Violence Against Women
Poverty and violence go hand-in-hand. Domestic violence is widespread indicating women’s lack of power or “agency.” Most of the casualties in armed conflict are civilian women and children.[i] Parents sell more than two million children, mostly girls, for sexual purposes every year. An illiterate Pakistani village woman told me on Skype, when parents can’t afford to feed their daughters, they may sell them. About 12 million slaves are still suffering; for example, the media covered an Egyptian girl sold by her parents to be a servant when she was age eight.[ii] Shyima Hall’s story was publicized because her captors took her to California where she was rescued when she was 13.
Nicholas Kristof, co-author of Half the Sky, points out that more girls have been killed in the past 50 years than all the men killed in wars in the 20th century. However, he’s optimistic about the possibility for progress because of the spread of education for girls. Other violence against girls includes child marriage, rape, honor killing and sexual harassment in public places.
Female genital mutilation is common in parts of Africa and the Middle East. It afflicts around 140 million girls and women, as described in Sex in the Citadel. Author Shereen El Feke’s father is Egyptian so she had access to interviews with her female relatives who reported little sexual pleasure or sex education. She cites a study reporting that 90% of Egyptian married women are circumcised and that the practice is declining but continues, although educated families hire a doctor to clip the girl’s clitoris. In the Middle East the focus is on female virginity before marriage and some resort to surgery to repair the hymen. Other young women engage in premarital oral or anal intercourse to preserve the all-important hymen.
Early marriage can be accompanied by domestic violence: A large percent of teen girls have experienced sexual violence, about 150 million girls and 73 million boys in 2002, the last year when World Health Organization data was available.[iii] Nearly half of girls and women aged 15 to 49 in developing nations think that wife beating are justified under some circumstances.[iv] Some girls face double discrimination due to caste,[v] ethnicity, race or religion. An alarm device used in Argentina, Spain and the US alerts police when a victim pushes a panic button, showing her location and recording background sound.
In some countries it’s legal for a husband to beat his wife. In March 2012, Afghan president Humid Karzai endorsed a “code of conduct” issued by Muslim clerics that allows husbands to beat their wives and encourages sex segregation. Afghan women are fearful that the NATO troop withdrawal will bring a Taliban-style government, where the co-founder of Afghan Young Women for Change said, “You can’t go to school, you can’t work. Nothing.”[vi] When the Taliban were ousted in 2001, only 5,000 girls were in school compared to 2.5 million girls enrolled in 2012.
Violence against women indicates that they’re not viewed as human beings on a par with men. While I was in India in 2012 it was common to read newspaper killings about honor killings of girls and women. For example, one of the articles was about Indus Sharma, a Brahmin girl who married a lower caste Jat fellow college student without her parents’ consent. Lured by her family to a supposed celebration party, they murdered her and quickly had her cremated. An Indian government report titled “Breaking the Silence: Child Sexual Abuse in India,” interviewed 12,500 children in 13 states and found 53% of the children had been sexually abused, but only 3% went to the police as they aren’t believed or protected.[vii]
“Gender activist” and author Rita Banerji maintains that what she refers to as gender-based genocide in India is the most massive assault on a group of people in history and the violence is increasing. Young married women and baby girls are killed every few minutes, without evoking anywhere near the same response as killing a cow. Despite the myth that female genocide is a result of poverty and illiteracy, she points out that the highest female infanticide rates are in the middle and upper educated classes that can afford selective abortion of girls and are expected to pay the largest dowries.[viii] She says often the dowry paid is almost ten times the groom’s annual salary, a jackpot for the family. The 2011 census showed that elimination of baby girls is highest in the most prosperous cities and states in the North. However, the people in prison for dowry murders and female infanticide are the poor. In the battered women syndrome, women self-blame and try to please the abuser so that the murderers in bride burning are often female in-laws.
In response, Banerji sponsors an online petition called “The 50 Million Missing Campaign” that demands that laws against female infanticide, dowry, dowry murders, acid attacks, marital rape, and honor killings be implemented.[ix] She warns that the effort to be sensitive to local customs can overlook abuse of women. This argument of defending religious values was used to block the UN Commission on the Status of Women resolution condemning violence against women by intimate partners (more than 600 million women live in countries where domestic violence is not a crime.) Opponents including representatives of Iran, Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood, Russia, the Vatican, and US right-wing groups including concerned Women for America.
In 2013, Banerji pointed out that rates for female feticide, dowry murders, women lynched as witches, rape and other violence has increased so that “in 20 years, 20% of women in India will have been exterminated.”[x] She blames lack of enforcement of laws by government, police and courts in a “failed democracy.” Banerji believes that the underpinning for that is family protection of violence against women where women are not seen as fully human. She is currently collecting stories of Indians who stand up to ongoing violence against women.[xi] One such story is featured in the documentary Mango Girls (2014), about an Indian village that hasn’t had a dowry death in more than 200 years. Dharhara in Bihar, the poorest state, has a tradition that when a girl is born her parents plant 10 mango trees. The fruit they produce six to 10 years later pays for the girl’s schooling and dowry. Banerji told me these kinds of stories are a red herring that clouds the reality that poverty is not the cause of the unequal sex ratio.
