Gender Based Violence: An Expanded Definition and a Pessimistic Assessment

Jane Roberts

We must expand the definition of gender based violence and be realistic about efforts to curtail let alone eradicate it.

This paper contains only my own views and I in no way speak for the U.N. Population Fund. It is also written as food for thought for the conference on gender based violence to be put on by the United States National Committee for UNIFEM and the National Council for Research on Women on June 11 and 12, 2010 in New York.

Whether there is an epidemic of gender based violence now, which seems to be the prevailing view among knowledgeable people committed to its curtailment, or whether it has always been just as prevalent but without the communications technology to holler it to the world is debatable. I suppose it really doesn’t matter. What matters is how broadly we define it now, and depending on that definition how we deal with it.

The web site of the United Nations Population Fund lists 16 forms of gender based violence. “Violence against women takes many forms: sexual assault, child marriage, incest, wife beating, prostitution, female genital mutilation, dowry-related violence, trafficking, sexual violence during wars, femicide, sexual harassment, ‘honor’ killings, forced sterilization, date rape, pornography and bride kidnapping. Violence against women may also take many forms of psychological abuse, intimidation and harassment. All are unacceptable violations of human rights. Together they form a huge obstacle to gender equality and genuine human progress.”

My view is that psychological abuse, intimidation and harassment are as equally unacceptable as physical violence. In fact they may in some cases be worse. I believe there is a huge opening for scholarly research into the effects of the psychological abuse of women and of the psychological effects of gender inequality on women and on men.

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I would like to expand the definition of gender based violence. Maternal mortality, dying in the process of giving birth, is the ultimate gender based violence. This should not happen in the 21st century. It is just a question of priorities.

Gender inequality where the male model is preferred to the female is a form of violence. To hazard a guess I would say that perhaps sixty-five percent of pro-creating couples would prefer a boy baby at least for the first born. Is this psychological preference a form of gender-based violence? Yes, because when the girl baby appears, at least at first, the parents have a feeling of let-down. At some level, this must have an effect on the baby. And then think of the psychological and cultural ambiance that has made both parents prefer the son first.

We all know that there are 1 billion hungry people in the world today. Joan Holmes, the former head of The Hunger Project has stated: “In much of the developing world, a little girl eats last and least. She is up to three times more likely than boys to suffer malnutrition.”

After all she represents the future womb out of which will come future generations. From a biological perspective alone, shouldn’t she be well fed so that future generations will “come out” thriving? By not feeding the girl child, cultures are doing violence not only to the girl but to their own progeny.

We all know that equality of educational opportunity for girls and women is often lacking. Everyone everywhere is saying that education, particularly for girls, is the key to any acceptable future. I can think of no fate worse than illiteracy for its “disempowering” potential. And yet two-thirds of the illiterate people on the planet today are women and girls. When a girl learns how to read, and when she can go beyond elementary school to high school, then she marries “later”, “better” has fewer and healthier children, sends them to school, participates in the life of her community, and often earns income which garners respect. There is no form of violence more debilitating for the individual girl and for society in general than the mind-set that girls’ education is a waste of time and resources.

Think of the girls who have no opportunity to develop their hidden talents, to play outdoors, to fly the kite, to kick the ball, to play the flute. Million of girls lack these basic freedoms accorded to their brothers. This is gender based violence.The Economist, the weekly magazine had on its March 6, 2010 cover in big pink letters “Gendercide” with a pair of empty pink booties and the question “What happened to 100 million baby girls?” We all know what happened. They were aborted while in the womb, they were killed as newborns, or they were so severely neglected as children that they died. Aside from this violence for the victims, what does this say about the mothers who in most cases “went along”? What kind of psychological violence have they suffered in order to so devalue their own sex that they would destroy their own kind?

Sad to say also that destroying a baby girl is often an economic decision. “She will cost us money to feed and educate and she will only go to her husband’s family and benefit them. We will even owe a dowry to marry her off.”

