Are We Accomplices to Violence Against Women?

Although precise statistics are not available, since violence against women -- especially domestic violence -- is a hidden crime, recent figures released by the United Nations suggest that in some countries close to 60 percent of women may be subjected to physical violence at least once in their lifetime. They also make clear that no country, whether rich or poor, dictatorship or democracy, has come close to eliminating violence against women.

Such figures, important though they are as a reminder of the shocking prevalence of the problem, risk numbing us to the damage each and every act of violence does to a girl or a woman. Numbers mask the personal pain of the individual.

Sixty percent of a population of ten million women means six million individual private tragedies, physical and psychological scars, dysfunctional families, traumatized children. Six million, sixty million, six hundred million. The numbers are of pandemic proportions -- so large that, perversely, they distract us from the plight of the woman next door.

In recent decades, thanks to the ceaseless and courageous struggles of many committed individuals and organizations, there has been significant progress in ensuring women's enjoyment of their human rights in many countries, as well as progress in the international legal and policy response to violence against women. Nevertheless, physical, psychological and other forms of abuse of women continue on a huge scale, much of it hidden, ignored or silenced.

Despite our surveys and our annual expressions of shock during the 16 Days Against Violence Against Women, have too many of us become inured to the problem? Are we unconsciously shrugging it off as 'normal' -- regrettable certainly, but a fact of life?

Does it have to take a particularly graphic piece of news -- a girl stoned to death, a mass rape, a string of honour killings -- to get our attention? Briefly. For a day or two. If so, what can we do to shake ourselves out of this apathy, this acceptance, this assumption that other people are taking care of this issue, so we don't need to act ourselves? Doesn't that make us accomplices to what is, in fact, a human rights violation committed day after day on a massive scale with impunity?

Well, for one thing, when we hear the woman next door screaming, we can intervene, instead of turning to the wall and saying "It's their business, let them sort it out." We can treat it like other crimes. Each and every one of us can make it clear it is not acceptable to leave it unpunished. When the perpetrator is a friend, or a neighbour or a family member, we can stop turning a blind eye and pretending we are not aware of what is going on. When a little boy hits his sister, we can make it unequivocally clear that violence against girls is not acceptable on any account, ever.

Violence against women is being addressed by an increasing range of actors across various sectors of society -- with, of course, huge differentials between nations. But even where the struggle has engaged a wide variety of people, it is not enough. Each and every one of us has it in us to become a human rights defender, acting to prevent or diminish discrimination. Continuing discrimination against women is most painfully revealed by acts of violence against them.

The international legal and policy framework for eliminating discrimination against women is well-developed, but there is a wide gulf between the standards set, and actual practice at the national and local level. States have the primary responsibility to protect their women, and in most cases are clearly not doing enough.

We need more recruits, men as well as women, to turn the internationally accepted standards into reality, to hammer away at social, cultural and state acceptance of violence and discrimination until those huge numbers drop, and violence against women is seen like, and treated like, a human rights violation with far-reaching consequences on both individuals and societies.