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Ending Violence Against Women

Overview

"Women have the right to live their lives free from violence in all its forms. It is incumbent upon all of us to create an environment where this objective can be achieved."

- Dr. Julian Robert Hunte, UN General Assembly President, 2003 - 2004

An age-old human rights violation that knows no geographical or cultural bounds, violence affects one in three women. A growing public health concern, violence not only devastates lives and communities, but also poses a serious impediment to the economic development of nations. Violence against women cannot be stereotyped. Every day, thousands of women across the world are subject to rape, beatings, torture, physical intimidation and murder by male intimate partners, family members, acquaintances, colleagues, soldiers, men in civil authority, and strangers.

A 2002 study by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe revealed that violence is a major cause of death and disability for women aged 15 to 44 years. A 1993 World Bank study found that women between these ages are more at risk of experiencing rape and domestic violence than cancer, motor vehicle accidents, war and malaria (World Bank, 1993). Moreover, as the trafficking of women into prostitution grows in scale across the world, the threat of women contracting HIV/AIDS has also increased.

Facts and Figures

  • Women aged between 15 and 44 years of age are more at risk of experiencing rape and domestic violence than cancer, motor vehicle accidents, war and malaria (World Bank, 1993).

  • At least one in every three women, or up to one billion women, have been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in their lifetimes. Usually, the abuser is a member of her own family or someone known to her (L Heise, M Ellsberg, M Gottemoeller, 1999).

  • Up to 47% of women report that their first sexual intercourse was forced (WHO, 2002).

  • Studies from Australia, Canada, Israel, South Africa and the United States of America show that 40–70% of female murder victims were killed by their husbands or boyfriends (WHO, 2002).

  • In 2003, at least 54 countries had discriminatory laws against women (UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, 2003).

  • 79 countries have no (or unknown) legislation against domestic violence (UNIFEM, 2003).

  • Marital rape is recognised specifically as a crime in only 51 countries as far as information was available (UNIFEM, 2003).

  • Around 20-70% of abused women never told another person about the abuse until being interviewed for the study by World Health Organisation (WHO, Geneva, 2002)

Violence against Women

Violence against women stems from a complex combination of socio-political factors, and is generally rooted in inequality and discrimination based on deeply entrenched attitudes about gender roles. It is also compounded by factors such as race, class and age.

Not only do these lead to violence perpetrated against women, this culture of discrimination leaves women feeling disempowered and helpless in their situations as state agencies often prove inadequate in offering them recourse. Apart from the immediate physical trauma, the most damaging aspect of violence can be the harrowing emotional trauma that can in turn result in varying degrees of mental illness.

Social issues that prevent violence against women gaining recognition in the community:

  • The 'taboo' nature of domestic, family and gender-based violence as a topic of conversation.

  • The notion that domestic, family and gender-based violence should not be talked about publicly, even between close family members and friends.

  • Violence for revenge and punishment is often defended as being within the rights of cultural norms in some societies.

  • Lack of wider understanding in the community of the extent of mental and emotional damage suffered by victims. Many often fail to empathise with victims: one common misconception is that women suffering from domestic abuse are able to simply exit the situation.

  • It is often not considered socially acceptable for people outside a relationship to ask whether violence is present.

  • Traditional patriarchal norms that dictate the roles of men and women in the household, and the common mentality that a wife must be obedient to her husband.

  • Social attitudes towards the desirability of men's sexual, social, emotional and physical control over women for pleasure.

  • The glamorising and encouragement in pop culture of women's vulnerability, and public sexual objectification.

Types of Violence

The Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, drafted in 1993, defines violence against women as "any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or mental harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life."

Physical abuse and sexual coercion by partners are the most common types of violence affecting women across the world, with studies indicating that 10 to 50 percent of women have been physically abused by an intimate partner or family member (L Heise, M Ellsberg, M Gottemoeller, 1999), and it is often accompanied by psychological or verbal abuse. Yet, in many countries, marital rape and domestic violence are not considered as crimes.

Gender-based violence and violent behaviour can never be justified by emotion, religion or culture. Often the perpetrator's 'reasoning' for committing violence is related to an issue that leads back to the fact that the victim was simply born a woman and not a man.

Violence can also vary according to cultural and historical contexts, such as honour killings, genital mutilation, suttee, and wartime sexual assaults. Perhaps one of the most alarming examples is the violence enacted by members of criminal justice systems against women in custody, as revealed by a 1999 Amnesty International report.

Effects of Violence

Violence not only inflicts physical injury, but also creates long-term psychological repercussions.

Violence often remains invisible or unreported as it is repressed by societal norms. Consequently, perpetrators of violence against women are rarely held accountable for their actions. Fear and a lack of support from a society accustomed to condoning violence against women also means that abused women hesitate to improve their situations. Victims routinely experience lowered self-esteem and perceived loss of sanity as a result of being a victim of violent and controlling behaviour. There is a widespread lack of understanding about the effect of violence on victims, and many members of the community find it difficult to comprehend why victims do not immediately seek assistance, or leave the home in a domestic violence situation.

Social issues that can prevent victims from seeking assistance:

  • The sense that domestic violence concerns only those of lower socio-economic positions, when in fact it occurs with similar frequency in all classes of wealth.

  • Victims of violence often have a sense that people will not listen and instead minimise or disregard their concerns.

  • Victims of violence often resist judgment and stigmatisation - they did not choose their situation and would have imagined their life to have taken a different course.

  • Cultural attitudes towards rape and virginity, in that a female rape victim can be considered 'unclean'.

  • Uncertainty and fear on the part of victims that they may not be protected by the law and perpetrators of violence will not be sentenced adequately.

  • Victims may have been told by family or friends or internalised that they are the cause of the problem.

  • Victims may have told by family or friends to change their own behaviour so that they will not upset their partner.

  • Assistance for victims may not always be available, effective and approachable.

Solutions for Change

The eradication of violence against women requires a concerted approach from all sectors of society to treat the roots of the problem just as it addresses its manifestations.

There is a clear need for commitment by international governments to recognise violence against women as a significant social problem that necessitates an immediate response. For instance, the implementation and enforcement of laws to protect women are essential, just as the provision of health services and aid networks for women who have suffered from violence is imperative.

Education and employment opportunities must also be made available to women so that they can not only make important contributions to society, but also develop skills and independence that can help to free them from violent circumstances.

Most importantly, members of society must be persuaded to review and transform the traditional attitudes and behaviours that reduce women to an inferior role in society and encourage male violence. The education of boys and men to see women as equal partners is invaluable to building a society geared towards peace and progress.

It is unacceptable that violence against women so often goes under-recognised and under-accounted for. It is often an issue that is left up women to fix, but men from families, workplaces, friendship groups and wider communities should all be involved in the eradication process.

References

Heise, L. M. Ellsberg, and M. Gottemoeller. 1999. Ending Violence against Women. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health, Center for Communications Programs, Population Information Program.

Krug EG et al., eds. World report on violence and health. Geneva, World Health Organization, 2002.

UNIFEM, 2003. Not A Minute More: Ending Violence Against Women. New York: UNIFEM

UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, 2003. Integration of the Human Rights of Women and the Gender Perspective: Violence Against Women (click here).

World Bank 1993, World Development Report: Investing in Health, New York, Oxford University Press.

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Overview

Facts and Figures

Violence against Women

Solutions for Change

References





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