This Sunday, November 25, is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.
I asked to write about this subject partly because I had written about Brett Kavanaugh before Dr. Christine Blasey Ford came forward publicly to accuse Kavanaugh of attempted rape while they were in high school, and before the hearing where they testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, activating post-traumatic symptoms for me and most of the women I know. Not only did Ford’s testimony ring true for me and thousands of other women; the attacks that followed from Kavanaugh himself and the all-male Republicans on the committee felt like personal assaults. During and immediately after the hearing, women around the country told personal stories of assaults, often stories they had never shared before, years or decades after their assaults.
The trauma of sexual assault victims is deepened by their further victimization by law enforcement, the legal system, and other institutions they report the abuse to. In yet another instance of the continuation of abuse, Ford is still, all these weeks later, receiving death threats, and is unable to return to her home or workplace.
While women who come forward are often accused of making false accusations, actual false accusations of rape are extremely rare, even more so if you consider the huge number of rapes and sexual assaults that never get reported to begin with. We watched this re-victimization happen in real time in the United States Senate, and the fact that 122 women from diverse backgrounds will be in the House of Representatives (up from 107), and 24 in the Senate (up from 23) next session may be part of our response.
A Global Issue
I thought the International Day to Eliminate Violence Against Women could be an opportunity to revisit the issue in a broader context.
First, some facts about violence against women from the World Health Organization:
- Global estimates published by WHO indicate that about 1 in 3 (35%) of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime.
- Most of this violence is intimate partner violence. Worldwide, almost one third (30%) of women who have been in a relationship report that they have experienced some form of physical and/or sexual violence by their intimate partner in their lifetime.
- Globally, as many as 38% of murders of women are committed by a male intimate partner.
- Violence can negatively affect women’s physical, mental, sexual, and reproductive health, and may increase the risk of acquiring HIV in some settings.
Violence against women happens all around the world, but women are especially vulnerable in war zones and areas with civil unrest. This increased risk was recognized this year by the Nobel Prize Committee, which awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Denis Mukwege, a gynecologist in the Democratic Republic of the Congo who treats victims of sexual violence, and Nadia Murad, a Yazidi woman kidnapped and raped by ISIS, who have both been working to fight wartime sexual assaults.
The High Cost of Violence Against Women
Both the Nobel Prize and the Kavanaugh hearings deal with sexual violence, which can have lifelong consequences for victims’ physical and psychological health. But structural and cultural violence like child marriage affect the political and economic life of countries and thus contribute to the spread of other forms of violence against women, such as intimate partner violence and human trafficking. From the World Bank:
The first global study on the economic cost of child marriage shows that this human rights violation also has a major negative impact on national economies. The Economic Impacts of Child Marriage research, conducted jointly by The World Bank and The International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), shows that the biggest economic impacts of child marriage are related to fertility and population growth, education, earnings and the health of children born to young mothers. The study highlights that investments in ending child marriage can help countries achieve multiple development goals.
Intimate partner violence can also be costly to developed countries. In 2016, the UN reported that women living with intimate partner violence were more likely to work in low-paying jobs, as well as to miss several days of work when they are injured.
Annual costs of intimate partner violence were calculated at $5.8 billion in the United States of America and $1.16 billion in Canada. In Australia, violence against women and children costs an estimated $11.38 billion per year. Domestic violence alone costs approximately $32.9 billion in England and Wales.
During the economic crisis of 2008, as in previous serious recessions, domestic violence in this country increased. While economic stress doesn’t cause abuse, an abusive partner feeling powerless will exert control over his partner more often, and perhaps more intensely. So it makes sense that in Tajikistan, a poor nation with little chance for employment at home, domestic violence has been a serious problem. A multifaceted program that has been successful in ending or decreasing abuse dramatically in several villages includes counseling, group counseling, home visits, and training women to start small businesses to increase family income.
After 10 weekly counselling sessions and 10 skills training workshops, levels of violence against women in targeted villages in these two regions fell from 64% to 34%. The percentage of men who said they were violent fell from 47% to 5%. Levels of depression have fallen and suicide rates fell from 20% before the project to 9% for women, and from 10% to nil for men. Women’s earnings increased fourfold, and their savings tenfold.
How a nation treats its women tells us something about its character and overall level of violence. Countries where women are abused at high rates are more likely to be at war, whether internally or internationally, than countries with low rates of abuse. And we see over and over again in this country that one of the few things most mass shooters have in common is a history of intimate partner violence, even when the targets are not connected to the abused partner. We can only imagine how many of these shootings might have been prevented if their violence at home had been treated seriously as a crime.
For the sake of individual women, for the sake of their children and families, for the sake of communities and societies, and for the sake of the entire world: It’s time to take violence against women seriously.