A Pakistani girl who read this section comments, “Living in a society where many of the traditions mentioned above such as honor killing and early marriages are practiced, I have observed that the ones who make decisions regarding these traditions, such as tribal leaders or grandparents, never suffer the consequences.” (Mahan, 13, f, Pakistan)
A Lebanese blogger and activist, Sarah Hijazi explained that sexual harassment includes “stares, glares, insults, offensive comments or unwanted physical contacts that is just plain sexual abuse.”[xii] Disrespectful treatment isn’t confined to Muslim countries, as 58% of Germany women say they have experienced it, with 42% of the cases happening on the job.[xiii] Thousands of women Tweeted under the hashtag aufschrei (outcry) about their personal stories of humiliation after a political party leader commented about how well a female journalist would “fill out a dirndl.”
The HBO documentary Saving Face (2012) interviewed Pakistani women who had acid thrown on their face by their husbands or in-laws. About 100 known attacks of this nature take place every year in Pakistan and almost 1,000 honor killings occurred in 2011, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. For example, Zamia’s husband, aided by his mother and sister, threw acid at her face because his “dignity” was threatened when Zamia tried to divorce him for his ongoing violence. Missing an eye, she still lives with his family in isolation, not allowed to see her daughter who is literally walled off from her. Women members of parliament got a bill passed to severely punish the perpetrators. The Smile Again Foundation in Pakistan provides plastic surgery to a few of these badly scared women.
Violence against women occurs in every country. In the US, the House of Representatives in 2012 stalled on reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act first passed in 1994, not wanting to include the Senate’s bill with new protections for gay, immigrant, American Indian and student victims. This inaction persisted for a year despite that fact that nearly one in five women has been raped or was the victim of attempted rape (usually in their youth) and one in four has been beaten by a intimate partner, according to the Center for Disease Control.[xiv] Vice President Joe Bidden chastised the “Neanderthal crowd” in the House.
The rape capital of the world is South Africa where age is no protection for babies or elderly women and a survey of boys over age 11 reported one-third said girls enjoy being raped and 62% said that rape isn’t an act of violence.[xv] Global outcry against the widely reported gang rape and beating of a 23-year old Indian medical student whose injuries from pushing an iron rod in her vagina and intestines resulted in her death a week later. Joyti Singh Pander’s death called attention to the high rape rate in India—the government estimates a woman or girl—even babies--is raped every 20 minutes. India recorded more than 24,000 rapes in 2011, but only 26% of the cases resulted in convictions. In Delhi 600 rapes were reported in 2012, but only one conviction ensued. A young woman told Indian TV, “Women are scared to go out of their houses.”
From a poor family, referred to as Nirbhaya, “braveheart,” tutored neighborhood children in two shifts and then worked nights for a call center to pay for her education, sleeping only a few hours. Her father said that sometimes the family could only afford to eat rotes (flat bread) but “we were working to improve our lives. We could feel the good times were going to come.” They lived in a place about the size of a car, while her Brahmin companion who survived the attack lives in a three-story house.
The incident also called forth traditional blaming of rape victims. A Rajasthan assemblyman suggested that girls’ school uniform skirts be replaced with trousers to keep them safer. (Swaziland police banned women from wearing miniskirts saying they provoke rape and make it easier for the rapist to remove “half-cloth.”) A member of parliament and son of the President of India called the women protesters “painted and dented ladies,” without public comment by his Congress Party. A politician blamed the rapes on women in urban areas adopting Western lifestyles and a senior judge questioned that a Dalit woman could be legally considered a rape victim. Manorama Pinkkapani posted on her Facebook page from Tamil Nadu, “With the Delhi rape victim succumbing to the injurious and assault, it has caused people to talk more ill of women, like Women should not dress sexy, Why go so late in bus with boy friend, and Women should not take alcohol. My sincere question is then why are small children getting raped? Please discuss on how to do away with such beasts.”
The demonstrators shouted, “We want justice” and carried Indian flags and held candlelight vigils. Police responded with water cannons and tear gas, as shown in a CNN video with young men protesters, but government leaders promised action. Prime Minister Singh said he would protect the women of India spurred on by international media coverage of the rape. Ongoing demonstrations of over a million people in many cities and candlelight vigils in cities around India included signs like “Don’t tell your daughter not to go out. Tell your son to behave properly.” In Bangalore men marched wearing skirts to make the point that clothes do not cause rape.
