WASHINGTON—Statistics on violence against women paint a sorry picture leading up to International Women’s Day, March 8. Over two-thirds of women in the world—up to 76 percent in some countries—have been targeted for sexual and/or physical abuse at some point in their lives, according to United Nations statistics on women.
In addition, around one-fifth of the world’s population live in countries that are experiencing some kind of violence in conflict.
“When this happens, gender based violence is not far behind,” said Aruna Rao a specialist in gender and institutional change at George Washington University (GWU), where she spoke Monday.
The elimination of violence against women and girls is a priority theme of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women, which began its 57th annual session at the U.N. headquarters in New York on March 4.
On her way to the New York meetings, professor Jody Williams, Nobel Peace Prize laureate 1997, spoke at the GWU event about civil society’s role in stopping violence against women.
Williams is one of the founders of the Nobel Women’s Initiative, which is leading an international campaign to stop rape and gender violence in conflict. The strategy is seen as a tool to raise awareness about all forms of violence against women, including institutional and domestic violence.
“Rape and gender violence in conflict happen because of the continuum of violence against women,” Williams said.
Only the 10th woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize—and the third American woman—Williams said she was applying lessons in the present campaign to those she had learned in her prize-winning endeavor to ban land mines.
Her particular skill was to convince independent nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), with their varied expertise, that if they worked together as a coalition they could have more impact on governments than if they worked individually.
Williams says ending violence against women is enormously challenging, but the same strategy applies. While there are ‘turf’ conflicts among NGOs, she has found commonality in three areas—prevention, protection, and prosecution.
“Impunity is one of the fundamental reasons that it is so easy to continue to use rape as a tactic of war,” she said.
Williams noted that in the United States, domestic violence is a significant problem, but it is little discussed. Less than 3 percent of cases result in prosecution.
“We have to start debunking the belief that human beings are just violent, that it is part of the way we are,” she said. “Violence is a choice.”
Challenges For Civil Societies
In the audience were women from countries whose civil societies face great challenges. An educator from India noted the recent horrific rape incidences in her country. She asked Williams about making gender education part of the school curriculum.
It could be effective, Williams said, but would not work if it were just confined to schools and teachers.
“You have to have many sectors of society pressing the government, to get them to understand,” she said.
A woman from Iran expressed the difficulties she faced in getting groups to work cooperatively on gender violence in her country.
“The situation in Iran and the political pressure and the terrorism against civil society makes it a completely different scenario that I have no experience in,” Williams said.
Another woman was from China. She now lives in America and works at GWU but told the story of how female practitioners of the spiritual exercise and meditation practice Falun Gong were stripped naked and thrown into male prisons in China in order to force them to renounce their beliefs.
Williams said she was not specifically working on the area of prison rape and violence as a form of political repression, but noted that others in her campaign were.
“I would think the techniques would not be that different in raising awareness and pressuring where you can in China,” she said. “That’s a hard one, as you would know better than I.”
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