because to do so would put them at further risk. And so, the vicious circle of gender-based violence continues.

Women’s rights activists are working to break this cycle. By insisting that violence against women constitutes a fundamental violation of basic human rights – human rights codified by men in international law – they have succeeded in making the invisible both visible and indivisible. They have brought violence against women “outside its protective shell of culture and tradition and focused attention on state responsibility to work to eliminate it.” Article 4 of the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women unequivocally asserts, “States should condemn violence against women and should not invoke any custom, tradition, or religious consideration to avoid their obligations with respect to its elimination.”

The Declaration goes further in making explicit what gender-based violence entails. It includes, but is not limited to “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; 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, and physical, sexual and psychological violence perpetrated or condoned by the state, wherever it occurs.”

Breaking the silence: promoting empowerment

In the words of one female victim of violence, “The less we speak about it, the more it hurts.” This is as true at the societal level as it is for the individual. Even so, calling attention to violence against women presents risks, especially when individuals – and the cultures they represent – aggressively insist that their attitudes and actions related to subordination of women are integral to their customs and traditions and that challenges to those traditions are an intrusion of foreign values.

The concept of human rights is not foreign to any culture, however, and not all traditional practices are harmful to women. The line cannot be strictly drawn between foreign and traditional ideals. The essential ideological divide is instead one that is internal to every culture around the world – where one set of beliefs seeks to justify discrimination against women and an opposing set of beliefs seeks to uphold the fundamental equality and human rights of all people, both women and men.

This book is based on the premise that human rights are both universal and indivisible. It draws on the decades of work by researchers and activists committed to exposing and eradicating violence against women. It insists – once again – that the issue of violence against women be acknowledged and confronted. The results of such confrontation have never been, and never will be, a “zero-sum game” for men, or for societies. Putting an end to gender-based violence will bring us that much closer to a stage of human social development in which “the rights, responsibilities, and opportunities of individuals will not be determined by the fact of being male or female.” The goal is to create a world where all people, regardless of their gender, are free to achieve their full potential.”

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