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2 December 2004 Edition

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Combating violence against women

Violence against women has many faces. From birth to death, in times of peace and conflict, women face aggression at the hands of state, community and family. In some countries, the life of a woman is considered so worthless that baby girls get discarded, abandoned and even killed. Every year millions of women are raped by partners, relatives, friends and sometimes strangers, by employers and colleagues, security officials and soldiers. The overwhelming majority of those affected by violence at home are also women and girls. In recent conflicts in Kosovo, Bosnia, Sudan and Congo, we have seen how violence has been used as a weapon to dehumanise women themselves or to prosecute the community to which they belong.

All around the world, different actions took place on Thursday 25 November, International Day Against Violence Against Women, to highlight that violence against women is a problem that affects everybody in society.

It's in our hands: Stop violence against women, a report published by Amnesty International, investigates causes, forms and remedies, and highlights the responsibility of the state, the community and individuals for taking action to end violence against women.

This report finds that violence against women is not confined to any particular political or economic system, but is prevalent in every society in the world. It cuts across boundaries of wealth, race and culture. The power structures within society which perpetuate violence against women are deep-rooted. The experience or threat of violence inhibits women everywhere from fully exercising and enjoying their human rights.

Women throughout the world have organised to expose and counter violence against women. They have forced changes in laws, policies and practices through their work to bring those responsible to account. They have brought the violations against their human rights out of the shadows and into the spotlight. They have established that this violence demands a response from those who, in many cases, are responsible for that violence: governments, communities and individuals.

The women's movement has, above all, challenged the view of women as passive victims, as despite the many obstacles and threats, women are leading the struggle to prevent further violence.

The struggle to establish women's rights as human rights has not been easy. Despite its prevalence, it was not until the 1990s that violence against women emerged as a focus of international attention and concern. In 1993, the UN General Assembly passed the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, UN Resolution 48/104. In the next two years, at both the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo and the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, women's organisations from around the world advocated ending gender violence as a high priority. The Cairo Programme of Action recognised that gender violence is an obstacle to women's reproductive and sexual health and rights, and the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action devoted an entire section to the issue of violence against women.

In March 1994, the Commission on Human Rights appointed the first Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women and empowered her to investigate abuses of women's human rights. In the same year, the Organisation of American States (OAS) negotiated the Inter-American Convention to Prevent, Punish and Eradicate Violence Against Women. As of 1998, 27 Latin American countries had ratified the convention.

In May 1996 the 49th World Health Assembly adopted a resolution (WHA49.25) declaring violence a public health priority. WHO is sponsoring, together with the Centre for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE) and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, a multi-country study on women's health and domestic violence.

More recently, in September 1998 the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) brought together 400 experts from 37 countries to discuss the causes and costs of domestic violence, and policies and programs to address it. The IDB currently funds research and demonstration projects on violence against women in six Latin American countries. That same year, UNIFEM launched regional campaigns in Africa, Asia/Pacific, and Latin America designed to draw attention to the issue of violence against women globally. UNIFEM also manages The Trust Fund in Support of Actions to Eliminate Violence Against Women, an initiative that has disbursed US$3.3 million to 71 projects around the world since 1996.

Then, in 1999, the United Nations Population Fund declared violence against women "a public health priority".

An enormous range of anti-violence initiatives now operate in all parts of the world. Some are run by small grass-roots women's groups, others by large international agencies, and still others by governments. Moreover, growing research efforts have resulted in an increasingly detailed and sophisticated understanding of the causes and consequences of violence against women. Yet the violence continues.

Case studies

One of the cases highlighted by Amnesty is that of Grace Patrick Akpan, who was stopped by police officers for an identity check in Catanzaro, Italy, in February 1996.When she told them that she was an Italian citizen, they answered that "a black woman cannot be an Italian citizen". She was physically assaulted by the officers and required two weeks' hospital treatment. In October 1999, almost three years later, the officers responsible were found guilty of abusing their powers and causing Grace Patrick Akpan's injuries. They were sentenced to just two months' probation.

In Chihuahua, Mexico, the lack of political will to investigate the reasons behind the disappearance of more than 400 young women and to put in place resources to save other women from suffering a similar fate have forced families and friend of the victims to organise themselves. The organisation, Justice for our Daughters, counts on the support of barristers and lawyers that are acting for the families of the victims and works to force the authorities to act on what is happening to young women in Mexico. They have already denounced how they have received threats themselves.

