Priorities Across Borders: For Many Women Violence Shuts out Hope
Thursday, October 21, 2004 9:45 AM

This article is reprinted from and with permission from the UN Wire / UN Foundation.

In Brazil, a video is making the rounds starring some well known comic actors with a message that’s no laughing matter. Their faces also appear on posters. Their pitch: “Violence against women isn’t funny.” Family planning is fine. Good health care for women is fine. But these services can mean nothing to women who may be abused for trying to use them and who live in fear of violence from not only an intimate partner – a husband or boyfriend – but also a pimp or a male relative.

As the crucial importance to national development of birth control and good reproductive healthcare for women sink into the thinking of governments and societies around the world, attention is turning in many places to the men who buck the trend. They may be individuals prone to domination and violence in any culture, or they may be boys and men who grow up in milieus casually demeaning of women. Call them macho or misogynist or just uneducated about the place of women in the contemporary world and in all major religions, where beliefs may have been warped by militants. Whatever the source, the behavior it is being tackled in the developing world with new organizations and some redirection in older institutions such as churches, mosques, the schools, parliaments and the courts.

The national campaign to stop violence being launched this year in Brazil is a joint effort by men’s organizations and feminist groups – not always friendly partners in the past – backed by Ecos, a research organization in gender and sexuality.

“We’re actually talking about a movement, not a campaign,” said Bendito Medrado of the Program in Support of the Father, or Papai in Portuguese, which means “Dad.” Papai is based in the northeastern Brazilian city of Recife, one of two areas where women say a machismo culture still defines a male image. The other region is in the south, where a cowboy tradition and conservative social mentality come together to the detriment of women. Medrado was among a group gathered one Saturday in May at in the small boardroom at Ecos headquarters in Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, to strategize the next moves in the anti-violence drive. He and others were pleased that Brazil seemed ready for this movement and was already ahead of most of Latin America in serious work on other women’s issues.

With a considerable amount of equality written into Brazil’s 1988 constitution and new family laws that give women broad rights, Brazilians were focused reducing on domestic violence by the early 1990s, said Jacqueline Pitangui, a former president of Brazil’s National Council on Women”s Rights and a leader on gender issues for several decades. “Brazil got domestic violence included as a human rights issue at the Vienna conference on human rights in 1993,” she said. Within the country, the government has created centers for women who are victims of sexual violence, she said.

In Sao Paulo, Sandra Unbehaum, the director of Ecos, said that the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo and the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing the following year produced “a real comprehension of what women’s issues mean.” In Brazil, the results of these conferences only underscored what strong local feminist organizations had already been demanding, with considerable success. “Those international conferences were turning points,” Unbehaum said. Brazil’s 1997 family planning law, which opened the way for a range of previously forbidden procedures, including sterilization, was a direct outcome of Cairo, Pitangui told me.

“Brazil seized the Cairo and Beijing agendas right away,” Medrado said. “Men should support women.” Papai has extended that mandate to a sustained effort to stop violence against women,a fundamental and crippling violation of their rights. Medrado, a social psychologist, and others are also researching and writing about men and masculinity to better understand the roots of their behavior and the cultural factors (including the role of media) that may reinforce it.

In Ghana, Fred Sai, a former adviser to the World Bank on public health and a founder of the Planned Parenthood Association of Ghana, says that the unequal position of women that makes them vulnerable to abuse may start with early marriage, which weakens a girl’s heath and denies her education and a chance of employment early in life. According to UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, projections for the 2000-2005 period, Ghana has a fertility rate of 78.2 per thousand for women between the ages of 15 and 20. That is more than double the rate in Egypt and higher than Brazil. For comparison, the figure is about 17 per thousand in the Czech Republic “The threat of violence ensures that women will defer to and comply with men’s decisions about sexual behavior and contraceptive use,” Sai wrote in Adam and Eve and the Serpent, a book based on a series of lectures he gave at the University of Ghana in 1994. This may be reinforced, he said, by a legal requirement that a woman have spousal consent for family planning.

