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Violence against women and girls is major public health and human rights issue that has for too long been denied the attention and concern of international organizations, national governments, traditional human rights groups and the press. Only recently have governments and the international community acknowledged the prevalence and scope of violence against women and girls. Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of girls and women around the globe continue to endure debilitating and often fatal human rights abuses.
Sexual Violence: According to the World Health Organization, between 12 percent and 25 percent of women around the world have experienced sexual violence at some time in their lives. In the United States, data compiled by the National Victim Center in 1995 indicate that over 700,000 women are raped or sexually assaulted annually. The laws of many countries around the world, such as India, Papua New Guinea, Malaysia, have explicit exemptions for marital rape. Additionally, laws in countries such as Uruguay and Ethiopia allow rapists to escape punishment if they marry their victims. Further, armed conflict situations and civil wars in approximately 100 countries around the world have seen the increasing use of rape as a weapon of warfare. Women civilians and refugees, specifically targeted by armed forces, are subject to mass rape, forced pregnancy, and sexual slavery.
Domestic Violence: According to the World Health Organization, results of large-scale studies conducted in various developing and industrialized countries indicate that between 16 and 52 percent of women reported having been assaulted by an intimate partner. In the United States, 28 percent of women reported at least one episode of physical violence from their partner. In Nicaragua, 52 percent of women aged 15 - 49 in the city of Leon reported having been physically abused by a partner at least once. Many cultures condone or legally sanction domestic violence. In Northern Nigeria, for example, Section 55 of the Penal Code allows a husband to discipline his wife so long as the action does not amount to the “infliction of grievous hurt.”
Trafficking in Women and Girls: According to the United Nations Population Fund, an estimated 4 million women and girls around the world are bought and sold either into marriage, prostitution or slavery. Trafficking is an international multi-billion dollar industry. Traffickers operating across international borders procure their victims in many ways. Some women and girls are abducted; some are deceived by offers of legitimate work in another country; some are sold by their own poverty-stricken parents or are themselves driven by poverty into the lure of traffickers who profit from their desperation. These women and girls suffer unspeakable human rights violations as commodities of the trade in human beings.
Honor Killings: The United Nations Populations Fund estimates that as many as 5,000 women and girls are murdered by family members each year in so-called “honor killings” around the world. According to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions, “honor killings” have been reported in Bangladesh, Brazil, Ecuador, Egypt, India, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan, Sweden, Turkey, Uganda and the United Kingdom. These crimes are socially sanctioned in many countries (and in some countries legally sanctioned as well) and the killers are treated with lenience because defense of the “family honor” is considered a mitigating or exculpating factor.
Female Genital Mutilation: The World Health Organization estimates that more than 100 million girls and women around the world have undergone female genital mutilation (FGM), a traditional practice that involves either the partial or total removal of the clitoris (clitoridectomy), the removal of the entire clitoris and the cutting of the labia minora (excision), or the removal of all external genitalia and the stitching together of the two sides of the vulva, leaving only a very small vaginal opening (infibulation). FGM is commonly practiced in various countries in the Middle East and Africa, though it has also been documented in Asia, the United States and Europe. At least 2 million girls every year, 6,000 per day, are at risk of undergoing FGM.
Acid Burning: In some countries, women and girls are attacked with acid as a result of family disputes or rejected sex or marriage proposals. An increasing number of such acid burnings have been reported in Bangladesh, Nigeria and Cambodia. Those who survive are permanently disfigured and/or blinded. Perpetrators of such attacks frequently escape punishment.
Dowry Death: The United Nations Children’s Fund estimates that as many as 17 women were murdered per day when their families failed to make dowry payments to the families of their husbands in India in 1997. In a report presented to the Beijing + 5 Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly, the Government of India indicated a 15.2 percent rise in dowry deaths in 1999.
These are only a few examples of violence that are committed against women and girls every day in countries around the world. Although the manifestation of violence may vary according to the economic, social and cultural context in which it occurs, it is a universal phenomenon that is prevalent in every segment of every society, regardless of ethnicity, race, culture, age, class or country. In fact, the World Health Organization estimates that violence is a greater cause of death among women aged 15 to 44 than cancer, malaria and traffic accidents combined.
This bimonthly column written by Equality Now is devoted to issues of violence against women and girls around the world. Each column will feature a particular form of violence and will include recommendations for taking action. By presenting a global overview of gender-based violence, we hope to raise awareness of not only the pervasiveness of violence in all communities and societies, but also of the urgency of the problem. Through awareness and activism, we can eliminate violence against women and girls around the world.
Equality Now is an international human rights organization dedicated to the protection and promotion of the human rights of women and girls around the world. Issues of concern to Equality Now include trafficking in women, rape, domestic violence, denial of reproductive rights and other forms of discrimination and violence against women. Equality Now campaigns against these violations through its Women’s Action Network, which consists of 20,000 groups and individuals in more than 100 countries around the world. Taking advantage of various action techniques such as letter-writing and fax campaigns, video witnessing, media events and other public information activities, Equality Now mobilizes action on behalf of individual women whose rights are bring violated and promotes women’s rights at local, national and international levels.
For more information on the work of Equality Now or to join the Women’s Action Network visit www.equalitynow.org