International Women’s Day: A Chance To Reflect On Violence Against Women

International Women’s Day, held on March 8th, provided an opportunity to reflect on the extent of global abuse against women and whether it has begun to deteriorate, and, furthermore, what more can be done to accelerate its demise.
Impressive progress has been made. At least 155 countries have passed laws on domestic violence, and 140 now have legislation on sexual harassment. However, abuse towards women continues to be a global problem with the UN reporting that more than 35% of women globally have experience physical or sexual violence. Such abuse also manifests itself in other forms that can be implicit, structural, mental, and political in nature. This means that abuse towards women can range from ‘gaslighting’ to domestic abuse, with the latter being a particular problem in the Global South, where economic pressure and social custom can exacerbate such forms of abuse. In Africa, for example, women are more than four times ,as likely than women in Europe to be killed by their partner or a family member and according to the UN, almost 20,000 African women are thought to be killed in this manner each year.

World leaders such as Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand, have highlighted the urgency of the issue, especially during COIVD-19, describing violence against women as a ‘shadow pandemic.’ It is promising how we are seeing women beginning to take up senior roles in our intentional institutions, such as Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the Director General of the World Trade Organisation.

However, women abuse continues to be major problem. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) tells us that violence against women is especially concentrated in Africa, South America and Asia, and, according to a survey by the Democratic and Health Surveys Programme (DHS), in Sub-Saharan African countries about 45% of women say wife-beating is sometimes justified (the most common reason is for neglecting the children).

Such data can help us locate the worst forms of violence against women and understand why abuse towards women continues to be problem. However, it is often unable to convey the entire picture. The reason for this is twofold. Firstly, data collection methods for violence against women in poorer countries often lack the sophistication or budget needed to capture all forms of abuse. Secondly, and more importantly, it is often very difficult for women to self-report cases of abuse and violence fearing for their safety or other threatening implications.

Studies, such as one done by the World Bank, have found that asking women in a way that ensured anonymity revealed twice as much abuse in Rwanda compared to when they were asked directly (as they normally were). In terms of reducing abuse against women, education is key, particularly in tackling entrenched attitudes such as those highlighted in the DHS survey. Education is also important as it helps lift people out of poverty, affording them more choices and make them less vulnerable to abuse.

However, education alone will not eliminate violence against women. Shireen Huq, founder of the Bangladeshi women’s rights group Naripokkho, notes that “as women have become less dependent on men” there has often been “more violence” in retaliation to women straying from their traditional rules. For this reason, we have seen women campaigning for more social progress across the Global South. Last year, in Pakistan and Bangladesh protesters took to the streets, primarily calling for the criminalization of marital rape and expanding the definition of rape. Stronger laws, however, require effective enforcement. In Nigeria, a 14-year-campaign led to a law in 2015 that expanded the definition of rape and offered victims medical care and legal assistance. These laws have not always been enforced. Furthermore, particularly in Nigeria, there is now a deep and legitimate mistrust of the policing system, as demonstrated by the #EndSARS protesters last October. As well as laws regarding abuse towards women becoming stronger, attitudes need to change in order to ensure they are enforced. The harsh global reality of abuse towards women is that it has only recently become a priority; for instance, marital rape was only criminalized in Germany in 1997.

It should be emphasized that abuse towards women remains a global problem. Much of Europe are struggling with gender-pay inequalities (as well as other income inequalities that aren’t related to performance). However, the most harmful forms of abuse, at least in the short-term, are physical and sexual violence against women, and this continues to pervade the Global South.

Race, class, and religion all must be acknowledged when analyzing abuses towards women and uncovering the root causes of violence. For example, given the correlation between alcohol and domestic abuse, are Muslim women suffering less abuse than Christian women? It is clear that this subject matter is very complex and education and political campaigns will continue to be vital in changing the discourse surrounding violence against women. The current coronavirus pandemic, while it has put many women further at risk from abuse, has also hinted at social progress. For example, 48 countries now have integrated prevention and violence against women into their COIVD-19 response plans.

James Arin Duffy