What will it take to end violence against women?

Twenty years after the United Nations declared violence against women to be a violation of their human rights, we are still a long way from gender violence becoming unacceptable in a society 

Ruth Rosen
12 June 2014

 This article was first published in February 2013. It is republished here to coincide with the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict being held in London, 10-13 June. 

Her father had a dream that his daughter would be educated and, like his sons, enjoy civil rights and liberties.  He was one of those unsung fathers who have played an important role in promoting the goals of feminism, yet remain invisible among the many more fathers who cannot embrace change in their societies.   

Millions of women are raped every year.  Why this particular gang rape and subsequent death caused an international eruption of anger is not easy to explain. Often, one single act shines a light on injustice: the 'Arab spring' began when a poor vendor set himself on fire; Vietnam anti-war protests grew after monks turned themselves into swirling flames. 

Many who protested in India used the language of human rights to denounce the rape and other forms of violence that keep women off the streets and frightened by the “customs” of rape, wife beating, honor killings, and dowry deaths. In India, authorities responded by creating all-female taxi cabs and special victim units within the notoriously corrupt police forces who have been known to rape a woman after she reported the crime. They declared New Delhi unsafe for women.

It has taken a very long time for the people of the world to realize that violence against women constitutes a violation against their human rights. Early attempts in the United States during the 1970s to redefine rape as an assault, rather than as an act of lust, ignited an international conversation and debate about the nature of rape.  

But it wasn’t until 1993, at the United Nation’s World Conference on Human Rights held in Vienna, that women around the world testified about how violence—or the threat of violence—kept them off the streets, prevented them from earning a livelihood, and made them fear the “customs” that allowed their relatives to throw acid in their faces or beat them, and even kill them, if they acted in a way that dishonored the men of their family.

Women's rights advocates around the world deployed a brilliant strategy at that conference by using the testimony of ordinary women to influence the United Nation’s conference.  The Center for Women's Global Leadership at Rutger's university in the United States played an important role in finding women from all continents who were willing to testify about the violence they had experienced – domestic abuse, mutilation, burning and rape – when they tried to unionize, when they “dishonored their families” by flirting or engaging in pre-marital or extra-marital sex, or when they simply went out in public alone. These testimonies moved the UN to create a High Commission of Human Rights and more important, to write a resolution that violence against women was a violation of their human rights.  

The General Assembly passed that resolution in March, 1993. Although enforcement was impossible, the resolution created a moral compass by which countries could judge each other. 

Naturally, nations fought fiercely over this resolution. China, Syria, Iran, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam argued that cultural relativism  was essential to global peace and mutual respect. The same argument, of course, had been used to defend slavery in the nineteenth century. But other nations stood up for human rights for women and dared to call a custom a crime. The American Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, spoke out strongly against accepting gender violence and said, “We cannot let cultural relativism become the last refuge of repression. The conference concluded with the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, which, for the first time, declared that violence against women violated their human rights.

One year later, in 1994, the American Congress followed by passing legislation called The Violence against Women Act (VAWA).  Then, in 1995,  First Lady Hillary Clinton made international news when, in a rousing and inspiring speech at the Fourth World Conference on Women, she  boldly declared, "It is time for us to say here in Beijing, and for the world to hear, that it is no longer acceptable to discuss women's rights as separate from human rights."

In the wake of the Balkan wars in the former Yugoslavia, the media began to report that all sides had built “rape camps” and that rape and other sexual atrocities had become a deliberate and systematic part of the Bosnian and Serb campaigns for victory in the war. Strong and persistent demands for a decisive response to these outrages came from around the globe. 

Still, women remained what they had always been, the “spoils of war.” The countless rapes committed during the Balkan wars revealed to the world, with the help of international media and human rights activists, that the rape of women was deliberately being used to undermine the morale of the enemy. Gradually, advocates of women’s human rights began to challenge another of the world’s longest-standing crimes against women: rape during armed conflict.

In 2002 human rights activists successfully fought for the International Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court to declare rape during war as a crime against humanity or as a war crime. Yet, as the American invasion and occupation of Iraq continued, the sexual terrorism women experienced at the hands of American soldiers and Iraqi thugs was one of the most underreported crimes of a war that been waged for resources, by choice, and fueled by the lies of America’s highest officials, including former President George W. Bush, former Secretary of Defense General Colin Powell, and former National Security Advisor, Condoleezza Rice.

No, there were no mass weapons of destruction, but countless women died in the frenzy of sexual terrorism that took place, particularly in cities. In 2006, based on human rights documents, I described what Amnesty International and other had witnessed and documented:

"The invasion and occupation of Iraq has had the effect of humiliating, endangering, and repressing Iraqi women in ways that have not been widely publicized in the mainstream media: As detainees in prisons run by Americans, they have been sexually abused and raped; as civilians, they have been kidnapped, raped, and then sometimes sold for prostitution; and as women – and, in particular, as among the more liberated women in the Arab world – they have increasingly disappeared from public life, many becoming shut-ins in their own homes."

Controlling women’s access to public life, including work, is one of the consequences of rape. That is why women activists created “Take Back the Night” marches in which women and men protested the brutal rapes, including gang rapes, that make women fearful of taking their rightful place in public life.

No United Nations resolution or action by the International Criminal Court is going stop what is still considered normal all over the world. As nations modernize, and women enter the labor force and enjoy higher education, they pose a threat to some men’s deeply-held belief that women belong in the private world of the home, and that they own the public sphere. Women who trespass risk being stopped, often by rape.

Yet it is in precisely such modernizing nations, such as India, that the daytime gang rape of a 23 year-old woman on a bus created such outrage and protest, by both men and women. UN resolutions and conventions create a moral compass and are necessary, but they do not initiate social change. At best, they alter the zeitgeist. It is incidents of brutality against women, protested by ordinary men and women, as well as by advocates for women’s human rights, that can, potentially, change people’s views about violence against women.

And it’s not just in developing countries that ending violence against women is tacitly accepted by authorities. As I write, the U.S. Senate will finally introduce legislation which reauthorizes the Violence Against Women Act, first enacted in 1994. They have even accepted the compromise of exempting certain immigrant women with particular visas. If it passes, the bill will then go to the House of Representatives, where right-wing Republicans are working overtime to prevent the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. They insist on excluding particular categories of immigrant women and even if the Senate passes what they want, they will come up with another reason to oppose it. Last year, Republicans blocked the bill because they refused to include LGBT and Native American women in the legislation. It’s still not clear it will pass in 2013, here in a country that prides itself the great equality women have supposedly achieved.  

In the early nineteenth century, few people in Europe or the United States would have thought that slavery would one day become unacceptable to the majority of the world’s citizens. Twenty years after the U.N. declared violence against women to be a violation of their human rights, we are still a long way from gender violence becoming a relic of the past. But that is our goal. And the only way this change will happen is the same way that abolitionists ended slavery – through decades of social movement action and education that sought to end slavery. 

We are not nearly there. Rape and all kinds of gender violence are still ubiquitous, and a disgrace to our global efforts to expand our ideas about human rights. It will take many more decades before everyone agrees that violence at home, at work, and on the battlefield are not customs, but are, in fact, crimes against humanity. 

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