With ever-increasing global access to the internet and social media, communication between the world’s countries — even the most remote — has become part of most people’s everyday life. This real-time communication has meant that discrimination, injustice, and violence — which has been hidden, tolerated, institutionalized, and even defended as part of culture for centuries — is increasingly more public and seemingly less tolerated.
But despite heightened awareness and push back, violence against women and girls remains a global threat: half of humanity should be female, but 117 million women and girls are “missing” (dead) due to discrimination, systemic injustice, and a lack of human rights under patriarchy. That’s more deaths than World War I and World War II combined, according to the United Nations Population Fund.
According to the Global Terrorism Database (GTD), 171 people died from terrorist attacks in 2015. By comparison, in just 20 European countries mapped by Eurostat in 2015, 1014 females died from femicide — almost six times as many. In 2016, the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE) published a report on combating violence against women, revealing some very alarming numbers: 43,600 women and girls were killed by a family member or an intimate partner worldwide in 2012. That same year, 11,133 people were killed by terrorism worldwide. Violence against women and girls shapes society as we know it, yet local and international governments still don’t treat it as a crisis to be addressed with any particular urgency, as they do with terrorism.
Despite the progress made by the global feminist movement, attitudes are slow to change, violence and discrimination against women and girls continues, and legislation supporting the rights of women and girls remains contested and under threat. The Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (better known as the Maputo Protocol), for example, is a treaty binding all the countries that ratify it, yet it is opposed by many Catholic and African leaders because it supports women’s reproductive rights. Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) has been illegal in Egypt since 2008, but continues to be practiced in Christian and Muslim communities. Despite the fact that prostitution has been recognized by institutions like The Crown Prosecution Service and by politicians like Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as violence against women, many political parties (including Trudeau’s own Liberal Party) and NGOs (including Amnesty International) continue to push to legalize brothels, pimping, and the purchase of sex, and to repeal hard-fought for feminist legislation (such as the Nordic model) where it exists.
Worldwide, abortion continues to be a controversial issue. Legislation that gave women autonomy over their own bodies and health is at risk of being stripped back in a number of American states, including Oklahoma, Texas, Michigan, Indiana, and South Carolina. Poland, a country that already has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe, voted to pass a bill imposing even more tough new restrictions. There are still many countries around the world that don’t allow abortion under any circumstances. The Dominican Republic doesn’t allow abortion even if the pregnant woman’s life is in danger: in 2012, a 16-year-old girl who was three weeks pregnant was denied treatment for leukaemia out of concern it might terminate the pregnancy. If a woman in El Salvador miscarries, she can be persecuted for aggravated homicide and sentenced to up to 40 years in jail. Political leaders and religious leaders continue to put the rights of the “unborn” before the rights of women, who remain, under these conditions, breeders, not human beings.
The Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, also known as the Istanbul Convention, is “the first instrument in Europe to set legally binding standards specifically to prevent gender-based violence, protect victims of violence, and punish perpetrators” and the first international treaty defining “gender” as “social roles, behaviours, activities, and characteristics that a particular society considers appropriate for women and men.” Despite the fact that the Convention is an effective way to coordinate policies and measures to combat violence against women throughout all European countries, when the treaty was submitted earlier this year, a number of governments and religious groups opposed it. Bulgaria and Slovakia voted against ratifying it, citing concerns that the treaty would threaten the traditional family structure and gender roles.
It might seem odd that, in these supposedly modern times, legislation and treaties aimed at protecting the lives and safety of women and children are up for debate. But the roots of society as we know it are steeped in centuries of women’s subordination — a subordination that continues to uphold men’s status, power, and privilege today.
In the earliest known law codes (the Enmetena and Urukagina cones of 2400 BC), we can see that violence against women was already institutionalized. One edict from those cones says, “If a woman speaks out of turn, then her teeth will be smashed by a brick.” Later, in 1700 BC, the most complete surviving example of the Mesopotemiam law code (the Code of Hammurabi) demonstrates the power the law gave men over women’s bodies. Marriages were arranged by fathers and because while it is clear who a baby’s mother is, but not necessarily who the father is, severe restrictions were placed on female sexuality. Women had social status only in relation to men, and too often they had to relinquish themselves on a sacrificial altar for the honour of their families’ men and social conventions.
In this centuries-old patriarchal culture, human beings are considered to be born with a predetermined sex role, meaning males are assumed to be “masculine” (dominant, rational, and aggressive, for example), and females to be “feminine” (nurturing, passive, and emotional, for example). Challenging these roles (commonly referred to as “gender”) is said to upset the “natural balance” society believes should exist between men and women, yet this “balance” manifests itself in decidedly harmful ways.
Domestic violence is a pertinent example. Indeed, the biggest risk factor for becoming a victim of domestic violence is to be born female. This violence can take the form of psychological, physical, sexual, financial, or emotional abuse, and too often it is when the victim tries to interrupt an abusive relationship that men retaliate. It is not uncommon for murder to be the final step in his ongoing abuse. In the United States, more than three women per day are murdered by their husbands or partners and in Europe, 50 women die per week as a result of domestic violence. More than 70 per cent of these murders happen after the woman leaves her abuser. In half of domestic violence homicides perpetrated by men against women in Australia, the murders took place within three months of the relationship ending.
