Violence Against Women and the Flickering Flame of Peace

Vijaya L. Melnick, Ph.D., FIMSA
President, IHAN
October 28, 2014

Peace is not possible unless we eradicate the scourge of violence against women. To be sure, women have achieved significant progress in the last decades. They have won Nobel prizes; served as Presidents and Prime Ministers; served as CEOs of major corporations, and have achieved access to political, economic and social rights.

However, no place can claim that women have achieved equality with men or enjoy the full complement of human rights. It is a sad fact that women constitute the majority of people living in poverty, and those who are subjected to violence. In many societies women live under the subjugation of men, which places them at the mercy of a patriarchal system. This makes women vulnerable to assault and violence. The fact is women have not achieved economic equality or political power. Peace cannot be sustained when violence against women is endemic.

The assault on women begins even before they are born and continues to adolescence and into adult hood and old age. Globally, it continues to be our greatest shame and tragedy.

My purpose is neither to praise women nor denigrate men. Violence against women not only destroys the potential of women, but men as well. It is an issue that warrants broad discussion since it conspires against our ability to live in peace with each other.

My question is, can the flame of peace burn bright when the storm, of violence against women, yet blows? Indeed, whether it perishes or prevails will depend on our actions.

Women experience violence in every aspect of their lives. It robs them of their self confidence, their health, opportunities for education, participation in decision making, in their ability to have paid employment or move up in their professions, start a business and have a voice in matters concerning their family, society or politics.

Many believe that empowerment of women is the solution to these problems. However, empowerment is constrained by traditions and is entrenched in patriarchal systems. These regimens are so strong and integral, that women become complicit in their execution.

In order to be truly free women must become not only empowered, but learn to swim against the tide of long held family and community dictates. Women must break the chains that bind their lives and destinies to the self-defeating and self- destroying rules of ‘male supremacy’.

Since my paper is on Violence Against Women, let me set the stage, by reading from the

Introduction to the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (Istanbul Convention) 2

“Violence against women is both a cause and a consequence of unequal power relations between women and men. Rape, domestic violence, stalking, forced marriage, female genital mutilation, sexual harassment, forced abortion, and forced sterilization are manifestations of male domination over women. It is violence directed against women because they are women and must be considered as structural violence because it is an integral part of a social system, which manifests itself in an imbalance of power with accordingly unequal opportunities for women and men. The lower socio-economic status of women in society, patriarchal attitudes and customary practices aimed at controlling women’s sexuality help to perpetuate violence against women. Widespread impunity and significant disparities in state responses to such violence leave many women unprotected and without recourse to justice.”

It is clear that violence Against Women includes physical, sexual, psychological and economic abuses based on the concept of women’s subordinate status in society. The resources to resist abuse include education, health care, employment, access to credit and property rights.

Instead of providing a catalog of numbers depicting such abuses in various parts of the world, let me weave the story of a woman, travelling thru this impossible maze of life challenges. We will call her Shanthi.

If Shanthi was conceived in parts of the world, where ‘son preference’ is the prevailing tradition, then Shanthi may never be born.

We know from demographic reports, that over 4 to 5 million women go missing every year from the world! This is attributed to sex selective abortion occurring in countries like China, India, Armenia, Vietnam and many others. It means a fetus is aborted just because it is a girl. It happens in the United States as well, among those who have a dedicated ‘son preference’. So life may be robbed from Shanthi even before she is born.

In March 2010, the Economist ran a cover story entitled “Gendercide: The Worldwide War on Baby Girls”. The article describes that; modernization, education and income have conspired to achieve ever-widening disparities in the sex ratio. By ‘sex ratio’ I mean the number of males to females in a given population. In China, the higher the provinces’ literacy rate and or income, the more skewed its sex ratio.

For example, there are areas of China that report a sex ratio of 100 men to 80 women, when the biological ratio is 100 men to105 women. Sex selective abortion accounts for almost all the excess males. These males are called “barren branches’ because they are unable to get married and start a family, due to lack of available women in their society.

The reports of 2011 census of India show an overall sex ratio of 100 men to 94 women. Unfortunately, the decline in child sex ratio has continued since 1961. Gita Aravamudan in her book on ‘Disappearing Daughters’ clearly details this tragedy.

Abortion is legal in India, but a law banning sex selective abortions has been on the books since 1994. However, the practice is still prevalent, more so in urban areas and among the wealthier, more educated and higher social class of people.  It is here that we run headlong into the limits of empowerment of women. Long standing customs and traditions of particular communities, which consider a girl to be a burden, and only boys to be valuable, trumps education and income. As in China, educated women from the States of Punjab, Haryana, Delhi and Gujarat, for example, have not been able to overcome the strongly ingrained patriarchal traditions of “son preference” in spite of their advantage in education, wealth and status. These regions report the worst sex ratio in India.

