Effective Ways to Prevent Violence Against Women and Girls

The Two Steps Necessary to Significantly Lessen an Organized Crime against Humanity

Recently, the world learned that Jihadists had stoned a Syrian woman to death for "adultery." Stoning, a barbaric form of death by torture, involves the throwing of stones at a person until they die.

In recent days, more accounts have been reported about a similar stoning in Syria. A few months earlier, a 25-year-old pregnant woman was stoned to death right outside a high court in the Pakistani city of Lahore, for marrying the man with whom she had fallen in love. About 20 men participated in the stoning, among them the father of the woman who confessed to the act by explaining it was to save the honor of the family.

In most countries, so called "honor stoning" is illegal, but in other countries such as Iran, Mauritania, Pakistan, Sudan, Syria, Yemen and a few other countries  it is a legal form of capital punishment or an act for which the legal system shows leniency and forgiveness. According to the 2013 Human Rights Commission report on Pakistan, 869 women were killed in the country that year "in the name of honor." The report also indicates that the same year, at least 56 women were killed solely for giving birth to a girl child.

I share the feelings of other women around the world that such events hit our innermost beings and leave us with a sense of helplessness. In this article I shed light on the nature of crimes against women and the context in which these occur; and present to the global community an imperative action plan to prevent these crimes from happening.

In 2013, Professor Manuel Eisner and Cambridge Graduate Student Lana Ghuneim published a
that examined attitudes towards honor crimes amongst a sample of 856 ninth grade students from 14 schools in Amman, Jordan.  There were two key findings:
  1. The support for honor crimes was not connected to religious beliefs; and
  2. Support for honor killing is stronger among male adolescents, and adolescents from lower education backgrounds. The study also found that attitudes in support of honor murders "are anchored in a broader system of beliefs about patriarchal authority and dominance, and assumptions about female virginity and chastity." It should be noted that while murder is subject to death penalty in Jordan, in "honor killings", courts can commute or reduce sentences, particularly if the victim's family asks for leniency.
Stoning is just one of many forms of violence against women.

Different forms of violence and crimes against women are committed daily all over the world and go unpunished because they are sanctioned by the very society and culture where they are committed. Three other examples are rape, female genital mutilation/cutting and child marriage.

In the case of rape, the crimes often are not reported and when they are, women victims are often blamed and even killed under the cover of "honor" as if it were a case of adultery. For instance, in Afghanistan,

Rape is a crime which can be legally prosecuted, but in practice it is very rarely reported, because of the immense risks that women face if they report it. Rape victims in the country face a double risk of being subjected to violence: on one hand they can become victims of honor killings perpetrated by their families, and on the other hand they can be victimized by the laws of the country: they can be charged with adultery, a crime that can be punishable by death. Furthermore, they can be forced by their families to marry their rapist. In 2011, Afghanistan made international news in regard to the story of a woman who was raped by a man, jailed for adultery, gave birth to a child in jail, and was then subsequently pardoned by president Hamid Karzai, and in the end married the man who raped her. From Wikipedia, Rape Statistics

In the case of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM), which refers to several different harmful practices involving the cutting of the female genitals for non-medical reasons, approximately 140 million girls and women in the world have been subjected to this crime.  This is the position of the World Health Organization about FGM: 

FGM is recognized internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women. It reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes, and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women. It is nearly always carried out on minors and is a violation of the rights of children. The practice also violates a person's rights to health, security and physical integrity, the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and the right to life when the procedure results in death. In December 2012, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution about ending FGM.

In the case of child marriage, between 2011 and 2020, more than 140 million girls will become child brides, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). Of these, 50 million will be under the age of 15. This means, early pregnancies, more exposure to health risks and perpetuating the cycle of under-education and poverty, as found in this study by the World Health Organization. In most cases, child marriage is imposed by the family in clear violation of a young girl's rights and as such constitutes a direct act of violence against women. A recent policy brief on child marriage in Mozambique states, "The fact that Mozambique has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, affecting almost one in every two girls, is an affront to human rights on a massive scale." The study further indicates that these girls are less likely to finish primary school and to enroll in secondary education, and confirms that an educated girl is less likely to marry before the age of 18. (Anthony Hodges - policy brief for UNICEF and National Coalition to End Child Marriage in Mozambique -CECAP).

Violence against girls and young women does not only constitute a blatant violation of human rights; it challenges directly the advances of the developing countries and the world and the achievement of the UN's Millennium Development Goals. Unresolved violence against girls and women will equally challenge the success of the new Sustainable Development Goals as of 2015 unless the problem is encountered from the perspective of an ongoing crime against humanity and addressed in its root causes.

Preventing and eliminating violence against women and girls requires radical transformations of beliefs, practices and attitudes over a considerable amount of time. These changes will necessarily challenge the powerful underlying cultural context and institutional norms that prevail and permeate the entire society in a given country. Norms including laws that explicitly or implicitly dictate such violence as being "legal" (or "protected," "encouraged" or "tolerated") --  leaving perpetrators unpunished -- will have to be undone.

What can we do collectively as of now to prevent violence against women?

I propose actions on two major fronts: a global political context led by the United Nations as the world's highest human rights authority - setting the stage - and a local educational front - the action plan.

