Tag Archives: violence against women

What Women Have in Common with Camels

Once while visiting quarries near the Egyptian pyramids, a scruffy stone worker gave my companion and me long hard looks. I thought they were just signs of curiosity, but they turned out to mean much more. He stopped his work and with the help of a translator, proposed to buy me. In between the misunderstandings about the exact price, there was something about how white and straight my teeth were. Fortunately, my partner wasn’t short of cash and he declined the offer.

Soon-Young with camel
What do I have in common with this camel?

Later, I learned from my Egyptian friends that I had experienced something fairly common in rural areas in other parts of the world– evaluating a potential bride by her teeth. According to them, women’s teeth indicate their age and health status. It seems that the teeth are also considered a private, sensual part of the body. I was less amused when they told me that when traders buy camels, the prices were also determined by using similar physical standards.

This experience did little to lower my self-esteem. It did, however, remind me that in many societies, women and girls are indeed traded like animals on the market. The traffiking of women and children has emerged as one of the darker sides of globalization, with the underground of crime flourishing and new information technologies used to violate, rather than defend human rights. Boys and young men are also victims of forced labour and sex trafficking.

Exhibit at the UNODC in Vienna

Controls on the illegal flow of sex workers have been complicated by the increases in international migration. In the last decade, the number of females leaving to seek work abroad has increased at a faster rate than for men, particularly from countries whose economies have suffered. Moreover, many women are migrating alone, as temporary workers in low paid jobs, and they are vulnerable to employment scams that are fronts for the sex slave trade.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime, in cooperation with other UN agencies, is taking action to protect international migrants while opening borders for easier movement of labor. Its efforts are admirable, but the real problem for women and girls goes beyond labor standards and fair wages. For women, the culprits are international criminals who use legitimate open markets to traffick organs, drugs, tobacco, and people for lucrative profit. Let us keep our focus on law enforcement and criminal justice, not just migration policies and labor practices.

The Truth About Gender-based Violence

On December 10, 1997, Ana Parejo Vivar went on Spanish television to reveal how her husband had abused her. Then, much to his surprise, she announced that she was seeking a divorce. Ten days later, her husband doused her with gasoline and set her on fire. Death was a high price to pay for speaking out, but she would not hide meekly in terror. That year, 17,000 cases of domestic violence were recorded and only five percent of women went to the police. By 2010, Spanish courts had passed 145,000 sentences against male aggressors (NY Times, February 23, 2011). More women are seeking and getting justice—and that is a healthy trend.

Courageous women around the world have declared that gender violence should not be a guarded secret and they look increasingly to the media to help them expose its malignancy. Fortunately there are signs that the mass media are paying attention. Many television producers now regard the rape of women refugees in Eastern Europe and Africa as legitimate war stories equal in importance to the siege of a city. Enlightened newspaper editors have put domestic violence on the crime stories list–a step up from the traditional “it’s not hot news” attitude. Moved by tragic accounts, well-meaning journalists even portray the sordid details of fatal beatings–broken bones, slashed breasts and swollen bellies. We are horrified by the assaults. We grit our teeth and swear we will do something to help. But does reporting about gender violence inspire action?

FIRE radio
FIRE radio

I suspect keeping the public eye on the problem raises awareness, but this merely tantalizes our sympathy. Just the facts may not be enough to stir the average citizen out of complacency. Reports of gender violence buttress the false notion that men’s nature is naturally savage and brutish and that there is little one can do to control it. The public can even develop a depressing attitude of indifference because there is little in the “bad news” that shows a way out.

The remedy? We need more good news. By “good” I don’t mean sugarcoated tales that ignore what’s wrong. But there has to be more balanced reporting between tales of misery and upbeat stories about women’s leadership, activities and progress. The truth is, women aren’t just victims. They have mobilized for years to fight gender violence and they are making important gains. The stories that need more coverage are the ones that show how the UN, governments, judges, police and doctors, in partnership with local men and women’s groups, are making a difference. That kind of news encourages citizens to take action.

Where can we find the good news? Women’s media like Radio Internacional Feminista (FIRE) have popped up on Internet radio. The Women’s UN Report Network (WRUN) is another online resource for feminist news. The buzz these days is about the international campaign known as the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence. This global event has become so popular that many governments have become official sponsors.

Men are also getting more involved in combating gender violence. Canadian men are showing their commitment by wearing white ribbons, signing petitions and making donations to support women’s shelters. Breakthrough, an award-winning grass-roots campaign, reaches millions of men and boys who “ring the bell” to end violence against women and girls. The media need to pay more attention to these kinds of events because the “bad news” about gender violence is only half of the whole truth. The rest is about hope.


Children under fire

In the 1970s Lebanese children were born, raised, and many died in a decade of total war. Like kids in Detroit, Michigan, who can identify car models by their engine noises, Lebanese children played games to see who could tell the difference between one kind of gunshot and another. Many of them had an additional skill — they could distinguish firecrackers from machine gun fire within the first few bursts. But even these imaginative escapes had their limits. Children missed the simple pleasures of peacetime, like going out into the streets. Outbreaks of fighting during the day kept hem from going to school. Some never went at all.

