Millions of women across the world are beaten, killed, bought and sold by men, yet the gruesome violence and cruel treatment they face every day rarely makes headlines in the global media.
The press has “either underreported, ignored or underplayed” five key issues with regard to violations of women’s human rights, says the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) in declaring its support for an ongoing international campaign against gender violence.
The “underreported” stories include rampant domestic violence in Russia, sex slavery in India, self-immolation in Central Asia, gender-based violence and HIV, and “compensation” marriages in several parts of the world.
This is the second time that the UNFPA has joined the “Sixteen Days of Activism” campaign against gender violence. Launched by women’s rights groups in 1991, every year the campaign runs from Nov. 25 through Dec. 10, which marks International Human Rights Day.
UNFPA says that in Russia, at least 14,000 women are killed by their husbands or boyfriends every year. In India, demand is growing for young women trafficked from lower castes and abroad, who are then forced into veritable household sexual slavery.
Every year, the proportion of women infected with HIV continues to overtake that of men. While women are two to five times more biologically susceptible to contracting HIV from a male partner, another factor also comes into play: gender-based violence.
This includes coercion, rape in wartime, the practice of “widow cleansing”, domestic violence and female genital mutilation/cutting, according to UNFPA. Some studies show that women who suffer violence at home are 10 times more likely to acquire HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
The U.N. agency says in northern Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, many women burn themselves alive as a way to escape domestic violence and abuse. Researchers say exact numbers are hard to pin down, but anecdotal evidence indicates that such cases are on the rise.
UNFPA also cites the phenomenon of “compensation’ marriages” prevalent in northwestern Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa. This refers to the practice of forcing minor girls into marriages as compensation to offset debts or other disputes.
“The right to live free of violence and discrimination is the right of every human being,” said UNFPA’s executive director Thoraya Ahmed Obaid. “Yet this right is being violated on a massive and systematic scale.”
Last year, a 113-page U.N. study criticised member states that have failed to adopt laws criminalising violence against women. It was drafted by an advisory committee of 10 high-level internationally recognised experts on gender violence.
The report showed that at least 102 of the 192 U.N. member states had no specific legal provisions on domestic violence, and marital rape was not a prosecutable offence in as many as 53 countries.
It also pointed out that many countries had no sufficient support measures in place for victims of gender violence, nor did they keep any systematic or reliable data on violence against women.
In a statement, Obaid urged all governments and parliaments that have not yet done so to adopt laws and establish programmes to address these rights violations.
Meanwhile, joining others in the ongoing international campaign, women’s groups in the United States are pushing Congress to endorse a proposed law that would protect women in poor countries.
“Violence is one of the biggest barriers to women’s economic participation. It’s hard to work if you fear for your life,” said Ritu Sharma Fox, co-founder and president of the U.S.-based Women’s Edge Coalition.
The Women’s Edge, in collaboration with the Amnesty International and Family Violence Prevention Fund, is currently involved in a lobbying effort on Capitol Hill for the passage of the International Violence Against Women Act. The proposed act reflects the view that the issue of gender violence in developing countries demands not only local efforts, but an international response as well.
“This legislation will ensure that hard-earned tax dollars support efforts to end this scourge, and that violence does not prevent women from going to work, getting an education and supporting their families,” Fox added in a statement.
If passed, campaigners say the bill would integrate efforts to end violence against women into foreign assistance programmes, applying the force of U.S. diplomacy and aid totaling one billion dollars over five years.
“[It] marshals together, for the first time, coordinated American resources and leadership to address this global issue,” said Democratic Senator Joseph Biden, who introduced the bill last month together with his Republican colleague, Richard Lugar.
“It is essential for the United States to work with non-governmental organisations and like-minded countries to end domestic violence,” Biden added.
The new legislation would authorise more than 200 million dollars annually in foreign assistance for international programmes that prevent violence, support health programmes and survivor services, encourage legal accountability, change public attitudes, promote education, and address violence against women in humanitarian situations.
It also aims to prevent domestic and sexual violence, including “honour” killings, bride burning, genital cutting, and mass rapes in war. The bill mandates a five-year strategy to fight violence against women in 10 to 20 selected countries and provides funding of up to 175 million dollars a year to support programmes dealing with violence against women.
U.N. researchers say violence against women exists in every country in the world as a pervasive violation of human rights that continues to hinder efforts for gender equality.
On the phenomenon of gender violence in developed countries, a recent study by the Alabama-based Coalition Against Domestic Violence shows that at least 40 percent of teenage girls in the United States face beatings at the hands of their boyfriends.