In all societies, poverty, discrimination, ignorance and social unrest are common predictors of violence against women. Yet the most enduring enemies of a woman’s dignity and security are cultural forces aimed at preserving male dominance and female subjugation—often defended in the name of venerable tradition.
In industrialized societies like the US, where institutions formally frown on gender violence, behaviour belies official pronouncements: rap music insulting women as ‘whores’; a popular men’s magazine that celebrates gang rape and depicts female bodies being fed into meat grinders; sexual harassment of women trying to integrate into the armed forces; and societal pressures that induce young women to starve themselves or use technology to create ‘ideal’ bodies, often destroying their health in the process.
In developing countries, violent practices against women are often recognized and defended as strands of the cultural weave. Wife-beating, for example, is considered part of the natural order in many countries—a masculine prerogative celebrated in songs, proverbs and wedding ceremonies.
At their most extreme, expressions of gender violence include ‘honour’ killings, female genital mutilation and dowry deaths, as well as a deep-seated, even murderous, preference for male children.
In courts of law, the ‘honour defence’ is institutionalized in some Middle Eastern and Latin American countries, allowing fathers or husbands to walk away from murder. In 12 Latin American countries, a rapist can be exonerated if he offers to marry the victim and she accepts. In one country, Costa Rica, he can be exonerated even if she refuses his offer. The family of the victim frequently pressures her to marry the rapist, which they believe restores the family’s honour.
The concept of male honour—and fear of female empowerment—also underlies the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). This excruciating procedure removes part or all of a girl’s external genitalia and causes lifelong health problems for some women. It is aimed at preserving female chastity and marriage prospects and achieves its purpose at the expense of a woman’s sexual pleasure and bodily integrity. Up to 130 million women and girls today in at least 28 countries, mostly in Africa, have had their genitals excised to some degree.
Defenders of the rite, who include many women, call FGM a traditional cultural practice of no business to outsiders. This is an old song. Throughout history, ‘culture’ has been invoked to justify abhorrent practices ranging from slavery to binding women’s feet. FGM must be eradicated because it is a grave human rights violation and a public health menace that transcends any and all cultural boundaries.
Traditions also feed the practice of ‘dowry death’, in which a woman is killed because she is unable to meet her in-laws’ demands for dowry. In India, over a dozen women a day die as a result of such disputes, mostly in kitchen fires designed to look like accidents.
‘Son preference’ is another insidious force directed against women, particularly in Asia. Genetic testing for sex selection, though officially outlawed, has become a booming business in China, India and the Republic of Korea. Anecdotal evidence suggests that outright infanticide, usually of newborn girls, takes place in some communities in Asia, while discrimination in health care also cuts short the lives of unwanted girl children in some regions.
In 12 Latin American countries, a rapist can be exonerated if his victim agrees to marry him.
In countries where people have adequate health care and food, 105 boys are born on average for every 100 girls, but fewer male babies survive the first year of life, reflecting the female’s inherent biological advantage. In some nations, mostly in Asia, the sex-ratio drops dramatically. All told, violent discriminatory practices directed at girls and women have driven an estimated 60 million females off the face of the earth.
Yet, instead of an international uproar over these disappearances, the plight of the so-called ‘missing women’ is usually noted briefly in the women’s section of development reports.
As war becomes less a battle between countries and more a struggle for supremacy between ethnic groups, women and girls increasingly face rape and forced pregnancy in times of conflict. Well over 20,000 Muslim women were known to be raped in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the Balkan war, and more than 15,000 women were raped in one year in Rwanda. Just in recent years, mass rape has also been reported as a weapon of war in Cambodia, Liberia, Peru, Somalia and Uganda.
These are but a few of the ways that society drives home the message that a woman’s life and dignity—her human rights—are worth less than a man’s. From the day of their birth, girls are devalued and degraded, trapped in what the late UNICEF Executive Director James P. Grant poignantly termed ‘the apartheid of gender’. Long after slavery was abolished in most of the world, many societies still treat women like chattel: Their shackles are poor education, economic dependence, limited political power, limited access to fertility control, harsh social conventions and inequality in the eyes of law. Violence is a key instrument used to keep these shackles on.