Violence against women is a global health problem of epidemic proportions (Dr Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General)
Violence against women is so endemic it is impossible to work on any issue relating to women without it being addressed (Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women)
Figures are shocking and speak for themselves: more than a third of women worldwide will experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Equally shocking is the extent of domestic violence – sexual or physical violence against women from their current or former partner or spouse: it affects 30% of women worldwide, and 38% of cases of murders on women are committed by intimate partners.
Worldwide, women are facing multiple types of violence; young girls are exposed to violence through early marriage or practices like female genital mutilation. The breakdown of social structures and mass displacements during wars or after natural disasters can leave women more exposed than men to sexual violence, as documented during the conflict in Syria and among the population affected by typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.
Over the next few weeks, on the occasion of 25 November International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, Time for Equality will be focusing on gender-based violence, in line with its objectives of understanding, raising awareness and promoting action.
We’ll publish a collection of articles to set the context and define violence as a violation of human rights and a form of discrimination based on gender (What is gender-based violence?), to raise awareness of the many forms of such violence, of its impact on the physical and mental health of women and children, on families and communities, on the functioning of society as a whole, and to share resources on what can be done to eliminate it.
Let me share here just a few thoughts, to highlight some key points, as a sort of thread guiding our reflection on gender-based violence.
First, there can be no justification, no tolerance whatsoever for violence, be it psychological, physical or sexual. Family ties, traditions, religion, a preconceived idea of “honour” have been widely used to justify, to understand, even to motivate acts of violence against women and children. This is unacceptable.
Therefore, it is essential to understand and dismantle the cultural mechanisms, the stereotypes and biased perceptions behind gender-based violence. Gender and diversity training from an early age are important, and must be integrated in all levels of education. Violence being the result of unequal power relations between people or groups of people, gender-based violence is the result of persisting structural inequalities between women and men, deeply rooted in social, economic and cultural models.
Gender-based violence is, however, neither a private matter nor an exclusive concern of women for women: it must increasingly become a common issue, for women and men, at all levels – institutional, political, social, cultural, private – against an intolerable violation of human rights.
Nor is violence against women something remote, which is happening to others, in other times, in other cultures and societies. It is present in everyday life, in all societies; it quickly adapts to new economic and social contexts, because the cultural mechanisms and the perceptions of gender roles are still the same.
We are all affected, either directly or indirectly, as part of society. However, for each single act of violence and for each violent man or boy, there are far too many women and men looking away, pretending not to see, not to hear, not to understand; avoiding taking their own part of responsibility to stop this violence. Do we want to be part of this silent majority? Let us be aware of the psychological and social mechanisms producing violence and let us take action, with the resources we have. Let’s ask ourselves: what can I do here and now, to prevent, to help, to support?
The focus on the necessary support and help to the victims of violence should not lead to a reductive image of women and young girls, as weak individuals needing protection. Campaigns showing the physical effects of violence on women’s bodies, have been successful in breaking the silence and the taboo around this topic.
We need, however, to rethink communication and the message we convey. This is linked to the role of language in the narration of violence and the perpetutation of the cultural mechanisms and stereotypes behind it. The media have a special responsibility concerning the use of language and images, the perspective chosen to present or leave out facts and portray victims and perpetrators.
In this regard, much can be learnt from the mothers in the Mexican city of Ciudad Juarez, and in other places of Latin America. While fighting for truth and justice for their murdered or disappeared daughters, they also fight for preserving the human dignity of these young women, and celebrate them through poems, songs or other art forms. They teach us the human respect we owe to every person victim of violence.
We should in particular be aware of, and raise our voice against the “blaming the victim culture”, so deeply ingrained and constantly reproduced, in the media, within families, at school, at the workplace, in the institutions and even in courtrooms.
Every year, 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women is a catalyst for renewed focus and action at local, national and international levels. It brings each year more facts and figures, new studies and analysis, new resources and initiatives.
Do you have any experience, information or suggestion to share? Let’s say NO to violence each day of the year.
Founder and President
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