Violence Against Women: A Global Plague

February 21, 2013Comment

A friend of mine once said that women are the most oppressed people in the world. He was right. While the lot of women in the West has improved significantly over the past fifty years, women in the rest of the world are routinely subjected to a cornucopia of indignities—beatings, rapes, genital mutilation, object penetration, trafficking, pimping, and murder, often at the hands of the men closest to them.

According to the United Nations, one in three women around the world will experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetimes. The statistics are localized, with women in China faring much better than women in Africa, for instance. But for many of the world’s 3.5 billion women, violence is a way of life—predictable, even ordinary.

And the West is far from immune.

In Australia, one out of every two women will experience some form of physical violence in their lifetimes. In Switzerland, one in four women are sexually assaulted. Every fifteen seconds, a woman is battered in the United States. Every two minutes, an American woman is raped. Almost a third of female homicide victims are killed by an intimate partner.

The flood tide of violence against women seldom finds its way into the news. Occasionally, however, a spectacular incident makes headlines—the Taliban’s attempt to assassinate Malala, the teenage Pakistani activist; the brutal gang rape of Jyoti Singh in India; and, most recently, the tragic (though perhaps accidental) death of Reeva Steenkamp at the hands of Oscar Pistorius.

In cities, villages, and homes around the world, more than one billion women are not safe.

In my novel A Walk Across the Sun, I set out to explore one of the more bestial dimensions of gender violence—the forced prostitution of women and girls. Among the constellation of human rights abuses, sex trafficking arouses the conscience like little else. It isn’t hard to convince civilized people to care about orphaned teenagers sold into the sex trade. Likewise, most people find it easy to care about Malala and Jyoti and Reeva—young women who have endured the most extreme forms of violence.

But what about the destitute Zambian mother forced to sell her body to feed her children? What about the battered Egyptian wife who stands by her husband, accepting the violence as her burden and his right? What about the American teenager raped by her boyfriend after joining in a bit of foreplay? These stories are more common, but we pay them little heed. Why? Because we harbor a sneaking suspicion (especially we men) that the women in these scenarios are somehow responsible for their pain.

What we need is a renaissance of empathy. We need to place ourselves in the shoes of these women, to hold their suffering in our hearts, and to grasp (as much as we are able) how terrible it feels to be cornered, to have no way out.

The truth is that all gender violence is driven by an imbalance of power. Sometimes the imbalance expresses itself in acts of profound misogyny—gang rape, child sexual assault, genital mutilation, honor killing, and (as I recently learned) revenge porn. Typically, it shows up in subtler ways—in an occasional slap, a stream of belittling words, rough sex between intimate partners, sexual harassment in the workplace, or a date that starts with fun and ends with force. In every case, the male perpetrators believe either that they are morally entitled to their misbehavior or immune from punishment. They are convinced they have the upper hand.

It is time that we as a society prove them wrong.

One of the reasons I wrote my forthcoming novel, The Garden of Burning Sand, was to expose the unjust power dynamics that permit men to abuse women with impunity (corruption, political influence, broken legal systems, sexist cultural assumptions, etc.) and to depict the kind of courage we need to turn the tide against this massive injustice. In their book Half the Sky, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn argue convincingly that the worldwide oppression of women is the great moral challenge of the 21st century. I think they are right.

It is up to us—men and women of goodwill—to reject the pathology of gender violence in our own cities and neighborhoods and to liberate one billion of our sisters from fear.

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