The 57th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women ended in mid-March more with a sigh of relief than with jubilation. The commission, comprising 45 national delegations, managed to reach a final agreement (which it could not do last year) without losing ground on women’s rights that had been gained, at least on paper, over the last two decades in landmark international conferences. The subject this year was violence against women.
On the positive side, delegations agreed, after much discussion and spirited input from women’s peace groups, to include a link between conflict and the perpetration of violence against women, an issue that has been on the Security Council agenda since the milestone Resolution 1325 passed in 2000. The link would seem obvious, and demand ringing condemnation, yet the Commission on the Status of Women could agree only to “recall,” without elaboration, a list of resolutions, beginning with 1325, that addressed the subject more boldly.
The final agreement also asked governments to ensure accountability and punishment for violence in conflict and to deny amnesty to perpetrators. It recognized, furthermore, “that illicit use of and illicit trade in small arms and light weapons aggravates violence, inter alia, against women and girls.”
Buried in the document by the commission, a policy-making body created in 1946, was a call for better collection of data on violence against women and girls. Strange as it may seem, there are virtually no internationally agreed definitions of what constitutes gender-based violence and few statistics that reliably measure it. The UN and its agencies have been working to fill this vacuum in recent years. Many governments, police forces and justice systems have not.
The result is a vast knowledge gap between the positions, promises and achievements governments bring to bodies like the Commission on the Status of Women and the reality of women’s precarious daily lives worldwide. Advocates for women, donor nations and international organizations, in and outside the UN system, are demanding to know more about the many facets and magnitude of a phenomenon now called an international epidemic.
In 2007, a UN experts group listed 12 forms of violence that needed further study to develop data collection methods and indicators to measure abuses of women and girls. The list was comprehensive: the killing of women by intimate partners, female infanticide, threatened violence, economic and social or psychological aspects of intimate partner violence, “honor” crimes, conflict-related crime, dowry-related violence, sexual exploitation, trafficking, femicide (targeted killing of women), sexual harassment and forced marriage. The UN statistical commission has been working ever since to set global standards of definition and monitoring, and the 2007 list has already been winnowed.
Additionally, UN agencies and numerous nongovernmental organizations have been making their own calculations and predictions. It is not happy reading.
In 2011, UN Women, using available data in 86 countries, estimated that up to 70 percent of women experienced physical or sexual violence in their lifetimes, the majority by husbands, intimate partners or other men they know. In South Africa, a woman is killed every six hours by an intimate partner; in São Paulo, Brazil, a woman is assaulted every 15 seconds; in India, 22 women were killed daily in 2007 in dowry-related murders, many in so-called bride burnings by in-laws who were unhappy with the bride’s dowry. Globally, as many as one in four women experience sexual abuse or other physical violence in pregnancy, often kicked or punched in the abdomen. (Full disclosure: I gathered these and other available statistics for the UN Population Fund, UNFPA, before the women’s commission’s recent session.)
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime found that African women had the highest rates of death from homicides in the world, about double that of the Americas, the region with the second-highest rate, with Europe in third place.
“In a large number of countries, intimate partner/family related violence is a major cause of female homicides,” the UN agency said, adding that this was the cause of 35 percent of such deaths in Europe.
The World Health Organization, like UNFPA, Unicef and other UN agencies, recognizes violence against women, particularly intimate partner and sexual violence, as both a major public health problem and violation of women’s human rights. In a report published in 2005, WHO sampled 10 countries — Bangladesh, Brazil, Ethiopia, Japan, Peru, Namibia, Samoa, Serbia and Montenegro, Thailand and Tanzania – and concluded that women between the ages of 15 and 49 reporting physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner ranged from 15 percent in Japan to 71 percent in Ethiopia. In numerous countries, domestic violence tops the list of civil crimes.
The World’s Women: Trends and Statistics 2010 report, published every five years by the UN Statistics Division, drew attention to the damage caused by misguided adherence to negative interpretation of culture or tradition, often because men decide custom. “Violence against women . . . is perpetuated by traditional and customary practices that accord women lower status in the family, workplace, community and society, and is exacerbated by social pressures,” the report said.
In Liberia, I met a girl in a safe house who had been abducted and raped by a man in her neighborhood because a witch doctor — her description — told her attacker that sex with a young virgin would bring him luck in a job hunt.
UN representatives working in some countries say they cannot even raise the subject of gender violence with governments. When a government denies there is a problem and its institutions do not address endemic violence, as demonstrated recently by several widely reported rape cases in India, women usually have no institutional and social protection or recourse to justice and the poorest of them accept abuse as part of life. Moreover, collecting data directly from vulnerable or victimized women is difficult and must be handled with utmost sensitivity and privacy. That is not always possible, specialists in the field say.
The World’s Women report tried to measure women’s acceptance of inferiority (and vulnerability) in 33 countries, primarily in Africa, Asia and Latin America (plus Armenia, Jordan, Moldova and Turkmenistan). Asked what behavior justified wife-beating, virtually all women questioned (except in Jordan) said, to one degree or another, that refusing sex was an acceptable excuse for physical punishment, with the highest proportion agreeing in Africa and the lowest in Latin America. Burning food while cooking was also seen as justification for wife-beating in most countries, again to varying degrees.
Social pressures that lead women to accept attitudes that degrade them and expose them to harm contribute significantly to the persistence of forced child marriages and female genital mutilation in several dozen countries, the majority in Africa and immigrant communities from those nations. In December 2012, the UN General Assembly voted for the first time to ask all countries to ban genital mutilation, which WHO estimates affects about 3 million girls every year.
Future reports from the 45-member Commission on the Status of Women would contribute more usefully to a global understanding of women’s lives if the language were less sanitized and words like “stresses,” “recalls” and “urges” were replaced by demands.
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.