Co-Authored with guest blogger Alys Willman.
On International Women’s Day, as we reflect on progress toward gender equality, there is cause for some celebration. In several important ways, women’s lives are changing for the better. There have no doubt been gains in women’s empowerment - such as increasing life expectancy, declining fertility rates and a growing number of girls enrolled in primary school.
But in many other ways women around the world remain vulnerable in a fundamental way- to the risk of violence and abuse.
- Up to 70 per cent of women experience violence in their lifetime, according to country data available.
- More than 1 in 3 women around the world have been subject to violence- including non-partner sexual violence and violence and committed in their own homes, by people they know.
- Women aged 15-44 are more at risk from rape and domestic violence than from cancer, car accidents, war and malaria .
Despite all our gains, women worldwide are still vulnerable to being attacked, raped, brutalized, abused, trafficked and killed. The subjugation and humiliation of women goes on.
In Papua New Guinea violence towards women is so common, women traveling on public transport often insert a femidom (female condom) before starting their journey, to avoid contracting a sexually transmitted disease should they be sexually assaulted. It’s not only a precautionary behavior on the part of the women, but an indication of their expectation, and of their disempowerment.
Not only are social norms that underscore how gender is constructed resistant and slow to change, but along the long path to gender equality the risks for women can actually be heightened.
In Pakistan, a country that has been undergoing some rapid changes in gender roles over the past decades, there have recently been a few high profile gang-rapes where the perpetrators have videoed their brutality, sharing it on social media with their friends and colleagues. The same women have been ‘raped’ and humiliated again and again each time a viewer (and there have been many) clicks play on the video.
There is a critical social space that exists between the behavior of women (and men) who are at the forefront of pushing for gender equality, and it becoming the norm or ‘a norm’. Malala, who was shot in the face walking to school and advocating for other girls to attend school show us that space can be a dangerous one, especially for the first people who push for its creation. The push-back from others in society-men women -can be strong.
23 year old student Jyoti Singh was fatally gang-raped on a bus in Delhi in 2012. In a BBC documentary aired last week, one of the rapists- Mukesh Singh- claimed that Jyoti invited the assault by being out after dark. She had been returning home on public transport at around 9pm after watching a movie with a friend. One of Singh’s former trial lawyer was also video’ed as saying that he would burn his own daughter or sister if they behaved ‘improperly’. The reaction by the Indian government after the rape-in strengthening of rape laws, and most recently– in banning the video for fear of fueling tensions around the divided opinions of Indians -highlights that even state institutions can be part and parcel of a complex set of norms that both challenge, and at the same time, reinforce gender inequality.
This type of violence and brutality against women, some researchers argue, is a reflection of entrenched attitudes and a long-history of structural discrimination against women that isn’t going to be solved simply and quickly by helping more women into the work force, for example, or putting more cash into the hands of young women. In countries like Pakistan and India, discrimination and violence against women starts even before birth.
As we look toward a post-2015 agenda, let’s not rest on our laurels for the important achievements in women’s equality. For sure, a generation of the world’s women is now healthier and better educated than their mothers, but they are not safe from violence.