“And sadly, violence by only a few men may be sufficient to keep many women in fear,” he said. “If one woman in a village is beaten by her husband for using contraception, many other women may become reluctant to raise the subject in their own homes.”

Sai is also concerned that the trokosi system, under which a pre-pubescent girl is given to a local deity to atone for a sin committed by someone in her family, institutionalizes abuse of women because the girl is often forced to serve as a sexual slave to the priest in charge of the deity’s shrine.

In 1998, trokosi was outlawed, but still persists in some areas. Ghana’s National Population Council, which has made a survey of the places where it exists, is demanding that the government enforce the law, monitor shrines and seek a culturally effective way to replace the system – with, for example, the offer of an animal or other gift -- and not a girl -- to a deity.

In every country where AIDS is a threat, there is concern that the rapid spread among women of the virus that causes it can be linked in numerous cases to the women’s inability to protect herself because of the possibility of abuse.

A study in South Africa found in 2004 that women who were beaten by male partners are significantly more likely to become infected with the virus that causes AIDS than women who do not report violence. The study, whose findings were published by the British medical journal The Lancet, concluded that women who face violence were 48 percent more likely to be infected. If the women were also financially dependent or dominated emotionally by a partner, the figure rose as high as 52 percent.

The assumption drawn from the study was that men who abused women also imposed risky sexual practices on their partners or forbade women from introducing protective measures, such as the regular use of condoms. The abuse of woman and girls is a reality in both developing and industrialized countries. Sex trafficking, for example, often brings girls still in their teens from poor countries to richer ones, where young virgins fetch a premium price in the sex trade. In several countries on several continents I have listened as health officials described treating little girls as young as three who had been sexually violated, often within their extended families. Young boys are also victims of the international sex trade or of abuses closer to home.

In Ghana, Richard Turkson, the executive director of the National Population Council, said that in stopping the spread of AIDS by men through casual sex, which brings the infection home to monogamous wives, “The problem that we are facing now is behavior change.” He said that the council has hired a consultant to look for new strategies. “Behavior change is incredibly slow,” Turkson said. “We are wondering whether the message and the material that we have are appropriate.”

Internationally, violence against women has become a debilitating part of refugee life and the fallout of vicious civil wars that kill many more civilians than combatants. Several United Nations agencies, including the UNFPA, Unicef, the World Health Organization and the office of the High Commissioner for Refugees have waged a difficult battle to make women’s reproductive health, including the provision of emergency contraceptives (the“morning after” pill) for rape victims an integral part of relief work.

The United Nations peacekeeping department has also been forced by anti-trafficking advocates to face the ugly reality that its peacekeeping missions become magnets for prostitution and sometimes centers of trafficking. In Liberia, for example, young women from Morocco and eastern Europe have been found in brothels and clubs around troop bases. In East Timor, there were Thai prostitutes.

Secretary General Kofi Annan and the Security Council – prodded by advocates for women’s rights inside and outside the organization – have ordered peacekeeping officials to stop these practices and to incorporate experts in human rights and women’s issues among mission staffs. Reports from the field say progress has not been very good in most places. This sets a tragic example in devastated countries hoping to rebuild.

When the new International Criminal Court was established by a conference attended by a majority of U.N. member nations, it was able to enshrine sex abuse as a war crime, building on groundbreaking work done in ad hoc war tribunals set up in the 1990s for the Balkans and Rwanda, which convicted men for crimes against women . It may take a long time to completely erase the notion that “boys will be boys.” But those who harbor such ideas can longer act on them with impunity without the possibility – even if still remote in too many cases – that they will some day pay the price with a criminal conviction.

Cited from:  Priorities Across Borders, For many women, violence shuts out hope, Barbara Crossette, Countdown 2015: Personal Stories From Around the World, Media Center, UN Foundation, 2004.