And then there is the possibility of truly ironic gender based violence. An Indian couple has killed or allowed to die two girl children and made sure that their two sons survived. This couple represents millions of couples and therefore their two sons can find no wives. So the couple pays for the kidnapping of brides for their sons. And these “brides” are victims of trafficking either internal or external. So one form of gender based violence has lead to another.

I think I am particularly sensitive to the whole subject of child marriage. When I was 13 years old, I had NO idea of a man’s genital parts. I had NO idea what the sex act involved. I even had to ask my parents what this nice sensation was that I got every night from doing certain things. (This reminds me of the Westside Story song: “Something’s coming, I don’t know what it is, but it is going to be GREAT.”) If my family had announced that I would be marrying a man much older the next day and told me in general terms what would happen, I would have been terrified. This is a kind of terrorism. I do not use the term lightly. At the Global Health Council conference several years ago, the U.N. Population Fund showed a short video entitled “Too Brief a Child: Voices of Married Adolescents.” To me these girls had been violated, raped really, their futures stolen, and their voices were heartrendingly sad. Child marriage is tolerated by cultures, protected by religious leaders, for example by the chief cleric in Saudi Arabia, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdelaziz Al al-Sheikh, often driven by poverty, and to me ranks near the top of the gender based violence scale.

Now I want to become a little bit more controversial and expand the definition of GBV a bit more. In 1994 in Cairo, Egypt, at the International Conference on Population and Development, the world recognized “the basic right of all couples and individuals to decide freely and responsibly the number, spacing and timing of their children and to have the information and means to do so”. The financial commitments made by the target countries have not been kept. The financial commitments made by donor countries have not been kept. This constitutes violence against women. If there is one thing that does violence to a woman’s definition of herself, and of her ability to make choices for her life, it is an unwanted burdensome pregnancy. What makes matters worse is that she often has no control over her sexual life and no access to family planning. Often her husband and/or partner forbids its use. Two hundred million women lack access to what had been promised at Cairo. This is gender based violence committed by the world. This expands the definition of GBV.

Margaret Atieno, 38 years old from the Siaya district in rural Kenya, had six children and didn’t want any more. Her husband had two other wives and there were thirteen children in all. He was against the use of contraceptives. She went to a clinic and was told that an IUD could solve her problem but the clinic had run out. Before she could return to the clinic, she was pregnant again. This is violence against women. The Cairo Consensus promised the MEANS to plan one’s family. An IUD was the MEANS by which she was going to control her fertility. The shortage of family planning commodities all over the world is a form of gender based violence. There is no question whatsoever, with the present world power structure, that if men could get pregnant, an adequate supply of family planning commodities would be guaranteed. Certain religious persuasions oppose both access to family planning and to safe legal abortion. The most notable is the Catholic Church although conservative religious forces all over the world encourage population growth as a way to gain members, riches, and political power. Many hold to the man as being head of the household and the ultimate decision maker when it comes to the family. There is no logical reason why this should not be a shared responsibility. Whatever one’s religious persuasion, it is absolutely clear that certain religious teachings (take religiously sanctioned polygamy as another example) are harmful to women, perpetuate gender inequality, and even result in the deaths of women especially when it comes to the admonition to eschew family planning. It is estimated that the universal availability of family planning would prevent about seventy percent of the 500 million deaths in childbirth every year. Using the psychological threat of displeasing God to poor illiterate women who don’t know any better is the crassest kind of psychological violence. And it results in their deaths and injuries by the millions from pregnancies which should never have happened considering the woman’s health and welfare and from unsafe illegal abortions sought by more than 20 million women per year. Let’s call this what it really is: GENDER BASED VIOLENCE.

Abortion, from time immemorial, has been how women have dealt with an unwanted pregnancy. Every year, fully twenty percent of the two hundred million pregnancies end in abortion. That’s 40 million abortions of which half are illegal, unsafe, resulting in, at the very least, 70 thousand deaths and over 5 million cases of injury, hemorrhages and infections requiring medical attention. This is called post-abortion care for which PAC is the acronym.