These large and continuing demonstrations with more young men than women stimulate hope for change. A SpeakOut girl wrote, “Love the girl, she loves you. Care for her, she cares for you. But rape a girl, and she will kill you. Stop raping a girl. Raping her you are raping a goddess,” (Ashiesha, 16, f, India.) A young woman interviewed for an NPR news report said about the protests, “It’s magical. It’s historical. Parents are bringing their children.” Some of the young protesters (more males as seen in videos[xvi]) met with Congress Party head Sonja Gandhi who agreed that violence against women needs government action as the rape rate increased almost 875% over the last 40 years.[xvii]
A retired Delhi police director, Koran Bedi referred on BBC to “the new youth of India” and “the new Indian woman” who have changed, not willing to put up with the male monopoly of government and judiciary or their comments.[xviii]
Some suggest the frustration of the large youth population about finding jobs and being able to afford marriage is tied to the increase in violence against women in India. Girls report that harassers are often idle young men who occupy themselves playing cards and bothering women. A report from a committee headed by a former Supreme Court Chief Justice concluded, “large-scale disempowerment of urban men is lending intensity to a pre-existing culture of sexual violence.”[xix] Shalini Natural, Director of Advocacy for the Global Fund for Women, grew up in India where “I recall the constant stress of dealing with the lewd remarks and groping hands every time I stepped out of the house.” She thinks the reasons for the large outcry against this particular rape are the example of the Arab Spring that large ongoing demonstrations can make significant change and the increasing numbers of educated young women who aren’t willing to remain silent.[xx]
The UN”s Michelle Bachelet reported in 2012 that, “Violence against women remains one of the most pervasive violations of human rights and one of the least prosecuted crimes.” She pointed to government efforts to reduce violence against women: “Today 125 countries outlaw domestic violence and 117 countries outlaw sexual harassment, while 187 nations have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.”[xxi] When women do paid work and have money their status rises in men’s eyes and mothers use their money to educate their girls and boys.
Some women take action on their own. The book (2009) and DVD Half the Sky (2012) tell the stories of women activists organizing against violence against women, such as Somali Man, a former Cambodian child prostitute who rescues girls from brothels and provides a home for them. Photos are online.[xxii] Several documentaries tell the story of Sampat Pal who leads the Gulabi (Pink) Gang in Uttar Pradesh, India. A Dalit, married at 12, she gave birth to five children and became a government health worker although functionally illiterate since girls weren’t allowed to go to school in her village. She organized a gang of women who wear bright pink saris to combat violence against women, with thousands of members. The documentary Pink Sari (2010) shows her confronting families about beating daughter-in-laws and fathers-in-law raping the young women. In one family shown in the film, the mother-in-law tells the young woman to be the father-in-law’s mistress. In the same family, they don’t get medical care for her sick little girl, who dies.
Very outspoken, Pal says, “I don’t believe in gods. Gods can go to hell. There’s no greater power that women. I’m the messiah for women.” She gathers women to beat those who are mistreating them with bamboo sticks or reports them to police, a shown in the documentary, and is generally covered favorably in the Indian press. The gang also shames corrupt officials who take bribes and don’t allocate government funds honestly. (A 2012 documentary is called Gulabi Gang, her story is on YouTube and in a book Sampat Pal: Warrior in a Pink Sari.[xxiii])
[ii] Phil Willon, “Sold into Slavery as a Girl, Shyima Hall Becomes a U.S. Citizen, Los Angeles Times, December 16, 22011.
[iii] “Progress For Children: A Report Card on Adolescents,” No. 10, UNICEF, April 2012, p. 31.
[iv] Ibid, p. 32.
[v] In India, you are born into a caste, originally defined by the work the group did—priest, warrior, farmer, etc. The government outlawed discrimination on the basis of caste in 1950, especially concerned about those formerly called untouchables, now Dalits, who work with animal blood, dead people, and other jobs considered polluting. However, it continues especially in rural areas. K. R. Narayanan, who became the President of India in 1997 was a Dalit, so progress has occurred.
[vii] 2007 report,
[viii] Rita Banerji, “Why Education and Economics Are Not the Solution to India’s Female Genocide,” June 12, 2011.
[x] Bushra Ahmed, “Moore Power, Wealth a Social Strata Has, More the Genocidal Violence Towards Females,“ One World South Asia, March 7, 2013.
[xiii] Melissa Eddy and Chris Cottrell, “German Polician’s Remark Stirs Outcry Over Sexism,” New York Times, January 28, 2013.
[xiv] Naima Ramos-Chapman, “Study Reveals Troubling Violence Against Women Statistics,” Campus Progress, December 20, 2011.
[xv] Eusebius McKaiser, “South Africa Rallies Against Fatal Gang Rape,” The Daily Beast, February 10, 2013.
[xvii] Harmeet Shah Singh, “Thousands Protest During Anti-Rape Rallies in India,” CNN, December 23, 22012.
[xviii] “Protests Show What New India Wants,” January 15, 2013.
[xix] Rupa Subramanya, “The Perils of Unfulfilled Indian Youth,” The Wall Street Journal, January 28, 2013.
[xx] Shalini Nataraj, “India Rape Brings Global Outrage,” San Francisco Chronicle, January 7, 2013.
[xxi] Testimony by Michelle Bachelet Executive Director of UN Women at Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly Strasbourg, France 26 January 2012.
Anne Berthod. Warrior in a Pink Sari. Zubaan Books, 2012.
Amana Fontanella-Khan. Pink Sari Revolution. W.W. Norton, 2013.