In contrast is Kerala, one of the poorest States in India, which has consistently and over many decades, reported a higher proportion of women to men in its population (its ratio is 100 men: 108 women in the 2011 census). This is the outcome when nature is left to itself. Shanthi’s fate, therefore, depends very much on where she is born, that determines whether she lives or dies.

Let us assume Shanthi lives. How will she be cared for in her childhood?

If Shanthi is a daughter born in ‘son preference’ regions then she may not receive adequate nutrition or health care. Her life could end as a toddler due to malnutrition and neglect.

We know that both girls and boys are born nutritionally equal. But from then on, in societies where boys are valued over girls, boys receive more nutrition than girls. Thus the natal nutritional equality turns into significant female disadvantage. In the North Western regions of India, for example, the second and third daughters of well-educated mothers are more than twice as likely to die before their fifth birthday. Surveys show that toddler girls consistently weigh much less than their boy counterparts, due to malnourishment and stunting of the girl child. This results in their high rate of morbidity and mortality. If Shanthi survives this ordeal to maturity, she is likely to experience pregnancy complications and even death due to such malnourishment. As an anemic and under weight mother she in turn, may produce low birth weight babies, vulnerable to infections and other health problems. Thus the vicious cycle may continue to wreak havoc on Shanthi and her pathetic life.

Shanthi could also be subjected to FGM/C or ‘Female Genital Mutilation’ or ‘Cutting’ practiced in many parts of the world. In countries such as Nigeria, Mali, Ghana and Mauritania more than 80% of the girls experienced FGM/C before their 5th birthday.
(UNICEF data on child protection 2014) Approximately 140 million girls and women have suffered female genital mutilation/cutting, worldwide.

According to the WHO (World Health Organization) the type of FGM/C practiced varies from partial or total removal of the clitoris to the narrowing of the vaginal orifice by cutting and making a seal of the labia minora and /or the labia majora. This is referred to as ‘infibulation’. The effect of FMG/C includes sepsis, infections, severe pain during intercourse, hemorrhage during labor and delivery, and risk of death.

Shanthi is also at risk of kidnapping and trafficking which triggers a host of associated problems that places her at risk for further abuse such as sexual molestation, physical and psychological abuse, maltreatment and even homicide. In 2012 alone, homicide took the lives of about 95,000 children under the age of 20—this amounted to 1 in 5 homicide victims of that year. Latin America and the Caribbean have the largest share of homicide victims under age 20. (UNICEF Violence Against Children data 2014)

If/when Shanthi reaches Adolescence she must be preparedto face even graverabuses that threaten her life and limb. Early, forced marriages of under age children further exacerbate the situation. More than 64 million girls worldwide are child brides. Shanthi may be forced to marry a much older man who might treat her as a servant or slave in his household. He might have other wives and children, some older than Shanthi. They in turn may physically and mentally abuse her. She will no longer have the opportunity for education, since she will be expected to drop out of school. One in three girls, in most developing countries are likely to be married before they are 18 years of age. One out of nine will be married before they are 15. Shanthi will find it difficult to refuse sex or insist on prophylactics, thus risking HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. Women are two to four times more likely than men, to become infected with HIV during intercourse. Shanthi could become pregnant before her own body has fully matured. Early childbirth could place her at risk for complications of pregnancy and childbirth, the main causes of death among adolescent girls in developing countries. Disabilities associated with early childbirth include obstetric fistula, an injury that leaves the girls in constant pain, vulnerable to infection and incontinent. Husbands and families often abandon such girls. Poverty further reduces a girl’s options of escaping these predicaments.

UN Population Fund comments “Despite national laws and international agreements, child marriage remains a real and present threat to the human rights, lives and health of children, especially girls, in more than a hundred countries”. In the least developed countries the prevalence of child marriage is even higher—nearly one in two. (UNCF 2012).

We are reminded here about the kidnapping of those unfortunate Nigerian girls and the countless young children who were abused, trafficked and/or killed in a small town in the UK where the police looked the other way. These events happened recently. The world looked on but nothing happened that saved any of those girls or little children.

Shanthi is even more vulnerable to abuse of various kinds, including a significant risk of death in her reproductive age.

If Shanthi goes to college in the United States, she has a high probability of being sexually assaulted. TIME magazine wrote a cover story “Rape: The Crisis in Higher Education” describing the shocking conditions in our colleges and universities. Rape of young women has become endemic. In the United States, according to a study by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), 1 in 5 women will experience rape or attempted rape during the course of her college life. 90% of rape is by acquaintances. Only 12% report these assaults to law enforcement personnel. Why is that?

The low % of reporting is due to the failure of college administration to effectively investigate, rather than ‘manage’ such infractions. They often ‘fumble’ the case review process. The reprimand handed down to the guilty party is often seen to be hardly consequential. So much so, the campus is looked upon as a rape tolerant culture.

