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Violence against women is becoming more violent: special International Women’s Day post

March 8, 2013

Women's Rights

Guest Blogger: Associate Professor Andrea Durbach, University of New South Wales

picture-1223As the world marks International Women’s Day, violence against women, although triggering pockets of protest and solidarity with victims and survivors across the world, is increasing in scale and the violence, in the words of UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, “is becoming more violent.” This year, the 57th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, which began its annual meeting in New York this week, has as its priority theme, the elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls. Opening the meeting, Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson, reminded delegates that violence against women “pervades all countries, even in the most stable and developed regions. (It) pervades war zones as well as stable communities, capitals as well as the countryside, public space as well as the private sphere.”

In answering the question posed by the title of her book, Are Women Human? American feminist scholar and lawyer, Catherine Mackinnon, says no. She writes:

If women were regarded as human, would they be sold into sexual slavery worldwide; veiled, silenced, and imprisoned in homes; bred, and worked as menials for little or no pay; stoned for sex outside marriage or burned within it; mutilated genitally, impoverished economically, and mired in illiteracy?

MacKinnon’s account speaks of lives in distant places where the pain and trauma of the violence is experienced by women who are amongst the most displaced, disinherited and impoverished in the world.

In Australia, one in three women over the age of 15 has experienced and will report physical or sexual violence at some time in their lives.  Although the political, economic and cultural lives of women in Australia are, in the main, immeasurably different from those of women who live through war and political and cultural subjugation, when I accompanied the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, Ms Rashida Manjoo on a study tour across Australia last year, the testimony we heard was despairingly and disturbingly similar in one key respect.[1] The cry from Australian women writ large across the world – be it from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, or migrant and refugee women, women with disabilities, students and workers, mothers and daughters or from the men who work to address and prevent the violence – was that the systematic degradation of women, the denial of their humanity, was consistently met with weak resignation, at best – and passive condonation, at worst.

When women do not speak out about the violence they endure for fear of bringing shame upon their men and their communities – the violence is condoned. When students who are victims of abuse and assault are told by their peers that it is not cool to complain and that the perpetrator is a ‘jerk’, not a criminal – then the violence is condoned.

When police are reticent to enter the private sphere to halt domestic violence or when doctors treat the symptoms of violence and circumvent the cause – the violence is condoned. When women with disabilities or women of colour are told that they don’t feel the pain or the hurt ‘in the same way’ – the violence is condoned.

When senior government bureaucrats presented with overwhelming evidence, undermine the gravity and prevalence of violence, preferring to call it ‘wrong’ rather than to name it as a serious violation of human rights – then the violence is condoned.

And when women workers – critically dependent on an income to remove themselves from violent relationships – are demoted or dismissed by employers who fail to acknowledge and accommodate the impact of domestic violence on work performance – the violence is condoned.

The message from the women and men we met across Australia is clear: that violence against women is pervasive and not decreasing. It is indiscriminate and entrenched in political and economic structures, systems and institutions.  Importantly, the long-term physical and psychological manifestations of domestic and family violence create considerable social and economic costs – such violence being responsible for more of the disease burden of Australian women than many well-know risk factors, such as smoking and obesity.

If, to return to Catherine Mackinnon’s question, women are to be supported out of this global pandemic of violence and to reclaim their humanity, men and woman in governments, as employers, in universities, in families, all of us have no choice but to take up arms against this war on women.  To do otherwise, to do nothing, means we are complicit in their harm.

Associate Professor Andrea Durbach is the Director of the Australian Human Rights Centre at the University of  New South Wales.  This post is being published on International Women’s Day, 8 March 2013.

This piece is a revised version of an article that appeared on The Drum Opinion, ABC  in late 2012

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[1] The study tour was organised during my term as Deputy Sex Discrimination Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission from May 2011 – August 2012.

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