Violence Against Women: Most Pervasive Human Rights Violation

2-26-09, 11:10 am

Original source: People's Voice (Canada)

As International Women's Day nears the century mark (the first IWD was held in 1911), women have made enormous progress in many respects. But the present global economic crisis will have a profound negative impact on women, and the long struggle to end violence against women remains far from victory.

For the past decade, the United Nations has chosen an annual theme to mark International Women's Day. This year, the slogan is 'Women and Men United to End Violence Against Women and Girls.'

As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said on IWD 2007, 'Violence against women and girls continues unabated in every continent, country and culture. It takes a devastating toll on women's lives, on their families, and on society as a whole. Most societies prohibit such violence – yet the reality is that too often, it is covered up or tacitly condoned.'

Facts and figures from the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) show that this is the single most pervasive human rights violation on a global scale.

At least one out of every three women around the world has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime – with the abuser usually someone known to her.

For women aged 15 to 44 years, violence is a major cause of death and disability. In a 1994 study based on World Bank data regarding selected risk factors facing women in this age group, rape and domestic violence rated higher than cancer, motor vehicle accidents, war and malaria.

Moreover, studies have revealed that women who experience violence are at a higher risk of HIV infection: a survey among 1,366 South African women showed that women who were beaten by their partners were 48 percent more likely to be infected with HIV than those who were not.

The economic cost of violence against women is considerable. A 2003 report by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the costs of intimate partner violence in the United States alone exceed $5.8 billion per year, including $4.1 billion for direct medical and health care services, and productivity losses accounting for nearly $1.8 billion. A recent survey by the American Institute on Domestic Violence found that domestic violence victims lose nearly 8 million days of paid work per year – the equivalent of 32,000 full-time jobs.

Women are more at risk of experiencing violence in intimate relationships, and in no country are women safe. Out of ten counties surveyed in 2005 by the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 50 percent of women in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Peru and Tanzania reported having been subjected to physical or sexual violence by intimate partners, rising to a staggering 71 percent in rural Ethiopia. Only in Japan did less than 20 percent of women report incidents of domestic violence. An earlier WHO study puts the number of women physically abused by their partners or ex-partners at 30 percent in the United Kingdom, and 22 percent in the United States.

Based on several surveys from around the world, half of the women who die from homicides are killed by their current or former husbands or partners. Women are killed by people they know and die from gun violence, beatings and burns, among numerous other forms of abuse. A study conducted in Sao Paulo, Brazil, reported that 13 percent of deaths of women of reproductive age were homicides, of which 60 percent were committed by their partners. According to a UNIFEM report on Afghanistan, out of 1,327 incidents of violence against women collected between January 2003 and June 2005, 36 women had been killed – in 16 cases by their intimate partners.

By the year 2006, 89 states had some form of legislative prohibition on domestic violence, and a growing number of countries had instituted national plans of action to end violence against women. This is a clear increase from 2003, when only 45 countries had specific laws on domestic violence. Yet high levels of violence against women persist.

Limited availability of services, stigma and fear prevent women from seeking assistance and redress. This has been confirmed by a study published by the WHO in 2005: on the basis of data collected from 24,000 women in ten countries, between 55 percent and 95 percent of women who had been physically abused by their partners had never contacted NGOs, shelters or the police for help.

Sexual violence by non-partners is also common, but estimates of its prevalence are difficult to establish, because in many societies, such violence remains an issue of deep shame for women and their families. Statistics on rape extracted from police records, for example, are notoriously unreliable because of significant underreporting.

It is estimated that worldwide, one in five women will become a victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime. In a study of nearly 1,200 ninth-grade students in Geneva, Switzerland, 20 percent of girls revealed they had experienced at least one incident of physical sexual abuse.

According to the 2005 multi-country study on domestic violence undertaken by the WHO, between 10 and 12 percent of women in Peru, Samoa and Tanzania have suffered sexual violence by non-partners after the age of 15. Other population-based studies reveal that 11.6 percent of women in Canada reported sexual violence by a non-partner in their lifetime, and between 10 and 20 percent of women in New Zealand and Australia have experienced various forms of sexual violence from non-partners, including unwanted sexual touching, attempted rape and rape.

In many societies, the legal system and community attitudes add to the trauma that rape survivors experience. Women are often held responsible for the violence against them, and in many places laws contain loopholes which allow the perpetrators to act with impunity. In a number of countries, a rapist can go free if he proposes to marry the victim.

Trafficking involves the recruitment and transportation of persons, using deception, coercion and threats to keep them in a situation of forced labour or servitude. Persons are trafficked into a variety of sectors of the informal economy, including prostitution, domestic work, agriculture, the garment industry or street begging.

While exact data are hard to come by, estimates of the number of trafficked persons range from 500,000 to four million per year. Although women, men, girls and boys can become victims, the majority are female. Various forms of gender-based discrimination trap millions of women and girls in poverty. This puts them at higher risk of becoming targeted by traffickers, who use false promises of jobs and educational opportunities to recruit their victims. Trafficking is often connected to organized crime and has developed into a highly profitable business that generates an estimated US$7-12 billion per year.

Trafficking is usually a trans-border crime. According to a 2006 UN global report on trafficking, 127 countries have been documented as countries of origin, and 137 as countries of destination. The main countries of origin are in Central and South-Eastern Europe, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and Asia, followed by West Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. The most commonly reported countries of destination are in Western Europe, Asia and Northern America. By 2006, 93 countries had prohibited trafficking.

The victims in today's armed conflicts are far more likely to be civilians than soldiers. Some 70 percent of the casualties in recent conflicts have been non-combatants, most of them women and children. Women's bodies have become part of the battleground for those who use terror as a tactic of war - they are raped, abducted, humiliated and made to undergo forced pregnancy, sexual abuse and slavery. Violence against women has been reported in every international or non-international war-zone, including Afghanistan, Burundi, Chad, Colombia, Cote d'Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, Peru, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Chechnya/Russian Federation, Darfur, Sudan, northern Uganda and the former Yugoslavia.

A 2002 UNIFEM-sponsored report on the issue quoted a UN official in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, on the terror of daily life for people in the region: 'From Pweto down near the Zambian border right up to Aru on the Sudan/Uganda border, it's a black hole where no one is safe and where no outsider goes. Women take a risk when they go out to the fields or on a road to a market. Any day they can be stripped naked, humiliated and raped in public. Many, many people no longer sleep at home, though sleeping in the bush is equally unsafe. Every night, another village is attacked. It could be any group, no one knows, but they always take away women and girls.'

Recently, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes reported that more than 32,000 cases of rape and sexual violence have been registered in South Kivu Province alone since 2005 - just a fraction of the total number of women subjected to such extreme suffering.

UNIFEM says that 'Protection and support for women survivors of violence in conflict and post-conflict areas is woefully inadequate.' Access to social services, protection, legal remedies, medical resources, and places of refuge is limited despite the efforts of local NGOs to provide assistance. A climate of impunity further exacerbates the situation, and serves as an incentive to ongoing violence.

UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, adopted in 2000, calls for women's equal participation in peace and security issues. But almost a decade later much more effort is needed to strengthen mechanisms to prevent, investigate, report, prosecute and remedy violence against women in times of war, and to ensure their voices are heard in building peace.