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RIGHTS: For Too Many Women, Silence Equals Death

Haider Rizvi

UNITED NATIONS, Nov 25 2005 (IPS) - Despite improved laws and international treaties signed by various governments in the past few years, millions of women continue to suffer from violence at the hands of men.

Despite improved laws and international treaties signed by various governments in the past few years, millions of women continue to suffer from violence at the hands of men.

As the world observes the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women on Friday, women and girls are being bought and sold, harassed and raped, beaten and killed.

At homes and offices, in refugee camps and brothels, they often shed tears – but in silence. Sometimes when they cry out loud, their stories do make newspaper headlines, but not very often.

“Since the 1995 World Summit in Beijing, some progress has been made to protect women’s rights at the state and international level, but still it’s a long way to go for full recognition of women’s rights as human rights,” says June Zeitlin of the U.S.-based Women’s Environment and Development Organisation.

The group says that while the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women has now been ratified by 179 countries, several global trends – including increased militarisation, the dominance of neo-liberal economic policies and rising fundamentalist movements – have created an environment hostile to the advancement of women’s rights.


Studies by United Nations agencies to understand the tragic proportions of the problem of gender violence are filled with shocking statistics.

U.N. researchers say the number of women bought or sold into prostitution worldwide ranges anywhere from 700,000 to 4,000,000 every year. Of them, between 120,000 and 500,000 are sold in Europe alone. Many are beaten not only by pimps and customers, but by the police officers charged to protect them.

And how many women out there are enduring violence in the supposed safety of their own homes?

No one really knows – not even those who have spent years researching the problem, because in many parts of the world, especially in developing countries, domestic violence is treated as a “private” matter, and therefore many cases remain unreported.

However, a new study by researchers working for the Swiss government suggests that, based on population data from various parts of the world, 16 to 50 percent women are facing physical assault by an intimate partner.

Available statistics suggest that domestic violence is something that is rampant not only in developing countries, which frequently lack legal protections and equal socioeconomic opportunities for women, but also in industrially-developed societies, as well.

Despite strict laws against gender violence in the United States, for example, one in four women is a victim of domestic abuse there, according to the Swiss study, titled “Women in an Insecure World”.

Domestic violence is defined by legal experts as an act that involves various forms of physical aggression, ranging from slaps, punches, and kicks to forced sex, assault with a weapon and homicide.

In the developing countries of Asia and the Pacific, the scale of abuse at the hands of husbands, fathers and brothers is disturbing, with prevalence rates ranging from eight to 45 percent. The numbers from Europe, Latin America or Africa are scarcely better.

Some forms of domestic violence in Asia and Africa literally amount to torture. In India and Pakistan, for example, tens of thousands of women are beaten, and in some cases burned to death, simply because they fail to get a large enough dowry from their parents. And in certain parts of Africa, the genitals of thousands of women are mutilated so that they are unable to have sex, or to take pleasure in the act.

In response to mounting pressure from women’s movements and human rights groups, some countries have outlawed domestic violence. Others are far from even recognising it as a crime.

However, many governments appear to be taking the issue of gender violence in armed conflicts with some seriousness, since the victimisation of refugee women has drawn the attention of community and media organisations.

During armed conflicts, refugee women not only become victims of domestic violence, they also sometimes face harassment and abuse at the hands of enemy soldiers, and even peacekeepers and aid workers.

To draw attention to the problem, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has organised “16 Days of Activism” beginning Friday and ending Dec. 10, in partnership with refugee communities, civil society, NGOs, governments and other U.N. agencies.

Events include youth panel discussions on how to address gender violence in Nepal; a radio talk show in Sierra Leone; the launch of a booklet on elimination of violence in Croatia; and a television broadcast in Sri Lanka.

“Discussions with women and girls across all regions, be it Colombia, Darfur, Bangladesh, Macedonia or Pakistan unfortunately confirm that in addition to rape and sexual abuse, girls can be harassed and subject to violence as they go to school, collect firewood or go to work, as well as through traditional harmful practices and domestic violence,” noted U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres.

Using rape as a weapon of war has become a calculated strategy for many warring groups and armies in dozens of armed conflicts facing the world today. But some activists acknowledge that women themselves often play a crucial role in wars.

“Nations have gone to war against other nations to defend their values that binds them together as a people, and women are as passionate as men over the defence of those values,” says Funmi Olonisakin in a recent article published by the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces.

At many times in history, “they have encouraged their sons and assisted in their mobilisation of entire nations for war”, she says.

But Olonisakin stresses that while women have played a role in supporting war efforts and transferring values that promote wars, the system and institutions that perpetuate violence against women are largely male-dominated.

“The women are not at the helm of affairs in the male-dominated patriarchal systems that keep women and girls repressed,” she argues.

“The plight of millions of women and girls over the world remains bleak and this fate appears sealed under seemingly immutable state structure that legitimises violence against women,” she says. “The state can either be enabler for gender-based violence, or a driver for change.

To Olonisakin, the eradication of gender-based violence requires “not just institutional change, it also requires a change of mindset and attitudes among individuals and states”.

“While progress appears slow,” she says, “steps are being taken at community and national levels in many countries, which will ultimately contribute to meaningful changes.” ***** +Women’s Environment and Development Organisation (http://www.wedo.org/) +Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (http://www.dcaf.ch/index.cfm)

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RIGHTS: For Too Many Women, Silence Equals Death

Haider Rizvi

UNITED NATIONS, Nov 25 2005 (IPS) - Despite improved laws and international treaties signed by various governments in the past few years, millions of women continue to suffer from violence at the hands of men.
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