Setting the Stage:

A Definitive Zero Tolerance Statement: It is in the hands of the Secretary General of the UN to continuously express unequivocal zero tolerance for any form of violence against women and girls, to declare loud and clear that such violence is a crime against humanity and to hold national governments directly accountable for any violations of these human rights. The best platform and next momentum for this to happen is at the adoption of the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals.  A firm collective commitment for the elimination of any form of violence against women and girls must precede, as a pre-condition, the adoption of the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals (which the UNiTE campaign advocates; however I see this effort as being insufficient in challenging the profound cultural norms that promote such violence, such as the assumptions about female virginity and the patriarchal authority). Preventing and eliminating violence against women and girls must become a "super goal" of the SDGs, as a conditional goal that will enable all others (I see the protection of the environment as another "super goal" for the SDGs).

A massive mobilization of all players on the ground, led by the UN: The goal is to radically change attitudes and practices and eliminate the very institutions that validate and even encourage violence against women and girls. These institutions in many cases are organized entirely for the purpose of perpetuating the violence against women and girls. To achieve this goal, a broad mobilization from within the UN must follow with sustained commitments, enforced international legal actions at the level of an international court established for that purpose, and consistent coherent messages against all forms of violence against women and girls. This action must include detailed programs in each country, tight monitoring - similar to the monitoring of nuclear activities - with participation of players at all levels:  the international community, development partners, national governments and their criminal justice systems, the policy makers in each nation, religious elites, civil society and the local communities. The latter is particularly important since in many remote areas community institutions are even more radical and conservative in dictating the norms of behavior towards girls and women, with little oversight by local authorities. These norms are transmitted and sustained from generation to generation, even in the form of underground practices (in countries that have adopted a legal ban on certain practices such as stoning and FGM).

An Action Plan:

A Radical Change from Within: Beyond Girls' Education. In the Cambridge Study indicated above, 33.4% of all teenage respondents - boys and girls - in Amman, Jordan, either "agreed" or "strongly agreed" with depictions of honor killings. Almost half of the male respondents and one in five female respondents advocated killing women or girls if they committed adultery to "save the honor of the family."Here lies the real challenge!  If the belief about patriarchal authority with its validation of "honor killing" is an intrinsic part of the culture of a society, and that culture sanctions violence against women as being "normal" and appropriate even among young people, how do we change this? How do we get today's young men and young women to distance themselves from these beliefs and become collectively committed to zero tolerance of any form of violence against young girls and women? How do we replace today one culture and one mindset by another among young people - the future leaders of our society?

The first consideration is that any attempt to prevent violence against women and girls must systematically engage the main perpetrators of such violence - men and boys - via carefully crafted educational programs that will change their beliefs, and hence their attitudes and behaviors towards women and girls. The idea is to transform the prevailing culture and images of the dominating and rigid man to ones where the man can still be a man in different ways, more connected to their humanity and their environment. A new culture where the fear of the "other" - the woman - will be replaced by a sense of companionship, alliance, sharing, support and solidarity.

In Burkina Faso, boys who participated in workshops on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights organized by Palms for Life's partner organization ADEP (Association d'Appui et d'Eveil Pugsada - Pugsada Awakening Association), said at the end of their training that now, they accept their responsibility to participate in domestic chores; overall they accept girls more easily, they understand the enormous damage to the girls from the practice of female genital mutilation and the effect of HIV/AIDs. Now, the boys know more about girls and about themselves. They reported they will consider girls their equal and will tell their buddies about what they learned. This is an important result that illustrates how such workshops can be effective in changing young boys' attitudes towards girls.

Other encouraging initiatives include the "Men's Non Violence Project" from the Texas Council on Family Violence (TCFV.org) in the United States, which has created a comprehensive guide about how to engage men and boys in ending violence against women and girls which has a wide geographical application.  Other organizations doing similar work include the Men's Resources International (mensresourcesinternational.org) aiming at creating "positive masculinity" and Men Engage (menengage.org) who promote the active participation of boys and men in the fight against gender discrimination.

Introducing a new culture. Educational programs to prevent violence against women will only be successful if young people are equipped with the capacity to distinguish between the local culture that deeply influences their beliefs and a new set of beliefs that are more aligned with a culture of non-violence and respect for the intrinsic value and personhood of girls and women. The transmission of these new values will most importantly require the education of educators - teaching the teachers. Educators will be essential elements in ensuring the trickle down of any educational campaign to the very basic level of schools.

What is key here is the spirit of the undertaking in introducing a new culture: at no moment should the new teaching use instruments of repression or authority as these will be ineffective in producing any meaningful change. Rather, the movement to introduce the new values and culture should be compassionate, rights-based and participative. Emphasis must be placed on the enormous benefit to the entire society deriving from men and women sharing responsibilities, growing collectively and showing mutual respect.

The dual strategy of setting the stage first and implementing an action plan at the educational level, will give at least a minimum of chance to generate a new culture based on new values. Honor killings might not be preventable among the current generation of adult men, but certainly we can bring the new generation of young boys closer to understanding themselves and the other half of the universe made up of women and girls.

Our goal is that these educated boys and men will never again lift their hands against a woman.

The author is founder and CEO of Palms for Life Fund, a US-based NGO supporting worldwide access to food, water, sanitation and education, particularly for girls. Prior to launching Palms for Life, she was a 30-year veteran of the United Nations, much of it in the field; the final three years of her assignment were devoted to creating a private sector engagement office in New York.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-656-HOPE for the National Sexual Assault Hotline.