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     Volume 4 Issue 22 | November 26, 2004 |

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Food For Thought

The Price of Apathy

Farah Ghuznavi

Every year, March 8 sees a flurry of activity around issues related to gender equality and women's rights. Thinkers and social activists meet to discuss persistent inequalities in women's access to resources such as education and health, and their unequal representation in the public sphere, in government and positions of power. Amidst a general consensus that recent decades have seen some improvements, there is agreement that much work remains to be done. And yet, this burst of activity is usually followed by a gradual levelling off - until International Women's Day comes around again! It is hard to understand why. After all, the problems related to gender inequality -- greater poverty of female headed households, limited access of girls and women to basic resources and the unequal treatment of women within the household and society, to name but a few, remain omnipresent for the rest of the year.

Inequality between the sexes is most clearly reflected in the widespread global prevalence of violence against women (VAW), carried out by individuals, communities, and even the state. Most people feel genuine revulsion towards the manifestations of VAW, which range from physical violence (beatings, dowry demands, domestic violence, murder etc), to sexual violence (rape, harassment, molestation, abduction etc) to the less visible but equally damaging phenomenon of emotional violence (threats, humiliation, cruelty etc). And yet, despite what we are taught is normal behaviour, (i.e. the absence of such violence), perhaps the most shocking thing is how very common such violence is. A simple statistic which illustrates this is the World Health Organisation 2002 report on violence, which estimates that around 70 per cent of female murder victims are killed by their male partners.

Amnesty International recently launched a major campaign on violence against women, finally granting this terrible human rights abuse the attention that it deserves, and terming it "the greatest human rights scandal of our time". That such a campaign is being initiated, on a long-term basis, by an organisation like Amnesty is a sign that VAW is finally being recognised as a mainstream problem rather than an isolated occurrence. Equally importantly, it is being recognised as a common problem that we all have a responsibility to address, rather than being seen as a "women's issue", as it has often been considered in the past. Violence Against Women is a social problem, and as such, must be addressed by society as a whole, individually and collectively.

The aim of the campaign is not to "blame" men as perpetrators, but to condemn the act of violence, and this is important to bear in mind. In any case, it is not the perpetrators alone who are responsible for such violence, but also the silent majority of us who choose to remain disengaged from the situation. It is this apparent indifference that allows a climate of impunity to flourish. We need to remember that the victims of violence are our mothers, sisters, daughters and friends, whether we ourselves are men or women. And similarly, that the perpetrators of violence are often people that we know, whether or not we are aware of what they are doing. Sometimes, sadly enough, the reason that we don't know is because we don't want to know. As the title of the Amnesty report clearly states, we have to stop violence against women, because it's in OUR hands.

Violence against women destroys lives. Not only the lives of those who are victims, but also of those who commit the violence (who may themselves be damaged from such experiences). Not only the lives of those who experience it directly, but also of those who are forced to see it happen without being able or willing to intervene. Not only the lives of the protagonists, but also of their children, and perhaps even their children's children. One British violence survivor described how her husband walked into a family gathering and slapped her repeatedly, for no apparent reason. Their two-year-old son, sitting on her lap, burst into tears saying "Sorry, sorry, sorry". As she said, "I think that sums up the impact on children, they take it all on board. Even at two years old he was thinking it was something to do with him."

At the launch event for the Amnesty Stop VAW campaign, a number of people spoke passionately and movingly about the phenomenon of violence against women, about the wide-ranging forms it takes, and above all, about the incredibly high price that individuals and society pay for such violence. One such speaker was China Keitetsi, who was kidnapped at the age of eight and made a child soldier in the Ugandan rebel army in the 1980s.

Despite the fact that she had no doubt told her story many times, she was unable to control her tears as she described yet again, how at the age of 15, she had lost count of the number of men who had imposed themselves on her body. The army demanded that the girls fight as soldiers, but they also had to make themselves available to any soldier who wanted to sleep with them. And yet, when the girls got sick or became pregnant, they were told that they were shameful, and that they should hide themselves. In order to survive the horror of that experience, China explained how she had been forced to see her body as something separate from herself -- to distance herself from what was being done to her body. Against her will, she became a mother at the age of 14, and again when she was 18. Her son was fathered by her commanding officer, and her daughter by whom, she had no idea -- "It could be any man", she said.

Perhaps most heartrendingly of all, she spoke of how the UN subsequently brought her to Denmark, as a refugee, telling her that she would have her childhood back again. She was glad to see how happy and protected the little girls in Denmark were, in stark contrast to her own lost childhood and the brutal reality of war. "Sometimes I feel as if I am 6 years old, and sometimes as though I am 100 years old because of all that I have seen", China said sadly. But once in Denmark, she also found it very hard to be around Danish children, because she wanted to BE like them, to understand what it was like to have a family, to be happy, to live without blood on your hands. And because she could not have that, because it was too late for her, she now feels that what would make her truly happy would be to know that no little girl will ever have to go through what she and her comrades have suffered.

Yet looking around the world today, it seems that China's dream is further away from reality than ever. Not only with regard to the issue of the ever-growing numbers of child soldiers, refugees and victims of conflict, but also in the apparent epidemic of physical, mental and sexual violence against children. There is enough evidence of this in Bangladesh with the recent spate of shocking cases of rape, abduction and abuse of children.

A more familiar story, but an equally powerful one, came from the testimony of Patrick Stewart, the actor (perhaps best known for his roles as Captain Picard in "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and Professor Xavier in "The X-Men"). Stewart spoke of how his father, a decorated war hero, took out his frustrations on his long-suffering wife, while his children watched on helplessly. Although decades have passed since these events took place, Stewart's pain was obvious as he described how he had seen the blows, heard the screams, and helped to clean up the blood after each of these scenes. His frustration was evident, as he spoke of how society chose to blame his mother, who was in no way responsible, for the violence that was visited upon her. Although his father had never physically hit him or his siblings, they all felt that they had been profoundly emotionally damaged from these experiences. Once again, he emphasised that preventing such violence is a responsibility that must be borne by all of society.

Listening to these stories, I couldn't help thinking about the words of Pastor Martin Niemoeller (a victim of the Nazis), who said, "First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out -- because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the Communists and I did not speak out -- because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out -- because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for me -- and there was no one left to speak out for me." If we do not act now to raise awareness about violence against women, and take measures to prevent it, nothing will ever change. And for those who are not directly suffering as a result of such violence that is still no reason not to act, because our silence effectively ensures our complicity. No decent man or woman can afford such inaction, because the price of silence is too high. And it is a price that is paid for in blood and tears. It is worth remembering that, next time, it could be someone that you or I know and love-- our friend or relative -- who pays that price. Is that a risk we can afford to take?



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