Sunday, November 25, 2012

Sixteen days that can change the world

Today is International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women:

Rape Red. Grave Green. Booze Brown. No, these are not new macabre colours introduced by a paint manufacturer with a zero sense of humour. These are colours that ‘happen’ to people. To women. All over the world, millions of women suffer in silence as they are physically tormented, sexually abused and denied their basic human rights.

As the world marks the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women today, the ‘colours of domestic violence’ - actually close-up images of bruises and skin abrasions suffered by abused women, tell us a chilling story. All the women featured in the advertisements are dead. Yes, domestic violence kills. These ‘colours’ are part of a powerful advertising campaign launched this week by a French anti-domestic violence group. (Surprisingly for France, the advertisements are in English).

The images are initially meant to suggest a work of art, but upon closer reading, they’re revealed to be the result of assault and abuse against women. This is the type of message that the world needs to hear – that violence against women, in whatever form, is unacceptable in civilised society.

The United Nations defines violence against women as any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or mental harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.

Violence against women and girls is a problem of pandemic proportions. According to UNIFEM, at least one in three women in the world has suffered from violence, usually by someone known to her. A recent multi-country study conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO) found that up to 71 percent of women aged 15 to 49 reported physical and/or sexual violence at some point in their lives. Abused women often suffer from isolation, depression, inability to work and loss of income.
Short, long-term consequences

In every country, developed and developing, women and girls suffer from widespread and multiple forms of violence. It takes place in the home, on the streets, in schools, the workplace, during conflict and in times of peace. It also takes the forms of female infanticide in the preference for boys, child marriage, female genital mutilation, “honour” killings and other forms of femicide.

Women and girls are also trafficked worldwide to be sold as sex workers and slaves, forced into combat by terrorist groups and harassed in numerous other ways. Sexual violence is a serious public health and human rights problem with both short- and long-term consequences on women’s physical, mental and sexual and reproductive health.

The United Nations and governments have taken the lead to spread the word on the need to stop violence against women. They have called for 16 days of activities on gender violence starting from today and culminating on Human Rights Day on December 10. It will take in World AIDS Day (December 1), International Day for the Abolition of Slavery (December 2), International Day for Persons with Disabilities (December 3) and International Day for Economic and Social Development (December 5), all of which are relevant to women.

Women in least developed countries who are not exposed to sex education are vulnerable to HIV/AIDS; a lot of women are trafficked as slaves and sex workers; disabled women have even less opportunities than disabled men and most societies are yet to recognise the important role that can be played by women for economic and social empowerment and development. Human rights are women’s rights too, but special attention must be focused on the rights of women and girls.

How did the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against women start? Its roots go back to 1960 - to the brutal assassination on November 25, 1960 of the three Mirabal sisters, political activists in the Dominican Republic, on the orders of Dominican ruler Rafael Trujillo (1930-1961). The sisters, known as the “Unforgettable Butterflies”, became a symbol of the crisis of violence against women in Latin America.
UN resolution

Women’s activists have marked the day since 1981, but the UN recognised the day by Resolution 54/134 on December 17, 1999. The United Nations General Assembly designated November 25 as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and invited governments, international organisations and NGOs to organise activities to raise public awareness of the problem on that day. On December 20, 1993, the General Assembly, by Resolution 48/104, adopted the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women.

As the UN points out, violence prevents women and girls around the world from living in dignity, violates their fundamental human rights and stops them from achieving their full potential. Gender violence is a major obstacle to the advancement of women, with accompanying social and economic costs given the major role played by women in today’s world.

Strong laws are necessary to ensure that those who engage in violence against women in any form do not go unpunished. That is vital to guaranteeing respect for the fundamental rights of women and girls, their right to security and to a life free of violence. It is important to enact legislation and develop policies that protect women.

However, governments and law enforcement agencies cannot do this alone. Like most things, the drive against gender-based violence has to start at home - with a change of perceptions and cultural attitudes in most societies. In short, men who do not respect women must change their attitude and conduct.

One of the primary ways that women can be empowered against violence and societal injustices is education, which is unfortunately denied to girl children in many societies. Sri Lanka is an exception in this regard where even the poorest parents tend to send their boys as well as girls to school. Schools (including boys’ schools) can be the starting point for programs that highlight the need to curb domestic and society-level violence against women and girls. A society that begins this process now will have a brighter future, where women are treated as equal partners in social enrichment and development, without being subject to psychological and physical violence.
By Promod DE SILVA -