These cases, and many others around the world, show how violence against women -which is never normal, legal or acceptable and should never be tolerated or justified - is sometimes if not allowed, then accepted. This attitude should change and everyone - individuals, communities, governments, and international bodies - has a responsibility to put a stop to it and to redress the suffering it causes.

Change must come at international, national and local levels. It must be brought about by governments as well as private actors, by institutions as well as individuals.

Taking action

In Spain, violence against women has become one of the main items of public and political discussion. Incidents of domestic violence are now widely reported in the press and the government is prepared to enact new legislation so those responsible for this kind of violence serve longer prison sentences. However, there is a very long way to go, as this year more than 52 Spanish women died as a consequence of violence inflicted by their current or former partners.

In Colombia, thousands of women took to the streets on Thursday 25 November to protest the impact of the civil conflict in their lives. The massive fumigations against huge areas under the excuse of eradicating coca plantations, carried out by the Colombian army and financed by the US administration, the forced displacement of populations escaping the conflict areas and the poverty that these situations create, affect the lives of million of women in Colombia. This year, women marched to El Chocó, where a high percentage of the population suffer discrimination not only because of their poverty, but also because of their Afro-Colombian origin, and where the violence of the armed conflict is a daily occurrence.

In Pakistan, it is estimated that around 1,000 women are killed every year due to the so-called honour-crime. To ask for a divorce, to have relationships outside wedlock or to offend the family honour are enough reasons for those women to be murdered, mutilated or burned alive. The Feminist Association of Legal Assistance for Women opened a women's refuge in the area of Punjab in 1990, where they provide assistance and a home to women who have been threatened with - or have already suffered - this kind of violence.

In Morocco, since 1993, the organisation Centre for Listening and Legal and Psychological Assistance for women victims of violence has been working to improve the situation of women in the North African country.

International Day Against Violence Against Women has come and gone. Since then, more women have died due to incidents of violence. Only when women gain their place as equal members of society will violence against women no longer be an invisible norm but, instead, a shocking aberration.

DEFINITION

Violence against Women is defined as:

"Any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life."

UN Declaration on the

Elimination of Violence against Women

Violence

against women includes:

Violence in the family.

This includes:

• Battering by intimate partners,

• Sexual abuse of female children in the household,

• Dowry-related violence,

• Marital rape and female genital mutilation and other traditional practices harmful to women.

It also covers abuse of domestic workers such as:

• Involuntary confinement, physical brutality,

• Slavery-like conditions and sexual assault.

Violence in the community.

This includes:

• Rape,

• Sexual abuse,

• Sexual harassment and assault at work, in educational institutions and elsewhere.

• Trafficking, forced prostitution and forced labour fall into this category, which also covers rape and other abuses by armed groups.

Violence by the state.

This includes

• Acts of violence committed or condoned by police, prison guards, soldiers, border guards, immigration officials and so on, such as rape by government forces during armed conflict, torture in custody and violence by officials against refugee women.

In any of these categories, violence may be physical, psychological, and sexual.

STATISTICS

The statistics on violence against women reveal a worldwide human rights catastrophe. However, these figures represent the tip of the iceberg. Violence against women is generally under-reported because women are ashamed or fear disbelief, hostility or further violence.

• At least one out of every three women has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime. Usually, the abuser is a member of her own family or someone known to her.

• The Council of Europe has stated that domestic violence is the major cause of death and disability for women aged 16 to 44 and accounts for more death and ill-health than cancer or traffic accidents.

• More than 60 million women are "missing" from the world today as a result of sex-selective abortions and female infanticide. China's last census in the year 2000 revealed that the ratio of newborn girls to boys was 100:119.The biological norm is 100:103.

• In the USA, women accounted for 85% of the victims of domestic violence in 1999, according to the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women.

• The Russian government estimates that 14,000 women were killed by their partners or relatives in 1999,yet the country still has no law specifically addressing domestic violence.

• The World Health Organisation has reported that up to 70% of female murder victims are killed by their male partners.

PREVENTION

Preventing violence against women requires us to:

• Speak out against violence against women, listen to women and believe them;

• Condemn violence against women as the major human rights scandal of our times;

• Confront those in authority if they fail to prevent, punish and redress violence against women;

• Challenge religious, social, and cultural attitudes and stereotypes which diminish women's humanity;

• Promote women's equal access to political power, decision-making and resources;

• Support women to organise themselves to stop the violence.


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