The Year of Violence

The Chinese are known to name each year of the calendar after an animal - year of the horse, monkey, and so on. If the women of the world were to attribute one letter of the English alphabet to each year, 2002 would be "the Year of V" - for violence.

Throughout the past twelve months, reports of gender-linked violence have been in the headlines worldwide. Women of all income groups, regardless of religious affiliation, have been targeted.

Consider this sampling of global happenings:

The year began with 30-year-old Amina Lawal being arrested in Nigeria on 14th January 2002, on a charge of "adultery", and sentenced to death by stoning. The sentence created a worldwide furore, with thousands of human rights activists and sympathisers joining a "Say No to Death by Stoning" petition via the internet.

Married at 14 and divorced two years ago, Amina was enticed into an affair by a man who promised marriage but ditched her after she became pregnant. He has gone scot free because of "lack of evidence" regarding adultery, whereas Amina, being female, bore the telltale signs of the affair in the form of pregnancy and the birth of a child. Nigeria's Constitution prohibits discrimination on grounds of sex. The country is also a signatory to the international convention against torture, the universal declaration on fundamental rights, and the UN's CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women) passed 23 years ago. Amina was of course, not the only woman to be thus penalised. Another Nigerian, Safiya, had a similar sentence of death by stoning passed on her for "immoral behaviour". Morality continues to be, universally, a greater imposition on females than on males.

In England, a mother of five, Patricia Amos was jailed in May, for "failing to ensure that her two teenage daughters attended school regularly". The family, including the daughters, was upset and depressed following the sudden death of the grandmother who used to look after the girls while Patricia was out working. No one, from the court, or the social services, bothered about who would look after the two young, vulnerable daughters - whose schooling they were so concerned about - while the mother served her prison term. How many fathers get thrown in jail for failing to ensure that their progeny attend school regularly? "Not my job," said one father who was asked for comments. "It's the mother's job. I am too busy earning to keep the family fed." Well, so was Patricia!

England loses one billion pounds a year, (278 million pounds in London alone - so this is not just a rural, low class phenomenon) in health service bills and lost work hours caused by domestic violence. One in four women say they have faced domestic violence at some point in their married

In Pakistan, a global internet news service of the UN Foundation says 461 women died in "honour killings" during 2002, in just two provinces - Punjab and Sind, up from 372 last year. If the conservative Baluchistan and NorthWest Frontier provinces were included, the figure may well be higher. "Perpetrators of honour killings are not treated as murderers," says Kamla Hayat of Pakistan's Human Rights Commission.

In Ireland, women just barely managed to block a national referendum in March, which would have made a woman liable to a jail term for up to 14 years for attempting abortion, even if the pregnancy was the result of rape. A mere 10,000 votes separated the proposal from becoming law, testifying to the strong and violent feelings against women's rights and autonomy over their own bodies.

To the dismay of women activists worldwide, the Bush administration in the US has "undone all the progress on women's healthcare and reproductive rights made at the Cairo conference in 1994". At the recent Bangkok meet of the Asian and Pacific conference on Population, it backtracked on a commitment that was signed by 179 countries eight years ago, to grant women control over their reproductive rights. The health rights women won at Cairo now stand seriously threatened. The Bush administration has also cut overseas aid as "punishment" for countries that support abortion.

Worldwide, one woman dies every minute (over half a million annually) of pregnancy related causes. No man ever dies of health complications because he fathered a child. The US stance amounts to saying, "Let 'em die, women are meant for men to impregnate."

Women in Afghanistan were hailed as "liberated" after the fall of the Taliban government, which had imposed draconian restrictions on females. Now comes a report from RAWA (Afghan Women's Rights Organisation) that "nothing has changed for the oppressed", and that human rights violations continue, except for cosmetic changes like being allowed to venture outdoors or uncover one's face. The Maternal Mortality Rate is a horrendous 1600 per 100,000 live births, compared to single digit figures in the developed countries, and around 65 in India.

Malawi manifests another version of violence - with AIDS claiming a large number of males, the widows' properties and inheritance are being seized by the deceased husband's families, leaving the woman and their children out on the streets. Even when there are legal wills, such deprival of widows is "not uncommon", says Seodi White, Malawi's National Coordinator of Women and Law (WLSA).

A Nigerian widow, Oby Nwankwo, made news in December because she dared to protest against punitive widowhood rites (shaving the head, not being allowed to bathe for seven days, eating from a broken pot, forced to stay in the same room with the corpse) that are still imposed. Oby is herself a magistrate and activists are lobbying for the enactment of a law prohibiting such rites, at least in Enugu State of the country.

In Nepal, refugee women of Bhutanese origin have complained of sexual assault by aid workers, and an investigation is currently on.

In Cambodia, the Women's Development Association (CWDA) has recently brought out a report about police violations of sex workers' human rights. Sex workers are universally seen as contemptible even if statistics show that many of them - 24 per cent, in this Cambodian study - were sold into prostitution unwittingly (and unwillingly). And many more are forced into prostitution in order to feed their families. Often after they are abandoned by husbands, who go scot free.

Women and girl children were major victims of the gory violence in India's western state of Gujarat. And raw violence was manifest in the focus on rape cases around the country, most recently in the heart of the capital itself, following which the spotlights have been turned on how pervasive this form of violence is, even in metropolises.

Despite a supreme court ruling of May 2001 banning the use of ultrasound scanners for prenatal diagnostic tests, female foeticide continued to hit the headlines during 2002, the affluent states of Punjab and Haryana showing a steep decline in the sex ratio. A workshop in Bangalore on 23rd November revealed the worrisome trend in south Indian states as well, which had not been known for severe gender discrimination like Bihar or UP. Districts like Kodagu and Kasargod showing a steep fall in the sex ratio for the age group 0-6 years, thanks to sex determination tests becoming available even in villages (some progress!). "Relentless lobbying by radiologists" is cited as one of the reasons for the proliferation of ultrasound facilities in the hinterland areas.

Prosperity and education thus, promise no respite for women from the violence that assaults the female in diverse forms. Only in socio-cultural shifts does any hope lie, of a move towards gender equity.  


More by :  Sakuntala Narsimhan

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