This Valentine's Day, One Billion People Rising to Stop Violence Against Women

[Editor's Note: This post was written by IMOW Her Blueprint's Senior Editor Kate Stence along with Maura Farrell, a co-editor of the Debating Human Rights blog. The original post appeared on Debating Human Rights.]

In recent weeks, global mainstream media has covered persistent and widespread violence against women in a range of countries.

In India, the gang-rape of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student on December 16, 2012 resulted in public condemnation and outcry from both India’s strengthening middle class and international organizations such as UN Women. Raped and mutilated with an iron bar at the hands of a group of six men while aboard a moving bus, the anonymous victim finally succumbed to massive internal injuries on December 29, after battling for her life for thirteen days in a Singapore hospital. Rape and rape-related deaths are a national problem in India.

In 2011, India was ranked 134th by UNDP’s gender equality index, highlighting the plight of Indian women and girls, who are under-fed and under-educated relative to males. Dowry violence, marital and in-law abuse, and reproductive sex selection are examples of the pervasive hardships for Indian women created from extreme gender inequalities. Sexual violence in Indian villages is so common that it keeps women indoors after dark, and the migration of rural Indian men to overcrowded slums means that the growing predation goes unchecked. Low persecution and even lower conviction rates for rape and other crimes against women exacerbate the violence.

While urbanization and societal tension may partly explain India’s violence against women, The Economist recently argued that it is India’s growing middle class, united in outrage against the horrible events of December 16, that could provide impetus for the changes needed to bring about an end to violence against women in India. This particular woman’s rape and death provoked such extreme public outcry throughout India because she was part of India’s emerging middle class. Too close to home for many members of India’s middle class to tolerate, this crime resulted in unprecedented galvanization which could be a major turning point with emancipatory potential for India’s women.

In Guatemala, 707 women were murdered in 2012. On January 16, 2013, one month after the gang-rape incident in Delhi, the bodies of two girls, aged six and twelve, were found brutally slain on a street in Guatemala City. That same day, the bodies of two more women were discovered in separate locations.

Amnesty International describes the situation in Guatemala as a “war on women.” “Authorities in Guatemala are putting the lives of women at risk by systematically failing to protect them and ensure those responsible for the hundreds of killings that take place each year face justice.” Although the Guatemalan congress passed a law establishing special tribunals and sentencing guidelines directed specifically at reducing violence against women, this has failed to change the staggering number of killings of women and children reported each month in Guatemala. Tireless fighting for justice on the parts of family members of women and girls whose murders remain unsolved and insufficiently investigated, and never prosecuted has made the issue one of national scandal for Guatemala.

In Somalia, Nura Hirsi, a young widow living in an internationally displaced persons (IDP) encampment in Mogadishu, claims she was raped by seven government soldiers who forced into her home on December 29, 2012.

Al Jazerra, reporting on the continued vulnerability of women in Mogadishu, maintained that in the wake of two decades of protracted conflict in Somalia, “there’s now a sense of relative calm and security in Somalia,” but that not everyone enjoys these new feelings of freedom. Violence and insecurity are still persistent problems affecting women in IDP encampments. Explaining why the police did nothing and seemed not to care about what happened to Nura Hirsi, she explained: “People get killed in Mogadishu; I didn't die. To them rape isn't so serious. Nobody is ever arrested.”

Posting in New York Times Nicholas Kristof’s blog On the Ground, Lisa Shannon recently urged Secretary Clinton to stand up for rape victims during her first official meeting with the new Somali president, Hassan Sheik Mohamud. Shannon argues that since the Somali government has reportedly harassed advocates thought to be aiding Hirsi, this could undo tireless efforts to shift the stigma toward rape and urge rape victims to come forward. According to Fartun Abdisalan Adan, who co-founded the sexual violence crisis center Sister Somalia with Shannon, “This sets us so far back.”

