The curse of violence against women:   Social & national implications

by Zahid Hassan


Violence is a physical act of aggression on a single individual or a group. The term violence against women refers to many types of harmful behaviour directed to women and girls because of their sex. Violence against women both violates and impairs or nullifies the enjoyment by women of their human rights and fundamental freedoms. The Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women defines violence as:-Any act of gender-based violence that results in or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivations of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life."

-Gender-based violence is violence involving men and women, in which the female is usually the victim; and which is derived from unequal power relationships between men and women. Violence is directed specifically against a woman because she is a woman, or affects women disproportionately. It includes, but is not limited to, physical, sexual and psychological harm (including intimidation, suffering, coercion, and /or deprivation of liberty within the family, or within the general community). It includes that violence which is perpetrated or condoned by the state. (UNFPA Gender Theme Group, 1998).

Violence against women is the most pervasive yet least recognised human rights abuse in the world. It also is a profound health problem, sapping women's energy. Compromising their physical health and eroding their self-esteem. Despite its high costs, almost every society in the world has social institutions that legitimise, obscure, and deny abuse.Violence against women is different from interpersonal violence in general. The nature and patterns of violence against men, for example, typically differ from those against women. Men are more likely than women to be victimised by a stranger or casual acquaintance. Women are more likely than men to be victimised by a family member or intimate partner. The fact that women are often emotionally involved with and financially dependent upon those who abuse them has profound implications for how women experience violence and how best to intervene.

What cause violence against women? Increasingly, researchers are using an "ecological framework" to understand the interplay of personal, situational and socio-cultural factors that combine to cause abuse. In this model, violence against women results from interaction of factors at different levels of the social environment.

Gender-based violence is universal, differing only in scope from one society to the next. Much of this violence is inflicted on girls and women by husbands, fathers or other male relatives. It includes acid throwing, trafficking, prostitution, dowry, sexual abuse of children and adolescents, female genital mutilation, child marriage, adolescence, rape and coerced pregnancy, rape in wartime and post-menopausal years.

In the 1990s violence against women has emerged as a focus of international attention and concern:Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. 1979: women’s equal rights with men in all spheres of life, including education, employment, healthcare, the vote, nationality, and marriage.In 1993 the UN General Assembly passed the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

At both the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo and the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, women's organisations from around the world advocated ending gender violence as a high priority. The Cairo Programme of Action recognised that gender violence is an obstacle to women's reproductive and sexual health and rights, and the Beijing Declaration and

Platform for Action devoted the entire section to the issue of Violence Against Women.In March 1994 the Commission on Human Right appointed the first Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women and empowered her to investigate abuses of women's human rights.

In May 1996 the 49th World Health Assembly adopted a resolution declaring violence a health priority. WHO is sponsoring, together with the Gender for Health and Equity (CHANGE) and the London School of Hygienc and Tropical Medicine a multi-country study on women's health and domestic violence.

In 1997, a wide range of intergovernmental organisations (including UNFPA, the United Nations Development Fund for Women, UNICEF, the United Nations Development Programme, the joint UN Programme on HIV/ AIDS, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the Economic Commission in Latin America and the Caribbean) launched a Campaign in every country in Latin America and the Caribbean to demand an end to violence against women and girls as part of a campaign to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In 1998 UNIFEM launched regional campaigns in Africa. Asia/Pacific and Latin America designed to draw attention to the issues of Violence Against Women globally. UNIFEM also manages The Trust Fund in Support of Actions to Eliminate Violence Against Women, an initiative that has disbursed US$ 3.3 million to 71 projects around the world since 1996.

In 1999 the United Nations Population Fund declared violence against women "a public health priority".In December 2000 the UN adopted a new treaty in which a woman whose complaints are not addressed in her home country can submit them to the officials of the world body. No doubt it is a historic step forward in giving women the right of redress at the international level.

The UN health agency claims violence against women impairs their physical and mental health. Abused women, it points out, are more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, psychosomatic problems, eating problems and sexual dysfunctions. Violence against women is not just a case of the AIDS epidemic, points out Dr. Peter Piot, Executive director of the joint UN programme on HIV/ AIDS.

Violence against women is not always an individual act. Macro-policies of states and governments may also result in human rights violations and violence. Examples of such violence are preventable malnutrition, preventable diseases or complications during pregnancy and childbirth resulting in death. Violence against women generally derives from the perceived inferiority of women and their unequal status by laws and societal norms. Economic and social policies can exacerbate the disparities between men and women and worsen women's situation.

Addressing gender inequality and inequity, which is the root cause of gender-based violence, will require cooperation across a broad spectrum of government and civil society, including the education, health, trade and labour, economic and social sectors. Such a span of activity goes beyond the capacity of a single organisation. Recommendations from international forums provide a framework for agencies to develop complementary programmes. The United Nations Development Assistance Framework and the World Bank's sector-wide approach could be based to help coordinate agencies' support for national programmes designed to eradicate gender-based violence.While numerous international conventions and declarations recognise gender violence as a human rights issue, that recognition has yet to be fully translated into national policy. In older for policy-makers to address gender violence seriously, they must draw up and monitor a well-defined and substantive national gender policy. Violence against women is a development issue that requires public policy debate and action.

Gender violence is a bonafide development concern, not just a "women's issue" to be addressed mostly by women's NGOs. Governments and institutions therefore need to commit their own financial resources to combating the problem, instead of relying solely on external donor sources. Strategies to promote gender equality and women's empowerment will be critical to the success of any national development plans. Because empowering women and girls is not only a worthy goal in its own right but also a key strategy for eliminating violence. Women will never escape violence as long as they are financially dependent on men.

The following measures are suggested for ending violence against women:• Reform in existing laws to promote the active prosecution of gender-based crimes such as rape and domestic assault;• Develop training programmes on gender violence for law enforcement agencies.• Increase women's presence in law enforcement by recruiting and promoting to senior levels women police officers, prosecutors.• Improved data on prevalence of gender-based violence at different stages of women's life cycle.• Developing alliances with parliamentarians, women’s NGOs, social and religious leaders, teachers and entertainers.• Urging the media to promote positive images of gender roles and relations between men and women and to remove existing biases.• Ensuring that school curricula and teaching materials do not include gender bias and stereotyping.

In the words of human rights activist Charlotte Bunch, "Only when women and girls gain their place as strong and equal members of society will violence against women no longer be an invisible norm, but instead a shocking aberration."

Source: The Independent, Dhaka, April 12, 2002

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