As a human rights issue, the effort to end violence against women becomes a government’s obligation, not just a good idea. –Charlotte Bunch
March is a big month for women. For over a century, March 8th has been globally celebrated as International Women’s Day and for more than two decades now the entire month of March has been designated as National Women’s History Month in the United States. Recent political events have drawn particular attention to what it means to be a woman, not only throughout the world, but right here in this country and begs the question-how should we respond? While this is a time to honor and celebrate women and their accomplishments, it also appears an opportunity to look more critically at current crises facing women today and acknowledge how far we still need to go to provide them with the rights and respect they deserve.
Last Thursday, President Obama was able to sign the re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA)….FINALLY! After months of delay and threats to strip down the legislation, it was only last week that this essential law to prevent incidence of violence and protect victims was finally renewed by Congress and even expanded to provide long overdue federal protections to gays, lesbians and transgender individuals, Native Americans and immigrants.
The success can no doubt be accredited in large part to the collective action generated by many women’s and human rights organizations along with political activist groups that garnered support from citizens and put pressure on legislators. So, a HUGE thanks to all those who persisted relentlessly to ensure this law did not fall by the wayside. While there was triumph in the end, it was not without a fight to regain something lost. The loss of a seemingly uncontroversial law that has saved lives and prevented harm to citizens, not to mention lowered federal spending. A law that is right in line with the duties of the State to protect its citizens and safeguard their human rights.
Such rights and protection are necessary for citizens worldwide to combat violence and other harm inflicted within and across their respective countries. Violence that sees no boundaries and is a universal tool often used as a means of control and power over its victims. In many cases, the complicity of the State has led to the perpetuation of harmful practices against women such as honor killings, genital mutilation, rape, stoning and lashing. It is also witnessed through economic transactions ranging from prostitution to its gratuitous use by the media in advertising. Furthermore, issues surrounding women’s reproductive health and dress have become an increasingly discussed and politicized topic, frequently used as a means of manipulation and oppression and in some cases ending in violent practices.
Violence is limitless- a sobering reminder as the 57th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) was kicked off last week at the United Nations here in New York. The main theme this year is the elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls. Representatives from Members States along with head officials at United Nations agencies gather for this two-week session to evaluate progress, identify barriers and formulate concrete policies to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment worldwide. In addition, thousands of men and women will attend side and parallel events programmed by UN agencies, government and donor organizations and NGOs.
On an international level, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1979, has been an important first step for highlighting and addressing issues of violence worldwide. However, it has been acknowledged that such broad pieces of international legislation will not produce the intended change without the commitment of national governments to do so. The political will to discuss, create awareness and take national measures towards eliminating gender-based violence is essential yet often still lacking. And the United States is not immune to this problem. In fact, it is one of only seven countries alongside South Sudan, Iran and Somalia that has not even ratified or acceded to the CEDAW treaty itself. (Yes, seriously.)
As we have witnessed, efforts and cooperation within Congress to develop and adopt necessary measures of legislation to reduce and prevent violence against women has been inadequate over the years. This is in a country where more than one-third of women have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner at some point in their lifetime which is on par with the average global estimate. Out of that figure, nearly one in five US women have been raped or had experienced an attempted rape compared to approximately 1 in 71 men, and a quarter of women have experienced severe physical violence by an intimate partner.
This is in a country where a culture of violence against women exists in the form of images, words and sounds in the media and sexist behavior or harassment to which we have become largely desensitized. While this may seem harmless, research has shown an increase in and the negative impact of egregious sexual or violent images of women in print, television, the internet and interactive form. Jean Kilbourne, a renowned researcher, author, filmmaker and lecturer has been working for over 40 years on the connection between images of women in advertising and violence against women. In her most recent film, she discusses the way in which women’s bodies are used within advertisements, purporting that “turning a human being into a thing is almost always the first step towards justifying violence against this person…the person is dehumanized and violence then becomes inevitable and that step is already and constantly taken with women.”
In addition to the bombardment of these messages by the media, there is the serious offense of a societal ignorance surrounding the demeaning treatment that many women face on a daily basis. In a Harvard Law Review article, Professor Cynthia Grant Bowman calls attention to the often downplayed but serious nature of street harassment and the impact it has on women’s self-esteem and throughout society. Professor Bowman states, “street harassment forms part of a whole spectrum of means by which men objectify women and assert coercive power over them, one which is even more invidious because it is so pervasive and appears, deceptively, to be trivial.”
Continuing to allow or ignore these messages, words, and treatment legitimizes societal acceptance of violence against women, resulting in the likelihood that it will only get worse. And in the meantime, thousands of women will continue to be assaulted or harassed daily in some way, shape or form, and to trivialize these experiences is a disservice to all. The systemic realities of violence against women include the groping of a woman on the subway to making inappropriate or unwanted advances on the street in addition to the often under reported instances of rape and abuse, and these acts should not be justified or ignored. We owe it to ourselves and to all the women in our lives to be more vigilant and speak out against ignorance such as that displayed not only within advertisements, television shows, and music but by our friends, neighbors, businesses, organizations and legislators.
And governments throughout the world, including our leaders here in the United States, owe women the promise that they will treat harm against them, no matter what the origin of motivation, as they would any other violation or instance of violence to any one of their citizens. They must no longer justify violence under the guise of traditional custom, religious practice, or accumulation of power, and they must yield their authority over issues related to women’s personal decisions about their bodies. Furthermore, just as we’ve seen in the fight to bring back VAWA, we as citizens must no longer allow them to continue to do so by losing sight of its long-term effects. We must not stop until the violence, discrimination, harassment, and oppression ends.