The problem of sexual assault on campus, gained attention only after social media focused its attention on it. Complaints were made to the US Dept. of Education under Title IX. Major work done by student blogs in focusing attention had a big effect.

The Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act (SAVE) was passed in 2013, to be effective on March 2014. President Obama held a White House conference and issued a White House Report, which included the establishment of a White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Violence. The president also declared Elimination of Sexual Assault and Rape a national priority. As of this August, there were 76 universities, including some elite Ivy League schools, which are under investigation by US DOE for complaints received under Title IX.

If Shanthi were to join the US military, she will encounter problems there, as well.

Sexual harassment and assault on women military personnel were so rampant that Congressional hearings were held on the subject. There were an estimated 19,000 sexual assaults in the military in 2010 alone, and most of these went unpunished. Especially troubling was the reporting protocol, which often handed down light punishments on the alleged perpetrator. These protocols have been improved somewhat, but not to the satisfaction of mostof the complainants or women’s rights advocates.

If Shanthi survives all these hurdles what might await her, is the turbulent and treacherous waters of ‘femicide’. The sharks that inhabit these waters are ruthless and lethal.

‘Femicide’ – in its broad definition is the killing of a woman due to her gender. Remarkably, Femicide occurs in every country and culture of the world. The global extent of Femicide is estimated to be about 66,000 victims/year for the period between 2004 and 2009. This represents almost 1/5th of all homicide victims for an average year. (UN Women 2013).

In Australia, Canada, Israel, South Africa and the United States, intimate partner violence accounts for between 40 and 70% of murdered women (UN Entity for Gender Equality & Empowerment of Women). 35% of women worldwide have experienced intimate partner or non-partner sexual violence. (2013 Global Review)

Femicide is committed with impunity almost all over the world. Lack of police investigations, inadequate legal trials and outright sanctions for acts of violence against women, give a free pass to those who commit such crimes. Often violent acts against women, resulting in death, are not classified as Femicide or gender motivated killings. Therefore, data for such crimes are not available for most countries. Femicide takes many forms. The vicious sharks of femicide include: murder by intimate partners or other family members; so called ‘crimes of passion’ and ‘honor’ killings; murder of women in conflict regions; dowry related murders; and any form of killings motivated by gender based discrimination.

A woman’s home happens to be a dangerous place for her. UNODC Global Study on Homicide 2011 points out for example; that in 2008 more than 35% of female homicide victims in countries of Europe were murdered by spouses or ex-spouses and 17% by relatives. 77% of all victims of intimate partner or family-related homicide in the region, are women. In many countries, the place where a woman is most likely to be murdered is in her own home. The basic underlying factors of Femicide are the socio-political and economic disempowerment of women and the systematic disregard of equality and human rights of women.

In countries such as India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh dowry related violence and death are not uncommon. Dowry, a cultural tradition that demands the bride’s parents to give a substantial amount of money to the groom, is a disturbing custom, which results in much grief to the family of the bride. This is a major basis for ‘son preference’. Often, the groom’s parents are dissatisfied with the amount of money they have initially negotiated, and ask for more. This places the bride’s parents in a very difficult situation, especially if they only have very limited resources. The bride is pressured for additional money, when that is not forthcoming she is subjected to physical and mental abuse by the groom and his family. The extreme case is severe abuse, resulting in the bride’s death. In 2011 there were 8,618 cases of dowry related deaths in India alone. (Indian Natl. Crime Record Bureau).

There are also the so-called ‘honor’ killings, responsible for thousands of women being murdered by their husbands, fathers and other family members each year. Precise numbers of such murders are difficult to obtain, since the murders go unreported, and the perpetrators go unpunished. There are some societies that even sanction such murders in the name of ‘family honor’. Complicity by other members of the family and community, including women, reinforces the conviction of women as property and the perception, that intra family violence is a family issue and not of judicial concern.

This notorious practice occurs across the world, in many countries. It occurs most often in societies where the concept of women as a ‘marker for family reputation’ is paramount. In Pakistan, for example, it is estimated that every day, at least three women are victims of this practice.

Prof. Tahira Shahid Khan is a Specialist in Women’s Issues of the Aga Khan Univ. in Pakistan. In her book, Chained to Custom, she reviews honor killings. She observes, there is nothing in the Koran, that permits or sanctions honor killings. However, the view of women as property with no rights of their own is deeply rooted in some Islamic cultures. She goes on to say, “Women are considered the property of males in their family irrespective of their class, ethnic or religious group. The owner of the property has the right to decide its fate. The concept of ownership has turned women into a commodity which can be exchanged, bought and sold”.