Shannon writes, “In this fragile moment, the US and other donor nations have a choice: Communicate a zero tolerance policy for this behavior. Or, like Congo, shrug off this crisis as inevitable, leaving sexual violence to fester into a pandemic. Will we again write big checks, while we sacrifice women on the altar of international diplomacy?” In her remarks on January 16, Secretary Clinton indeed expressed concern about violence against women in Somalia to President Hassan Sheik. “We have particular concerns” she said, “about the dangers facing displaced people, especially women, who continue to be vulnerable to violence, rape, and exploitation.”

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, renewed high-level conflict has resulted in a death toll that is the highest loss of life since World War II, with 5.4 million lives lost in over a decade of war. The prevalence of rape as a weapon of war and intimate partner sexual violence is astronomical. As such, the DRC is often referred to as the “the rape capital of the world.”

In 2011, the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH) released a study confirming widespread rapes throughout the Democratic Republic of Congo. “Approximately 1.69 to 1.80 million women reported having been raped in their lifetime and approximately 3.07 to 3.37 million women reported experiencing intimate partner sexual violence.” Even higher levels of rape were reported within the area of North Kivu, where two months ago the offices of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) said the situation was worsening for vulnerable populations due to recent fighting.

These already harrowing statistics may in fact be conservative estimates. A Guardian article quotes Michelle Hindin, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and a specialist on gender-based violence, as saying, “because the figures were collected during face-to-face interviews – where women could be less forthcoming – the figures could be much higher.”

In 2012, a more comprehensive study released by two organizations, Sonke Gender Justice Network and Promundo, confirmed that rape in Congo has essentially become “a cultural norm throughout the entire country” and is part of daily life. Lauren Wolfe, an award winning journalist and the Director of Women Under Siege, an independent initiative investigating how rape and other forms of sexualized violence are used as tools in genocide and modern-day conflict, is known for documenting vulnerable women’s voices who are often silenced by war and rarely exist within mainstream media. The organization argues that the nexus of war and sexual violence for women in Congo is one of the worst that has ever existed. Last year, the DRC ranked last—absolutely last—on UNDP’s Human Development Index, which is essentially a state of reverse development.

In Pakistan, 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai, a well-known activist for girl’s education, was on a bus returning home from a day at school on October 9, 2012, when armed members of the Taliban stopped the vehicle and shot her in the head and chest. The teenager was treated for extensive injuries as the bullets entered above her left eye, ran along her jaw line, and grazed her brain. Her survival is an act of heroism in and of itself, but Malala has lived heroically for years. In 2009, the Taliban routinely destroyed girl’s schools and attacked women with acid to dissuade them from attending school and attaining an education. Malala posted her diary on the BBC’s Web site, exposing the Taliban’s myriad acts of violence against women. In 2011, she was nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize and in 2012 was the runner-up for Time Magazine's Person of the Year.

Last week, Malala completed her last round of surgery and will continue rehabilitation at home. Unlike so many other women and girls who face gender-based violence, Malala won. Her story both brings hope and highlights injustices.  Malala’s survival means she will continue to live in a world where a 23-year-old woman risks her life in India by riding a bus.

Success in eradicating violence against women would mean not only a world that no longer accepts rape, gender-based violence, or rampant inequalities as a fact of life, but laws that prosecute those who participate in these crimes. This requires sanctioned and implemented laws, community-based programs, and increased activism. In 1999, a study released on violence against women found that, around the world at least one woman in every three, or up to one billion women, has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime. In the almost fifteen years since that study, after reading these stories, can we honestly say that eliminating violence against women is not one of our world’s greatest priorities?

Today is V-day, a global activist movement to end violence against women and girls spanning over 167 countries. One Billion Rising is their most ambitious campaign to date. Their web site says, “One in three women on the planet will be raped or beaten in her lifetime. One billion women violated is an atrocity. One billion women dancing is a revolution.”

This Valentine's Day rise up against pervasive violence against females. The time to eradicate gender-based violence is now. 

 Photo credits: Al Jazeera and The Telegraph