It is perhaps due to advancements in women’s rights in recent decades that we are seeing an increasing culture of violence against and sexualization of females in popular culture, ranging from pop music to video games to social media to advertising. Today, women are told that being a sex object is empowering by the media as well as by liberal feminists. Indeed, accepting the objectification and pornification of the female body is treated as a necessary and progressive part of a modern, liberal society.
This year, at the 2018 British LGBT awards, Playboy was celebrated with an award in the brand or marketing campaign category because they featured a transgender “Playmate.” Queen Elizabeth II made Catherine Healy, a founding member of the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective, which lobbied New Zealand to decriminalize pimping, brothel-ownership, and buying sex, a dame. In the American documentary series, Hot Girls Wanted, a group of young women are interviewed about their experiences in the industry. They see pornography as a chance to earn money and to become powerful and famous. This distorted vision of sexuality is viewed by many as modern sex education. The fashion and music industries have embraced the mainstreaming of pornography and consequently the normalization of it in our daily lives, and the video game industry continues to produce games that objectify women and perpetuate rape culture.
We have normalized and accepted violence against women and girls for centuries now, and it is very much ingrained in our culture and society. While advancements have been made, institutions continue to follow familiar social and cultural norms, justifying the actions of perpetrators, and refusing to hold them accountable. Despite anti-sexual harassment laws won by feminists during the second wave, for example, women in various industries have continued to experience harassment and assault at the hands of men, all evidenced too clearly via the #MeToo movement. And while words like “rape culture” and “victim blaming” are now commonplace, we still see men blaming women and girls for their own victimization.
A few years ago, an Italian priest claimed women were to blame for the domestic violence they suffered because they failed to clean their houses and cook properly, wore tight and provocative clothing, and were too self-sufficient. In the last decade, politicians in India have minimized and justified their rape crisis by saying that rape is sometimes right, happens accidentally, and that women want it. Recently, in Canada, an incest victim was asked in court why she didn’t keep her legs together to avoid being raped. “You would agree with me then… all you had to do was clench your legs together and your pants would have been unable to move,” defence lawyer Krysia Przepiorka said in her cross-examination of the young woman.
As many as 14,000 women and 2,000 children are killed in Russia by male family members every year, but in 2017, Russian politicians and religious leaders pushed through a law decriminalizing beatings of wives or children that result in bruising or bleeding but not broken bones, in order to support “family tradition.” These crimes have become so normalized that Russians have a saying: “If he beats you, it means he loves you,” And when a woman does manage to escape an abusive man, she is often painted as somehow “bad,” crazy, or hysterical by the community, because a good woman would stay with her husband to keep the family together.
In this daily war against women, many women internalize misogyny to the point that they become the accomplices of their executioners. Men may be in charge, but women are often their soldiers.
Despite having no health benefits and, in fact, being dangerous to women’s health, FGM is generally performed by women in the name of honour and social acceptance. Girls and women who undergo this practice generally suffer long term physical, psychological, and emotional consequences for the rest of their lives. FGM is not a religious requirement, either — it is not mentioned in the Quran, the Bible, or the Torah. Rather,the most common reasons for practising FGM are to control women’s sexuality and their desire, to ensure women cannot engage in “inappropriate” sexual and social behaviour, and to make them valuble candidates for marriage.
Similarly, it’s not uncommon for women to participate in honour killing. In India, it is often mothers who kill their newborn infants because they were born female. In many poor countries, mothers will sell their daughters — sometimes when they are as young as seven or eight years old — into prostitution or other forms of slavery in order to survive. During a discussion at the European Commission, the Secretary-General of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Mr Angel Gurría, said, according to their research, “one in three women believe that violence against women is justified” [24:45].
The etymology of the word terrorism comes from the Latin terror, meaning, “fright, fear, terror,” and from terrēre, “to frighten, terrify.” The violence women and girls are subjected to under patriarchy does not only impact the individual females who suffer abuse, but it serves to keep all women and girls afraid. Systemic terror — women’s learned fear of male violence — functions as a socialization method, teaching females they are vulnerable to victimization and abuse from the time they are young, and that they must capitulate or be punished, too often by torture or death. No matter where in the world we live, women are afraid of men — whether those men are strangers on the street or on public transit, fathers or husbands, or other authority figures who use their power to exploit. As long as men’s violence is institutionalized, normalized, and internalized, women will not be able to escape it or hold men accountable. This pandemic violation of human rights is not just violence against women and girls, but terrorism against women and girls. Perhaps if we started referring to it as such, worldwide governments will finally understand this as a serious threat and take action.
Lidia Lidia is an artivist whose work seeks to analyze the impact of socio-cultural conditioning on women and girls.