In celebration of Women’s History Month, we need to remember that women are still the target of constant multifaceted and complex forms of violence in a society that has grown to privilege power over human rights.
Hardly any country has escaped the increasing violence against women as a result of war and militarism as well as institutional or individual violent actions that trickle down to the most vulnerable: women, children and the elderly. Many live in fear and despair.
When we think of violence against women, we usually concentrate on the physical act of viciousness but in reality, gender-based violence assumes many forms. From bullying and battering to subtle sexism, from acts of war against women to discrimination in the workplace, from rape to body objectification –in advertising and beauty contests–, from religious justification of women’s submission to the religious deification of women’s purity and chastity –sexual castration–, the intersection of gender-based violent actions with women’s rights is multifaceted and complex.
Numbers are powerful:
- At least one in three women around the world will be the target of a physical act of violence in her lifetime, according to estimates of The United Nations Development Fund for Women. Many times, the abuser is a family member.
- Among 10 countries researched in a study of the World Health Organization, it was reported that even-partnered women had experienced some kind of physical or sexual intimate partner violence regardless of their cultural setting; the range was from 15 percent of Japanese women to 71 percent of Ethiopian women.
- According to UNIFEM , sexual violence has an economic, social, cultural and inter-generational impact during conflict and perpetuates insecurity in the wake of war. Women cannot hold their families together, access water and food resources; their children suffer of abandonment and isolation, and a disruption of their lives; women and girls are victims of sexual crimes, with resulting pregnancies giving birth to “war babies,” who are ostracized and rejected. For instance, it is believed that 250,000 to 500,000 women and girls were raped during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
- According to Family Safe Media, pornography is a 97 billion dollar industry worldwide –compared to the US federal budget in Education that was 118 billion in 2013.
Increasing militarism generates violence against women and children
Why choose the relationship between militarism and women’s rights? For many, that association might be distant and unrelated. However, the issue that is subtle in one society might be an everyday occurrence for others.
We tend to think of war as an armed conflict between two or more nations, in which trained soldiers fight to defeat their enemy’s army. However, contemporary wars or armed conflicts range from the drug wars against the favelas in Brazil to the Guatemalan genocide of 1,771 Ixil indigenous people or the femicide in Ciudad Juarez and other parts of Mexico. It also includes repression of Syrian female activists; the imprisonment, torture, rape and death of women in Congo, Chile and Argentina during military dictatorships or specific cases such as the recent murder of environmental activist Berta Caceres in Honduras.
According to the United Nations, military conflicts with 1,000 casualties per year are considered “major wars.” But cumulative casualties can become significant as conflicts extend through the years. In contemporary conflicts, 90 percent of victims are civilians –compared to civilians’ losses during World War I, estimated at 5 percent of total casualties–, most of them women and children.
Violence against women perpetrated by state actors
When states attack women instead of protecting and promoting their rights, they are using their military and legal powers to submit women and make them the targets of threats, violence and victimization in the name of state security.
In countries that are highly militarized or in war conflict, state violence against women can easily be spotted in the acts of physical violence, torture, imprisonment and terror.
But how do women spot the same in, for instance, the United States, a country with no domestic militarized conflict?
- “Over the course of the year, 42 states and the District of Columbia enacted 122 provisions related to [women’s] reproductive health and rights. One-third of these new provisions, 43 in 19 states, sought to restrict access to abortion services,” reports the Guttmacher Institute in 2013.
- Equal pay and job opportunities, appropriate labor legislation and same access to political and social opportunities and education are an aspiration but not a constitutional right for women in the U.S. Since 1923, the first time the Equal Right Amendment (ERA) was proposed to the Constitution and failed support from the states, advocacy groups have worked relentlessly to include equal rights for women.
- The Violence Against Women Act of 1994 proposed by then-Senator Joe Biden, recognized the severity of violence against women but left out a number of cases included minorities, immigrant women, and gay, lesbian and transgender populations. In 2014, an extension to include such population was enacted by Congress and signed by President Obama. It only took 19 years to recognize the inequality suffered by these groups!
Violence against women and the role of small arms
From small children falling victims of accidents to women killed by their domestic partners or husbands, and from innocent pedestrians caught in gangs’ crossfire to victims of murder, rape, or burglary, the use of small weapons collects over 200,000 lives every year worldwide.
