GLOBAL: Awareness-raising key to tackling gender violence

Friday, January 4, 2008

Dozens of organisations across the world, with the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), dedicated the 16 days leading up to International Human Rights Day (10 December) to raising awareness of gender-based violence (GBV).

To highlight the geographical extent of the scourge of GBV in its various forms, as well as efforts to turn the tide, a selection of summarised case studies is reproduced below (where these are drawn from previously published stories, links to the full text or related articles appear in brackets).

CONGO: Domestic violence widespread but unspoken

The silence that tends to surround domestic violence all over the world is typified by the case of Brigitte Ngassai in Brazzaville, for whom home, until her husband died six months ago, was a place not of sanctuary but terror.

“He beat me almost every day, sometimes to the point where I was bed-ridden for two or three days. But I never, ever spoke of my suffering to my family,” she told IRIN.

“It’s hard to persuade [abused women] that they are victims and that they have the right to press charges,” said Firmine Bouithy, of the country’s Association of Women Jurists.

“I think it would be useful for NGOs working in this area to step up their awareness-raising so that our sisters break the silence and reduce this growing phenomenon,” she added [full story upcoming on IRIN.]

DRC: Tackling impunity

A key reason why GBV is so prevalent around the world, especially in countries affected by conflict, is that even when the identity of perpetrators is known, often no legal action is taken against them. This culture of impunity is seen as a green light by offenders, a light which authorities in the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, where rape and other forms of violence are used as a weapon of war, are trying to extinguish.

In the single province of South Kivu, there were 4,500 reported cases of rape in the first six months of 2007, according to Yakin Erturk, special rapporteur for the UN Human Rights Council on Violence against Women, who said such violence was regarded as “normal” by local communities.

“Victims cannot go to court because the judicial system offers them no guarantees,” UNFPA’s Mireille Ikoli told IRIN. “But the government is working to reform the judicial system and a new law has been passed by parliament prohibiting different types of sexual violence.

“I am involved in sensitising magistrates, the army and police against impunity surrounding sexual violence and other crimes against women,” said Philomene Omatuku Athsakawo Akatshi, the minister for women and children. The minister explained that for the victims of such crimes, “centres called ‘sites of joy’ have been set up, where training is provided to reintegrate these women into society, because they shouldn’t be isolated.”

SWAZILAND: GBV undermines HIV/AIDS prevention strategies

The kingdom of Swaziland has the world's highest HIV prevalence rate, with a quarter of Swazi adults living with the virus. Current prevention strategies fail to consider violence against women, in what remains a highly conservative society.

"We know that violence against women, from rape to unwanted sex to cultural practices that allow men to impregnate girls as young as 13, all these contribute to the spread of AIDS,” Janice Ginindza, an AIDS activist with Swazis for Positive Living, told IRIN.

“The ABC of HIV prevention – abstinence, being faithful to your partner and condom use – does not address gender-based violence … The ABC approach is based on rational decision-making and cooperation between two partners in sex. This is completely absent in the many reported cases where women are violently subjected to sex against their will or made to have sex on the pretext that this is culturally acceptable," she added.

ZAMBIA: Working to change the law

According to Matondo Monde-Yeta, permanent secretary in the ministry of gender in development, "Gender-based violence is growing at a worrying rate in Zambia. There's an increase in physical abuse of women, beating-up of women both in marriages and out of marriages, and sexual molestation of women."

The country’s patriarchal system plays an important role, she told IRIN. “Men tend to feel they own the women and therefore can do with them whatever they feel like … Most women fear to report cases of domestic violence because they are not empowered to live on their own. And being divorced is highly stigmatising in Zambia."

In an effort to turn the tide, the minister said, the government has begun to domesticate a variety of international human rights laws and is also preparing legislation specifically related to GBV.

But the minister acknowledged that the courts themselves need revamping. “There is intimidation, and many perpetrators often walk away with lighter sentences that are a mockery to the victims. This is because the courts require the victims to explain explicitly the incident which many women fail to do in open courts. It is a big challenge, and we really need to make our courts user-friendly to victims of domestic violence."

MALI: Married off young

Child marriage is one of 16 forms of GBV identified by UNFPA, which estimates that despite legal sanctions against the practice, more than 100 million girls across the world, mostly in poor rural areas, will be expected to marry in the next decade.

“Impoverished parents often believe that child marriage will protect their daughters. In fact, it results in lost development opportunities, limited life options and poor health,” according to the UN agency.

The problem is particularly severe in Mali, where girls are legally allowed to wed at 15 as long as they have the consent of her parents. A survey carried out in 2001 showed that 65 percent of women aged 20-24 were married by the age of 18, one of the highest rates in the world. Nationwide, 25 percent of girls were married by the age of 15, and one in 10 married girls aged 15-19 gave birth before age 15.

