The intolerable status quo:
Charlotte Bunch *
Violence against women and girls
Violence against women and girls is the most pervasive violation
of human rights in the world today. Its forms are both subtle and blatant
and its impact on development profound. But it is so deeply embedded in
cultures around the world that it is almost invisible. Yet this brutality
is not inevitable. Once recognized for what it is—a construct of power
and a means of maintaining the status quo—it can be dismantled.
Imagine a people routinely subjected to assault, rape, sexual slavery,
arbitrary imprisonment, torture, verbal abuse, mutilation, even murder—all
because they were born into a particular group. Imagine further that their
sufferings were compounded by systematic discrimination and humiliation
in the home and workplace, in classrooms and courtrooms, at worship and
at play. Few would deny that this group had been singled out for gross
violations of human rights.
Such a group exists. Its members comprise half
of humanity. Yet it is rarely acknowledged that violence against women
and girls, many of whom are brutalized from cradle to grave simply because
of their gender, is the most pervasive human rights violation in the world
violence is also a major health and development issue, with powerful implications
for coming generations as well as society in general. Eliminating this
violence is essential to constructing the paradigm of human security—and
by that I mean peace, peace at home and peace at large. Without it, the
notion of human progress is merely a fantasy.
However, opening the door on the subject of violence against the world’s
females is like standing at the threshold of an immense dark chamber vibrating
with collective anguish, but with the sounds of protest throttled back
to a murmur. Where there should be outrage aimed at an intolerable status
quo there is instead denial, and the largely passive acceptance of
‘the way things are’.
Consider a few facts from this dark chamber—facts that leave no doubt
that gender violence merits a prominent place on the human rights agenda:
At first glance, this brutal litany of statistics might seem wildly exaggerated.
Yet while it is true that gender violence is a new field of research and
studies are often limited in size, it is nonetheless clear that these crimes
are, in the main, vastly under-reported. As social scientists are now discovering,
the sheer scope and universality of violent acts against women and girls
defy even the most educated perceptions.
Roughly 60 million women who should be alive today are ‘missing’ because
of gender discrimination, predominantly in South and West Asia, China and
In the United States, where overall violent crime against women has been
growing for the past two decades, a woman is physically abused by her intimate
partner every nine seconds.
In India, more than 5,000 women are killed each year because their inlaws
consider their dowries inadequate. A tiny percentage of the murderers are
brought to justice.
In some countries of the Middle East and Latin America, husbands are often
exonerated from killing an unfaithful, disobedient or wilful wife on the
grounds of ‘honour’.
Rape as a weapon of war has been documented in seven countries in recent
years, though its use has been widespread for centuries.
Throwing acid to disfigure a woman’s face is so common in Bangladesh that
it warrants its own section of the penal code.
About 2 million girls each year (6,000 every day) are genitally mutilated—the
female equivalent of what would be amputation of all or part of the male
More than 1 million children, overwhelmingly female, are forced into prostitution
every year, the majority in Asia. In the wake of the AIDS epidemic, younger
and younger children are being sought in the belief that they are less
likely to be infected.
Equally shocking is the fact that most gender violence not only goes
unpunished but is tolerated in silence—the silence of society as well as
that of its victims. Fear of reprisal, censorship of sexual issues, the
shame and blame of those violated, unquestioning acceptance of tradition
and the stranglehold of male dominion all play their part. In many countries,
so does the active or passive complicity of the State and other institutions
of moral authority.
In addition, while gender violence is as old as humanity, it is only
in the past decade that it has been publicly recognized, systematically
studied and legislated against to any significant degree. In the 1990s,
such violence finally gained currency on the international level with its
recognition as a human rights issue. That is welcome news, and most of
the credit goes to women’s groups that have struggled against enormous
odds to bring the issue to light. But this is no reason for complacency.
As the second millennium draws to a close, there have been reprisals
against the progress in the field—rightly regarded as a challenge to male
primacy. Some studies even suggest that certain forms of violence against
women and girls are on the rise. For gender violence, in all of its varied
manifestations, is not random and it is not about sex. It serves a deliberate
social function: asserting control over women’s lives and keeping them
second-class citizens. Constant vigilance is needed to protect the fragile
gains made thus far, to continue along the road to equality—and to bring
an end to the torrent of daily violence that degrades not only women but
humankind in its entirety.