New Internationalist

The other side of silence

Issue 373

Women are still being beaten and killed by their husbands and partners, but they are finding ways to fight back. Nikki van der Gaag reports.

Rania al Baz’s husband was angry because he came in and found her on the telephone. It was not the first time he had beaten her, but this time when she begged him not to hit her, his reply was: ‘Hit you? I’m not going to hit you, I am going to kill you.’

He then repeatedly smashed her face against the marble floor and walls of their home and tried to strangle her. He left her unconscious for a couple of hours while he showered and changed then bundled her up in a sheet and put her in the family van.

When my daughter regained consciousness,’ related Rania’s mother, ‘she found herself in the van and she thought he was taking her to Obhur to bury her. When he heard her moaning and trying to speak, he must have panicked because he pulled into Bugshan Hospital.’

According to security at the hospital, he dumped the injured Rania at the emergency room entrance, telling nurses and staff that she was the victim of a car accident and was dead. He then left quickly saying he was going to bring other victims of the accident.

Rania al Baz is one of Saudi Arabia’s few women TV presenters. She was well known for her chatty, magazine-style show The Kingdom this morning. As a result of the assault, her face was fractured in 13 places.

Rania was not alone in suffering in this way though she was unusual in that she spoke out about her injuries. The statistics on such violence – often disparagingly called ‘domestic’, are astounding. It crosses all boundaries of race and class. In Europe, it is the major cause of ill-health for women between 16 and 44 – more common than cancer or traffic accidents. In the US, a woman is beaten every 18 minutes. In Peru, 70 per cent of all crimes reported to the police involve women beaten by their husbands.1 In Russia, one woman in five is regularly beaten by her partner.2 In India and Bangladesh, women are killed or burned with acid for not bringing enough dowry into their husband’s family when they marry.

There have been major changes to laws on domestic violence over the past 10 years, prompted by activists and women like Rania who have run campaigns and lobbied international organizations and governments. In 1991, women’s groups around the world launched an annual campaign of 16 days of activism against gender violence; 25 November is now International Day Against Violence Against Women. In 1994, the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women asserted that the law should protect women from violence in both public and private spheres. And in the same year the Organization of American States adopted the Belém do Pará Convention, which sets out actions that governments must take to eliminate violence against women.

Organizations campaigning against gender-based violence are increasingly using all the tools at their disposal. In Rajasthan, India, when members of the Bal Rashmi Society – which actively opposes sexual exploitation, rape, dowry-related deaths and torture – were jailed, an internet alert led to the suspension of their trials. BaBe, a strategic lobbying group in Croatia, has used the internet to raise awareness of women’s experience of violence during war, and to bring about a new family law that includes restraining orders against men in domestic rape cases. Women Living Under Muslim Laws has mounted a web campaign around the denial of women’s rights in Islamic societies. WomenNet in South Africa used the Internet for a ‘Stop Rape’ campaign supported by international signatories.

At national level, many countries have enacted specific domestic violence legislation and taken other action – the first shelters for battered women were opened in Russia in 1994, in Mongolia in 1995 and in China in 1996.3

But still only 45 countries have legislation protecting women against domestic violence and many of these laws are not regularly enforced. The scale and pattern of the violence seems to have changed very little in the past decade – and there are places where it has increased. Where political tensions lead to conflict and violence outside the home, or where men feel disempowered because they have lost their jobs and their hope for the future, they often take it out on the nearest person available – their wives, girlfriends and partners. In some countries, this violence has taken on a new edge as reactions against what is seen as the West’s sexual ‘permissiveness’ has meant that women have increasingly been viewed as the vessels in which culture is stored. They are abused and attacked if they seem to step outside cultural boundaries.

One extreme example of this is the increase in what have euphemistically been called ‘honour killings’ (see Keynote p11). In 2003 in Pakistan, such killings were reported to have increased by 50 per cent.4 There have been numerous examples in Western countries as well, where conflict between older and younger generations is thrown into sharp relief and fathers kill their daughters rather than see them in a relationship with someone from another ethnic or religious group. The Muslim Women’s League notes that: ‘Confronting the problem of “honour killings” and other crimes that disproportionately affect women requires a change in attitude that pervades all levels of society where such attacks occur.’ 5

Why don’t women leave?

People sometimes put the blame on the woman – why did she put up with years of abuse? Why didn’t she leave him? There are many answers to such questions, but one fact is that leaving actually increases the risk of violence. Professor Ruth Busch of Waikato University in New Zealand/Aotearoa notes: ‘The most dangerous time for women is that first 18 months after separation. In the US, for instance, 80 per cent of women who turn up in accident and emergency rooms because of physical injuries have been assaulted by estranged partners. In New Zealand, 40 per cent of women who are killed die on contact changeover times.’ 6

And by putting the blame on the woman, society legitimizes the violence. Busch again: ‘If a man gets fired and goes home and kicks his partner – what is the outcome? If he had walked into his boss’s office and done the same to his boss, would the consequence have been counselling?’

