Thursday, September 23, 2010

Violence against women- Part 1

Violence against women is a deeply personal issue for me. My mother was a single mom at age 25, with five children under the age of 7. She had no education beyond high school. After my father abandoned us, she worked as a waitress and ended up marrying her boss. My stepfather was an abusive alcoholic. He terrorized my mother and my family everyday. I saw first hand how violence against a woman is tolerated in a small rural Texas community.

Violence against women is so woven into the fabric of culture and history that millions of people across the globe today still view as a normal part of life. It is found in every country, throughout all socio-economic levels. The global brutalization of women is seen in practices such as female infanticide in China, female genital mutilation in Africa, sexual slavery in Bombay, and sex trafficking in Thailand. Rape and domestic violence are still tolerated in many societies.

Historically, women have been placed in a lower standing compared to men. Men were considered more perfect beings. Subordination was achieved through adoption of a systematic patriarchal view presumably ordained by gods, endorsed by priests and implemented by laws.

In Chapter 7 of the Creation of Patriarchy, Gerda Lerner describes early civilizations such as Mesopotamia as institutionalizing this patriarchal view.

The lifelong dependency of women on fathers and husbands became so firmly established in law and custom as to be considered “natural” and god-given.

Additionally, Lerner said,

Their sexual and reproductive capacities were commoditized, traded, leased or sold in the interest of male family members. Women had no choice but to acquiesce and begin to internalize this notion that they were somehow less valued.

If we are to create change in the opportunities for women globally, then it is important to be aware of some of the socio-political factors predisposing women to violence. Some of the key factors are outlined below:

Restricting women’s access to education

  • According to the World Bank, 60% of the 110 million children in developing countries that are primary-school age not receiving any education at all are girls.
  • Of the girls who do begin primary school, only 1 in 4 is still in school four years later.
  • The gender gap increases at higher levels of education.
  • Two-thirds of the 880 million illiterate adults around the world are women.
  • In Child Aid's 2010 Annual Report, Guatemala's indigenous girls are less likely to be in school at age 7 than any other group. In some areas, over 75% of women cannot read or write.

A prior blog post on this site from October 5, 2008, discussed the lack of education for Afghan women:
More than 80 percent of Afghan women are illiterate. Women’s life expectancy is only 45 years, lower than that of men, mostly because of the very high rates of death during pregnancy. Forced marriage and under-age marriage are common for girls, and only 13 percent of girls complete primary school, compared with 32 percent of boys.
There is an old Chinese proverb that sums up this historical bias:
If you love your daughter, bind her feet, if you love your son, let him study.
Restricting women’s access to property

In a recent Washington Post guest commentary, Alyse Nelson, President and CEO of Vital Voices Global Partnership shocked me when she said that a majority of the world's women do not legally own, control, or inherit property, land, or wealth. As a result, they are unable to start and grow small businesses. But, she said, in America, women-owned businesses have been significant in driving economic growth.

Restricting women’s access to protection under the law

Only about one third of countries around the world have laws protecting women against violence. Even in countries where there are laws combating violence against women, those laws are not enforced, well resourced or taken seriously. Violence against women and girls takes on many forms, such as human trafficking, harmful cultural practices, rape as a tactic of war, and domestic violence. According to the Family Violence Prevention Fund (FVPF), one in every three women in the world has experienced sexual, physical, emotional or other abuse in her lifetime. This is a staggering statistic. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that in forty-eight surveys from around the world, 10-69% of women stated that an intimate partner at some point in their lives had physically assaulted them. With the worldwide prevalence of gender-based violence, whole communities stand to lose because women's full potential goes unrealized.

Economically, men are said to perform three quarters of all economic activities in developing countries, however, according to the United Nations, it is women who actually perform 53% of the work. The 1995 UN Human Development Report states:
An estimated $16 trillion in global output is currently "invisible," of which $11 trillion is estimated to be produced by women. Additionally, the report indicates that women in Africa represent 52% of the total population, contribute approximately 75% of the agricultural work, and produce 60- 80% of the food. Yet, they only earn 10% of the total African incomes, and own just 1% of the continent's assets.
These numbers indicate the tremendous barriers women face on the path toward gender equality. Despite repeated efforts made by governments, NGOs, and multilateral development agencies, the majority of women in the developing world are still relegated to micro-enterprises and informal tasks.

My mother did not have the option to leave the abusive relationship with my stepfather. She had five little mouths to feed, she lacked an education and job skills and she had limited economic opportunities. Perhaps her situation was a typical product of the times: it may have been a circumstance many women found themselves in the 1950’s. But as long as women continue to be denied access to economic opportunities and a basic education, they will continue to be vulnerable to violence.

Stay tuned for Part II.


Chez Marta said...

Rebecca, I am so sorry to hear this story of your mother. I just have one small suggestion to make here: Let us not forget that violence against women takes many forms besides physical violence. It is abusive to be put down by others, whether by our fathers (telling us to lose weight, or that we are getting too old to get married, for example), by our brothers, spouses, and finally, it is abusive to be put down by our mothers for failing to conform to the domesticity ideal. Verbal abuse is undetectable, not prosecuted, not catching the headlines, yet it is quite damaging to one's psyche -- and sometimes bodily health, too. We have to make strides to counteract the media's attack on overweight women, the pop culture's incredibly tough standard of superficiality for young girls, and the social acceptance of others telling women how to "dress for success."

Betty said...

I echo Marta, as well, and I'm sorry to hear that this was an ordeal that your mother had to deal with and that it was not only the backdrop but obviously at the very foreground of your growing up experience as well.

When I stop to contemplate the issue of violence against women, my instant anger usually lends itself to create very curt, bitter responses: why? Also, STOP it. I guess the very idea of such an injustice and heinous act committed by a supposedly loved one (at times) on someone partly because she happens to be a female is preposterous to me.

When I further dissect the issue, I realize that it is centuries and science (the very build of a woman's body) behind women's violence - we have always been, more or less, or in general/historically the physically "weaker" sex, and I hesitate to use that word, for lack of a better one, even if it holds true for the most part. It's super unfortunate when I think about it, because a more delicate physical frame should have zero attribution to one's strength of character and their value as a person.