Today, we are starting 16 Days of Activism against the violent abuse of women. The 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence came out of the Global Campaign for Women’s Human Rights. In June 1991, the Centre for Women’s Global Leadership with participants of the first Women’s Global Institute on Women, Violence and Human Rights, a forum involving 23 women from 20 countries, called for a global campaign of 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence. The campaign would highlight the connections between women, violence, and human rights from 25 November to 10 December 1991.
Violence against women and girls around the world
At the beginning of these 16 days, it seems pertinent to examine those areas where progress has been made, and where the situation remains as dire today as it was centuries ago.
The first area of abuse that should be examined because of the situation in South Africa is that of rape. Rape has afflicted the life of society from time immemorial, and this is one area where very few improvements have been made. Rape has been a part of warfare strategy throughout the ages, and this continues until the present time. The only change is that rape has now been deemed a war crime, with the consequent punishments. However, during the recent war in Bosnia it is estimated that between 50 and 60,000 rapes took place and only about 12 prosecutions have so far occurred.
Rape is a crime motivated by many different reasons – it is a violent assault based sometimes on jealousy, sometimes on dominance and the need for control, sometimes from cultural norms of superiority. But no matter what the motivation, it is clearly a result of the imbalance of power between the genders and a lack of understanding and respect for the equality of women and men. Monitoring rape statistics alone is a good indication of the health of equality of the genders, and it does not speak well for the situation in South Africa.
Atrocities against women continue in vast numbers in other parts of the globe and are almost always based on the need to demonstrate power and control. Acid throwing is aform of violent assault and is intended to injure or disfigure the victim – usually out of jealousy or revenge. The long term consequences of these attacks include blindness and permanent scarring. These attacks are most common in Cambodia, Afghanistan, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and nearby countries. Globally, at least 1,500 people are attacked this way yearly (80% of which are female).
Female genital mutilation is still practiced in 28 countries and it is estimated that 100 – 140 million women around the world have experienced this procedure, which is believed by some communities to reduce a woman’s libido. Widow inheritance is a type of marriage in which a widow is married to a kinsman of her late husband, often his brother. The practice purports to act as a protection for the widow, but is often in place to prevent any wealth from leaving the male lineage of a family.
Breast ironing, bride burning, honour deaths, dowry murders, human trafficking, sexual slavery, forced abortion, and forced prostitution are among some of the abuses that are still rife in the world. Astonishingly, the third highest cause of death to pregnant women is homicide. Other practices such as sati (where a wife was expected to join her deceased husband on his funeral pyre) have been outlawed, but still continue under certain circumstances, particularly as those that submit to the practice are believed to become a deity and are worshipped and endowed with gifts. Other practices have almost ceased to exist, such as foot-binding in eastern cultures. As the purpose behind this practice was to keep feet small (which apparently were attractive to men) it caused generations of women to hobble about in great pain as the bones in their feet had been consistently broken over the years. It is also believed that men found this shuffling walk appealing as it demonstrated a woman’s helplessness.
Another problem which exacerbates violence against women is that this is often witnessed by children – 3,3 million of them each year in the United States alone. It is a documented fact that children who are exposed to domestic abuse will suffer in their developmental and psychological welfare and it also generally impacts how the child develops emotionally, socially, behaviorally, as well as cognitively.
The Bahá’í Perspective
Given this sad state of affairs and the on-going violence against women, it is valuable to note that the equality of women and men is a spiritual law in the Bahá’í Faith. Thus, as Bahá’ís, all our teachings, practices and behaviours work towards this end, as we attempt to make equality of the genders a reality in our society. We believe that violence against women will be virtually negated once women take their rightful place in society, so are deeply committed to making a contribution towards fostering this equality and halting violent attacks on women. With this in mind, we will contribute a short article for each day of these 16 days, which will provide practical examples as to how we can overcome the inequality that exists in our society, and promote the respect and integrity that we need to eradicate any abuses against women.
Thus we will be highlighting not only current abuses, but will also provide some solutions as to how we can build a better and more enlightened society and thereby help to eliminate this gender-based violence in the future. This is the day when an unequal history needs to be reversed in order that both men and women might benefit from each other’s talents and attributes. This is the time when we need the contribution of every member of society, with no person claiming superiority over the other.
Ending the objectification of women
One of the primary factors that leads to violence, and which needs to be brought to an end, is the objectification of women and making sexuality the core of their identity. Even supposedly harmless comments such as that from a radio presenter to: “Spot the babes in the traffic” reinforces this stereotype. Some of this is done with no malevolence and the perpetrators would be horrified to realise that they are contributing to violence against women. And yet they are.
Attraction to beauty is a quality of the human soul which can potentially shape one’s moral purpose and direct one toward standards of excellence and refinement. But when this attraction is deliberately perverted to the point where women and men are seen as no more than means for the gratification of material desires, clearly we have distorted its essence.
Other potent agents of socialization today are systems of mass media, including emerging
forms of new media. Around the world, adolescent girls and boys are raised in an environment that is strongly influenced by media systems that propagate and exploit misconceptions about human nature. Media systems also work to naturalize the messages and habits of thought they propagate, until these messages and habits begin to appear as normal, inevitable features of social life. And so the objectification of women continues – in fact, an excellent social commentary on any society can be achieved by looking back over the years at how women are pictured and described in media advertisements.
In all the articles to follow, it will be useful to look at the way forward and to consider what is needed in society to promote the equality of the genders to finally reach a point where we can restructure our institutions and social practices to promote principles of unity and justice. It is obvious that the roles of women and men and the relationships between them in settings of the family, community, workplace and public institutions need to be redefined, and perhaps during these 16 days it will be a good time to re-commit to this process.