Although women’s groups and peace organizations tried to cross over enemy lines to establish peace, other leaders were organizing children to make sure the hostilities endured. Before his assassination, I learned about this, first hand, from Bashir Gemayel, former head of the Christian party. Through special arrangements, I had a tour of East Beirut with him at the wheel and armed guards in the back seat. To dodge possible car bombs, we changed cars several times before we arrived at his final destination. A fanatic militarist leader, he was proud of his plan to raise the next generation of loyal youth for what he thought was a Holy War. We stopped in front a school with students in their early teens lined up in smart boy-scout looking uniforms. “This is my next army,” he announced. Indeed, he realized that the wars could continue long enough for this to happen.

Distorting children’s impressionable minds to sway political allegiance has been a common strategy of dictators. Unfortunately, recruiting children into armies is also becoming more widespread. UNICEF estimates that some 300,000 children under the age of 18 are involved in more than 30 conflicts worldwide. In many parts of the world, children as young as eight and ten years of age, have been forcibly recruited, coerced or induced to become combatants. Other grave violations include killing and maiming of children, attacks against schools, and denial of humanitarian access for children. Lest we think that this only affects boys, up to 10% of children carrying arms are girls. A new Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDDAW) General Recommendation on Women and Girls in Conflict and Post Conflict is a welcome legal instrument. Pramila Patten, CEDAW expert and Chair of the working for that General Recommendation, hopes that it will help to protect girls from being kidnapped by armies as well as help them to reintegrate into their communities once they return. The UN’s office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict was established in 2012 to give a moral voice and prominence to the rights and protection of boys and girls affected by armed conflict.

Bangladesh child
Bangladesh child

As part of preventing violence against women and girls, we must also pay more attention to what happens to boys during wartime. In countries with prolonged civil strife such as in Sierra Leone, many children missed the chance to go to school and develop precious classmate ties. Instead, they might have been involved in demonstrations or have even gone to jail. Often, children don’t have to be coerced to join armies — they volunteer because there are no options, no schools, no jobs. Without schools to bond youth together, boys can easily be attracted to renegade groups like gangs that give them a sense of belonging. Even if they are lucky enough to attend school, they may not learn the values that would rescue them from a cycle of violence. We all know that childhood experiences help shape adult worlds. Many of us had our chances. Shouldn’t these children also have theirs?

Breaking the Silence on Women’s Human Rights*

Beijing 1995 opening ceremonies
NGO Forum on Women opening ceremonies in Beijing, 1995

Every year, women around the world celebrate the “16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence” that begins with the International Day Against Violence Against Women on November 25 and ends on December 10, International Human Rights Day. Like musicians improvising in a global concert, women trumpet their issues and create a resonant noise. The political rhythms vary, but the themes come out loud and clear. Women’s rights are human rights. Violence against women–rape, female genital mutilation, trafficking of women, domestic violence and the use of rape as a weapon of war–must end.

Why are these campaigns so important? For centuries, violence has been– and for many women still is– a constant threat. Sati, or the burning of widows on funeral pyres, sacrificed women for the sake of family pride, and no one called it a crime. British common law declared it legal to beat your wife as long as you did so with a stick “no thicker than your thumb.” The rape of women and girls was considered a soldier’s just prize, a side issue to the “real” tragedies of war. Such abuses were kept hidden and trivialized. Violence was a personal shame that most women hid. It was not understood as a human rights violation worthy of international attention by the United Nations.

Beijing, 1995
NGO delegates to the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing,1995

Many of these abuses still occur. Custom and law sanction “honor killings” of women. Religious leaders condone the infibulation of girls as a justifiable means to give men pleasure. The difference is that the UN and governments are starting to redress them thanks to Security Council resolution 1325 and actions of the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Advances are also being made as the CEDAW committee issued a new General Recommendations designed to require governments to report on women in conflict and post-conflict situations as well as their access to justice. The Beijing Platform for Action, adopted in 1995 outlined recommendations to ensure human rights literacy so that women would know about their human rights. It also spelled out policy actions on violence against women and situations of armed conflict.

The credit for the UN’s actions goes to the women’s movement. In the last half century, activism reached a critical mass that was reflected in the UN decision to call for an International Women’s Year in 1975, followed by a UN Decade for Women and four UN world conferences on women. The UN world conferences of the 1990s served as global town meetings where women exchanged ideas across the boundaries of culture and nationality, and brought their experiences to bear on the global agendas of those events. For many women, these meetings also provided the first opportunities to meet together internationally.

Women organized events and hearings to expose violations of their rights and formed caucuses regionally and internationally. They also prepared documents that introduced women’s human rights perspectives to the agendas of many UN conferences, including the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, the Social Summit in Copenhagen and the Habitat Conference in Istanbul–as well as the Fourth World Women’s Conference in Beijing. Since then, women have rallied to hold governments accountable at follow-up UN events—the major one to be held in New York in 2015 with “Beijing Plus 20”. In so doing, they moved women’s concerns beyond the women’s conferences and provided a powerful voice for women on many global issues such as the small arms treaty and international crime.

What have these global actions achieved? Women broke the silence. They found a common language of liberation. They also helped to teach the UN and governments how to “look at the world through women’s eyes.” Women’s groups have shown that a nonviolent social movement for change can be revolutionary and that there are peaceful means to ending violence. They have also established that the world vision for peace cannot be achieved as long as there is a reign of terror against women and girls.

*Based on an EarthTimes article authored by Charlotte Bunch and Soon-Young Yoon entitled “Women—the long, long journey.”