Jacqueline Rose in her review of books on honor killings, titled A Piece of White Silk (London review of Books Nov 2009) writes:

That killing women for sexual infractions is of course nothing new nor is it confined to any one country, group, period or religion. In Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing Don John tells Claudio that his bride to-be, Hero, has been unfaithful to him. Her father Leonato upon hearing this exclaims that he can only be rewarded for killing Hero. For Hero is stained, like a piece of white silk:

O, she is fall’n
Into a pit of ink, that the wide sea
Hath drops too few to wash her clean again.

The assumption here is that a violent, tortuous death at the hands of a father would be the just reward for a daughter’s sexual offence.

Rose goes on to write:

Feminism has long pointed out that the idealisation of women’s bodies can be a thinly veiled form of hatred, always ready to trample on the one who falls or fails. In the case of honour, the rift is glaring. We are dealing with a vicious injunction and a Sisyphean task. You will enact honour in every bone of your body and every minute of your life because, as a woman, you are the one who carries the seeds of its destruction”.

Women are caught in the maelstrom of violence that threaten them at every stage and where death is not too distant. Just imagine if young Malala’s life was extinguished by the Taliban’s bullet, what a treasure this world would have lost. Malala did not give in to the threats to her life, nor did she give up her cause.

The courage and dedication she has shown to girl’s education remains her mission and her passion. We rejoice that she is recognized with the Nobel Prize.

Let me conclude by reminding you, that we must first set our own house in order. Let me underscore the fact, that the United States has a larger gender gap than 22 countries, according to the World Economic Forum Report, that rates 136 countries on gender equality and four categories of factors: economic opportunity, educational attainment, health and political empowerment.

The recent reports of the Microsoft CEO advising women not to ask for a raise revels the mindset of many such officials. Women are consistently paid about 20% less even when they are as, or more, qualified than men.

In the US it is reported that a rape occurs every 6.2 minutes. Some reports estimate ten times that amount, since most rapes go unreported. It is estimated that one in five women will be subjected to rape in her lifetime. The number of rapes that occur in this country, as well as, all over this world is astounding. In spite of that, it is hardly ever acknowledged as a human rights issue or a major catastrophe that warrants wide attention. It is yet to become a subject of national conversation.

In the US, domestic violence kills well over a thousand women every year, this means that every three years such homicides of women exceed the total number of people lost in the 9/11 devastation. Nicholas Kristof comments, “Women world wide ages 15 through 44 are more likely to die or be maimed because of male violence than because of cancer, malaria, war, and traffic accidents combined.”

Of course, not all men are vile and vicious. Many are in fact are our allies. They may be our fathers, husbands, sons, brothers, colleagues or even total strangers. They stand by us thru thick and thin, come to our aid and take up our cause. As Charles Blow commented in the NY Times, “The problems women face in this world requires the engagement of all world’s people. It is very important for everyone to be a feminist”.

If the degree of violence, perpetrated on women, is visited upon any particular nationality, ethnic group or race we will call it genocide.  Why don’t we recognize violence against women that result in their disability and death, as gendercide? In fact, world demographics now report that women number less than men, a phenomenon contrary to natural biological outcome.

Indeed, there are a host of laws and regulations written by various government and international bodies that are aimed at preventing violence against women. However, as I have pointed out, violence against women continues with impunity all over the world. Rebecca Solnit aptly points out, “Violence doesn’t have a race, a class, a religion, or a nationality, but it does have a gender…The pandemic of violence always gets explained as anything but gender, anything but what would seem to be the broadest explanatory pattern of all.”

If women are to fully contribute their talents and their imagination to the betterment of their family, society, community, country and the world, they have to be, first and foremost, free of the threat of violence. This sinister threat reduces and often prohibits their ability to work outside the home, work late on their projects in laboratories, work in the fields, pursue professions that are considered to be masculine, and indeed fully unleash their dreams without fear of their turning into nightmares.

Imagine how much more women will be able to offer in the cause of justice and peace if they were truly free to do what they are capable of doing.  Let us work together to transform this insidious culture of violence into the enlightened culture of peace, all across this green earth and for every human being. Let us work towards the day when women can contribute their just share towards building peace and equity for all.

Let us take a solemn oath to keep the flame of peace alive that nurtures and sustains Shanthi. May the fire from that flame obliterate the plague of violence and bring peace to women’s lives, peace in our homes, and peace in society.

As the great Indian saint Satya Sai Baba observed:

“If there is righteousness in the heart, there will be beauty in the character.
If there is beauty in the character, there will be harmony at home.
If there is harmony in the home, there will be order in the nations.
When there is order in the nations, there will be peace in the world”.

May you travel life’s highways and byways with Shanthi
May you cry and commiserate with Shanthi
May you dream and dance with Shanthi
May you live and love with Shanthi
For Shanti means PEACE!

Download the paper “Violence Against Women and the Flickering Flame of Peace”  by Vijaya L. Melnick, Ph.D., FIMSA
President, IHAN  (PDF | 1.2 MB)