Changing such traditions is an uphill task, recognises UNFPA reproductive health programme officer Miriam Cissoko.

“It’s heavily rooted in tradition. And it’s something we have little control over. We are in our offices. We aren’t in the communities, in the villages. The only person who can bring change is the person affected,” she said.

Awareness-raising programmes have borne some fruit, she added. “We try to link early marriage to maternal mortality, fistula, birth problems. We involve the community more and more in all these questions. Young girls are beginning to understand that they have to participate in their development. They now have something to say. There are some who flee, who refuse [to be wed].”

Some underage brides “try to delay the first birth. That’s a good compromise. Imams do sensitisation inviting people to use contraceptives. It’s that kind of port of entry we have to look for.”

But much more is required. “There needs to be a coalition. Everyone needs to take this on as their problem,” said Cissoko. “It’s all these people – the politicians, the people, the community leaders – together, well coordinated, that will solve the problem.”

SENEGAL: Saying no to FGM

Female genital mutilation or cutting (FGM/C) is practised in 28 African countries – in some cases at rates of more than 90 percent, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Estimates suggest three million girls undergo the practice every year. It has many forms, ranging from the removal of the hood of the clitoris, to the more severe excision of the whole clitoris and sometimes the labia, to the stitching together of the vaginal opening.

The consequences include severe pain, cysts, urine retention, haemorrhage, difficulties during childbirth and even death, as well as sexual dysfunction and psychological problems.

In Senegal a decade ago, one village took the bold step of very publicly abandoning the tradition. With the help of NGOs such as Tostan, the defiance quickly caught on, and now 2,657 villages in Senegal, Guinea and Burkina Faso have turned their back on FGM/C.

The campaign’s success relied on inclusion and participation, rather than an attempt by outsiders to force through cultural change, as Tostan executive director Molly Melching explained.

“We must really follow African tradition. People do not make decisions alone. It’s not an individual decision; it’s a community decision; it’s an extended family decision. That extended family can be in 10 villages, in 20 villages. Those people all have to be consulted before the decision is made. The respectability of the girls depends on everyone agreeing to change the social norm.”

NEPAL:  Dowry violence against Madhesi women

The practice of beating, torturing and burning alive recently wed female relatives in order to extract a larger dowry from their families is common in the Terai region of southern Nepal, especially among the Madhesi ethnic group.

Women’s rights groups in the area, including Saathi, which advocates for the eradication of dowry-related violence, have told IRIN of their concerns at death threats, attempted murders and actual killings of newly married Nepalese women at the hands of their husband’s relatives. Legislation prohibiting forced dowries exists in Nepal but is not properly enforced in Terai, one of the most impoverished regions of the country.

The poorest Madhesi women are most at risk as they are unable to raise the US$2,000 to $10,000 often demanded by a bridegroom’s relatives.

“The situation of dowry-related violence is quite critical as it has been responsible for the worst form of violence and criminal acts against the newly married women at the hands of their husbands, who are responsible for most of the criminal acts against them,” said Bhawani Rana, who works with Saathi in Nepalgunj, 600km west of the capital.

The city is one of the worst affected in the country. Several NGOs run shelters there and every week take in many women who arrive battered and traumatised, sometimes soaked in kerosene, having escaped immolation.

“The only way to stop this form of violence is by introducing very strict laws against dowry violence,” explained Rana.   She added that activists in both Nepalgunj and Kathmandu were lobbying for legislation specifically outlawing dowry violence.

PAKISTAN: Death by dishonour

So-called “honour killings” are common in Pakistan, where scores of women are reportedly killed by a male family member for acts that are deemed to bring shame on a family.

Most prevalent in Sindh province, such killings take place in Punjab, North West Frontier Province, and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

In 2006, Human Rights Watch, citing government figures, reported that there had been 4,100 “honour killings” in Pakistan over the previous four years. Many cases are unreported or recorded as suicides or accidental deaths.

Despite legislation passed in 2004 that made such killings a capital offence in some cases, the practice has barely diminished because suspects are rarely prosecuted and even less frequently convicted.

Pakistani law also allows the next of kin to “forgive” a murderer in exchange for monetary compensation.

“It basically boils down to how women are perceived in our society: as commodities of exchange as well as repositories of male honour,” Alefia Hussein, senior publications officer for Shirkat Gah, a women’s rights organisation based in Lahore, told IRIN.

Many more articles related to GBV are available on the IRIN website and on UNFPA.

Source: IRIN