Today the world marks the International Day for Elimination of Violence Against Women. This important day gives us, men and women, girls and boys, an opportunity to stop and consider the ways in which violence is ‘gendered’. That is – that women and girls are more likely to suffer from violence than men and boys.
That isn’t to say that men and boys don’t fall victim to violence – of course they do. Except that we live in a world of unequal power relations, which means the strong can hurt the weak and get away with it. and men are stronger – both physically and socially.
Let’s take a look at some numbers for illustration –
A (somewhat dated, but still valid) World Health Organization study found that up to 70% of women across the globe suffer from physical and or sexual violence from an intimate partner at some point in their lives.
In the United States, one-third of women that are murdered each year are killed by intimate partners.
An estimated 150 million girls under 18 suffered some form of sexual violence in 2002 alone.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo over 1,500 women are raped every – that is 48 women an hour.
But it’s important to note – it’s not only about the magnitude of this pandemic (and make no mistake, violence against women and girls is a social disease) but about the type of violence women and girls are suffering from on a daily basis. Violence against women and girls is personal. It’s not drive by shootings or missile attacks. It’s acts of humiliation, violation and degradation. and that also means that it happens in private spaces, mostly between intimate partners and family members.
Last January I wrote a blog post questioning the ability of a mobile application to protect women from violence. the mobile app was aimed at providing women in India with a feeling of protection as they walked down the busy streets of their urban environment by allowing them to send a panic signal. However, my argument was that most violence women face is at home, not on the street from total strangers, but from their husbands and their extended families. This is an important point as it also explains why it’s so hard to find statistics and hard data on the prevalence of violence. In many senses the phenomena is hidden from prying eyes behind the closed doors of the private sphere, and yet the main avenue for reducing violence is by operating in the public sphere of (mobile apps?) human rights, legislation and policies. and herein lies the problem.
There’s an undeniable chasm between formal legislation that prohibits violence in various forms (where it exists) and The State’s ability to enforce this law. Violence between married couples is still largely regarded as a ‘domestic’ (issue) which doesn’t require the involvement of The State and its representatives, the police and judiciary. In fact, certain types of violence that happen in the private sphere, such as rape, are treated with impunity and are rarely seen as worth prosecuting. The term ‘unrapeable’ refers to women who cannot claim they did not consent – e.g prostitutes. But this term has also been used to refer to spousal or marital rape, as many view marriage as a social contract that implicitly assumes consent. As Senator Bob Wilson, a Democrat from California famously said in 1979: “But if you can’t rape your wife, who can you rape?”
It is well known that the instruments at our disposal – legislation, policy, human rights standards, state agents – are flawed tools incapable of adequately responding to violence which happens outside their purview, i.e. at home. not only that, these instruments still reflect a patriarchal worldview which shies away from protecting women and girls from the people most likely to hurt them. It’s interesting to note that sexual violence perpetrated against women during conflict (mostly by enemy troops) is considered a weapon of war and in some instances (of widespread and systematic practice) could be deemed a crime against humanity. But this distinction comes, in my opinion, from a male perspective and from their fear of being subject to rape in situations of conflict. Surely every woman knows in her bones that sexual violence is always a weapon, regardless of who does it and where it happens.
We are left to wonder – what can put an end to violence against women and girls? well, marking the 25th of November by raising the issue is a good start. Awareness raising is important as it ensures women and girls are made aware of their rights and freedoms, and communities are mobilized in support of legislative measures that protect women and girls. However, unequal power relations mean that working with women and girls is not enough. They can protect themselves or mitigate situations of violence to a certain extent, but they require the support and partnership of men and boys.
Plan’s 2011 report – So,what about boys? – provides insight into the important role that men play in preventing violence against women. It is important on this day to remember that preventing violence is up to everyone, including those who have traditionally been cast in the roles of the villains. Whilst I encourage my fellow feminists to point to the egregious forms of violence being perpetrated against women in staggering numbers every day, i would also caution against alienating those who could ally with us to help put an end to this global crisis. Bring men and boys on board!
The other important learning from this day (at least for me) is that there’s a sense of ceremony and formality about this day that de-politicizes violence against women and reduces its sense of urgency. By ghettoizing violence against women into one day the United Nations has effectively provided governments with a chance to ignore the issue the rest of the year. Moreover, the fact that violence is discussed en mass only once a year gives the impression that its not as urgent as say – climate change or the financial crisis in Greece. But violence against women and girls is so widespread, it’s literally immeasurable. Surely such an acute problem warrants a global outcry of condemnation and a global response that goes beyond annual statements, twibbons and Facebook pages?