In some countries, women simply have nowhere to go. ‘If a woman is beaten by her husband and goes back to her parents for help, they are quite likely to send her back to her husband,’ says Fatou Gibba, from the Gambia. ‘And if you take your husband to the police it will tarnish the image of the whole family. It is just not done.’

Her words ring true in other countries as well: women have been taught that they have to put up with whatever their husband does to them. Surveys have shown high percentages of women who think it is acceptable for a husband to beat his wife ‘for one or more specific reasons – burning food, arguing with him, going out without telling him, neglecting the children, refusing sex’. In Uganda 77 per cent of women surveyed believed this, in Turkmenistan 52 per cent, in Haiti 40 per cent and 29 per cent in Nepal.3

Society condones silence. And often the police take the side of the husband or even abuse the woman again. Academic Yolisa Dalamba from South Africa notes: ‘It is? common knowledge that often when women report a rape to the police, they are raped again by those who are supposed to investigate. Case files go missing and women complainants are harassed and are subjected to more violence.’7

Victims of domestic violence are often afraid of retaliation, or are trying to protect their children; or they have no other means of financial support than the perpetrator, or nowhere to go. By leaving, they may lose the support of relatives and will lose their networks, their jobs and their home. Even then, they cannot be sure that the husband or boyfriend or partner who has been abusing them will be brought to justice – and they have mixed feelings about that as well. No wonder it is so difficult for women to escape.

Illustration by Mohamed Bushara
Illustration by Mohamed Bushara

What can make a difference?

If international and national legislation still does not stop the violence, what can make a difference? Dorian Solis Corrion, Vice-Mayor of the City of Cuenca, Ecuador, says: ‘Laws by themselves are not enough, what is needed is a comprehensive programme to prevent and deal with the legal, psychological and health issues attached to violence.’ 8

First, society as a whole must begin to view the issue not as the silent, hushed-up problem of the past but as a serious situation affecting women’s health. A study in Sweden notes that: ‘a preventative and proactive approach needs to be taken’ which involves not only the judicial system and the police but also medical and social services, who need to ‘look at victims in a holistic and comprehensive manner’.9 And all parties must ‘give these women adequate medical, psychological, and social support’.

Second, women must be listened to. There has been a global burgeoning of women’s organizations campaigning against violence. For example, the Women’s Support Centre in San Cristóbal de las Casas, in the Chiapas highlands of Mexico, which provides training and support for women living in extreme poverty and uncertainty, and seeks particularly to change traditions that condone wife abuse, domestic violence and incest. Or Isis – Women’s International Cross Cultural Exchange – in Uganda, which supports survivors of sexual violence in Burundi, Rwanda, Sudan and Uganda through an exchange programme in which women share their experiences.

Finally, because men are generally the perpetrators, they need to change their attitudes. ‘Educating boys and men to view women as valuable partners in life, in the development of a society and in the attainment of peace are just as important as taking legal steps to protect women’s human rights,’ says the UN.1 There are now a number of groups of men around the world that are working specifically on this issue. In Ecuador the most popular soccer teams came together to call for an end to violence against women. In Uganda the Girls’ Education Movement (GEM) has involved boys in addressing girls’ security and safety issues during the commute to and from school and at school.10 The White Ribbon campaign, where men wear a ribbon to show their opposition to violence against women, has taken off around the world. It is used by schools in Ethiopia. In 2002, 150,000 White Ribbon people marched to protest violence against women in Siberia. The Campaign has inspired the first men’s groups opposing violence against women in China.11

Many of the women who have been beaten have shown the way forward by speaking out about their abuse. Rania al Baz said she made the decision because: ‘I want to use what happened to me to draw attention to the plight of abused women in Saudi Arabia.’ Her husband is now being prosecuted.

Violence against women is perhaps the most shameful human rights violation,’ said UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. ‘And it is perhaps the most pervasive. It knows no boundaries of geography, culture, or wealth. As long as it continues, we cannot claim to be making real progress towards equality, development and peace.’

  1. UN Department of Public Information, February 1996;
  2. http://www.femnet.org
  3. The Atlas of Women: an economic, social and political survey, Joni Seager, The Women’s Press, London, 2003;
  4. http://www.dawn.com/weekly/cowas/20030309.htm
  5. http://www.mwlusa.org/publications/positionpapers/hk.html
  6. Amnesty magazine, May/June 2004, Issue 125;
  7. http://www.sdnp.undp.org/ww/women-rights/msg00011.html
  8. http://www.unifem.org
  9. http://www.sweden.se
  10. UNICEF Uganda, ‘GEM Best Practice’, UNICEF Intranet, Gender and Development section, May 2002;
  11. http://www.whiteribbon.ca

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