Women - Commentary

The intolerable status quo:
Violence against women and girls

Charlotte Bunch * 

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 today. 

Photo:UNICEF/92/-0145/NooraniGender 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: 

  • Roughly 60 million women who should be alive today are ‘missing’ because of gender discrimination, predominantly in South and West Asia, China and North Africa.
  • 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 penis.
  • 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.
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. 

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. 

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