- The number of small arms possessed by civilians is believed to outnumber three times those possessed by states and law enforcement. In 2007, the Small Arms Survey estimated civilians owned legally or illegally around 650 million firearms worldwide. Armed forces, on the other hand, held around 200 million, and additional 26 million were in hands of law enforcement personnel.
- An estimated 90 firearms per 100 people are owned by civilians in the U.S. –the highest rate per capita in the world– followed by Yemen, with 55 weapons owned per 100 people. Both nations see gun ownership as a basic right and ingrained in the countries’ culture.
- The presence of a gun in a home increases the overall risk of a person being murdered by 41 per cent; but for women in a domestic violence situation, the risk nearly triples, according to a report published by Amnesty International.
- Another study from the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) found that the U.S. has the highest rate of female homicide among 25 high income nations. The firearm homicide rate of women is 11 times higher compared to the other countries included in the study.
- According to NOW, young women, low-income women and minorities are at greater risk of suffering from domestic violence and rape and at higher danger of being murdered by their partners and spouses.
- According to the National Latino Alliance for the Elimination of Domestic Violence, Latinas face unique obstacles in addressing domestic abuse and threats to their safety and their children’s due to cultural and language factors such as lack of sufficient bilingual social workers, police and judiciary personnel; lack of financial basic knowledge and independence; and fear of their own deportation and/or separation from her children.
Sexual violence during and after war conflict
Armed conflicts and war increase violence against women including multiple rape, torture, sexual slavery and murder of women and girls in the war-zones, refugee camps, detention facilities and military bases, according to The Impact of Guns in Women’s Life report.
Violence against women in particular –and gender-based violence in general– is used as a way to dominate other ethnic or racial groups, in religious cleansing wars, military occupations, and any other kind of armed conflict. Instead of protecting them, many times those who hold authority execute these acts of violence against the civilian and military population.
- The Amnesty International report on the Iraq war abuses shows that civilians in the combat zone were victims of violence by domestic as well as foreign armed forces –the U.S. included- as well as those detained in prisons and camps. The Abu-Grahib scandal was just an example of these actions.
- The U.S. Department of Defense Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO) 2012 Workplace and Gender Relations Survey of Active Duty Members report disclosed in its survey dreadful data about the number of military members –women and men- that have been victims of some kind of sexual abuse by their peers or superiors during war as well as regular duty.Consequences of violence against women and other gender-based violence
The consequences of gender-based violence can extend to a lifetime for many women and girls who are abused psychologically, physically or suffer the stigma and punishment of society. Although we tend to feel horrified about cultures that put victims in isolation and ostracism, or silence them in judiciary processes as foreign and far from us –such as in India, Bangladesh or South Africa–, the culture of rape and violence against women is also common in the United States.
The U.S. culture tends to tolerate, justify, or even condone gender-based violence –as seen in two cases of sports abuses at Penn State University and Notre Dame. Those acts are not only directed against women and children but also gay, lesbian, and transgender populations.
Instead of prosecuting and punishing the perpetrators of the crimes, societal behaviors commonly include blaming the victim, presenting women as sex objects and trivializing rape. Alcohol and drug abuse are also common contributors to violent situations.
Girls and women are bombarded with advertising imposing strict beauty patters to be sexually attractive and desired by men. The US diet industry raked in $6.3 billion in revenue in 2015. Other created needs such as skin, makeup and hair products are also multibillion dollar industries. Pressure on image has extended mental and emotional behaviors such as anorexia, bulimia and other personality disorders among young girls and women.
How do we end this assault on women against the highest concentration of power and money of states, interest groups –including the gun industry and the military complex–, and corporations that obtain big profits and benefits from these actions?
“Decades of mobilizing by civil society and women’s movements have put ending gender-based violence high on national and international agendas. An unprecedented number of countries have laws against domestic violence, sexual assault and other forms of violence. Challenges remain however in implementing these laws, limiting women and girls’ access to safety and justice. Not enough is done to prevent violence, and when it does occur, it often goes unpunished.” (Ending Violence Against Women, UN Women)