One view, supposedly pro-life and usually inspired by religious convictions, seems to be that abortion is the greatest sin on earth, tantamount to murder, and that everything should be done to stop it. Underlying this is religiously based misogyny disguised as love.

The other view is that when faced with an ill-timed pregnancy, frequently due to a lack of access to family planning, abortion is just a normal part of human behavior, albeit often a reluctant choice of last resort. This view holds that women should be the decision makers and that women should not be forced to risk their very lives to do what they feel is right for themselves and/or their families. Good public policy would have abortion as a legal therefore safe alternative to compulsory childbearing.

With the world’s present balance of decision making power, if men could get pregnant, family planning would be universally available and abortion would be legal and safe everywhere. The present system is violence personified.

I have never in my life been aware of militant pro-lifers admonishing men to prevent abortion by the most obvious means. Men share equal responsibility with women for abortions that result from “not wanting a baby at this time.” women are screamed at, prosecuted, prayed for, and blamed. It was Eve who ate the apple. Only she is the embodiment of sin.

Millennium Development Goal 1 calls for reducing extreme poverty and hunger. Women represent two thirds of the more than one billion people in this category. So are not extreme poverty and hunger somewhat gender based? The world tolerates such figures perhaps because, well, it’s mostly women. And poverty leads to several of the kinds of gender based violence we are talking about such as child marriage, prostitution, human trafficking and dowry related violence.

Fully forty percent of the deaths of children under 5 every year (about 9 million) happen in their first month of life. It was a pregnancy that was too early in life, too late in life, too soon after a previous pregnancy to a woman suffering from anemia, mal-nutrition. Or maybe she had an obstructed labor and the baby died aborning. Millennium Development Goal 4 calls for reducing infant and child mortality by two-thirds. Millennium Development Goal 5 is Improve Maternal Health. Shouldn’t MDG 4 and 5 be switched? It seems to me that if you take care of mothers, mothers will take care of children. But taking care of children is “politically correct” whereas taking care of mothers is a bit dicey. It might have to do with sexuality. As I understand it, Target 2 of 5 “An unmet need for family planning undermines the achievement of several other Goals” (such as 1,2,3,4,6,7, and 8 i.e. all of them) was only added late in the process. Isn’t this violence in a broad context? And just imagine the pain and suffering of 9 million women (and men) whose babies or very young children die.

And the world seems to tolerate the fact that 2 million women, due to prolonged obstructed labor, are walking the earth with obstetric fistulas, dripping urine and/ or feces out of the wrong hole. If, with the present power structure, men were walking the earth with a similar condition, smelling badly and being ostracized because of childbirth injuries, obstetric fistulas would not exist.

So I think I have expanded the definition of GBV and would like your reaction.

One could make a very good case these days that it will be extremely difficult to curtail let alone eliminate gender based violence. Here is my pessimistic assessment. For me being pessimistic is being realistic. Why?

Because the U.N. Population Division predicts a world population of 9.1 billion people by 2050 up from 6.8 billion today. There are approximately 80 million more births than deaths every year with more than 95 percent of this population growth to come about in the poorest countries with the least capabilities for meeting the needs of their people for education, health, and health infrastructure such as sanitation. The numbers of poor will increase. Poverty leads to stress which leads to gender based violence.

Darfur at its roots was in part about land and water.  About one fifth of the people on earth live in water stressed areas where there is not enough clean water right now for humanity’s and nature’s needs.  During the next 40 years the scarcity of water will be a main reason for conflicts, killings, and gender based violence.

In the coming years climate change, which is sure to exacerbate issues of food and water security, will cause massive human displacement. Environmental refugees will abound.  Although these developments will affect us all, women particularly are vulnerable and their lives are made more difficult because it is often they who grow and prepare the food, fetch the water. In sudden natural disasters like floods, cyclones, tsunamis, fully 70 percent of those who die are women. They are not physically as strong and they try to rescue their children and the elderly which slows them down.

So in a way, in the abstract, the world’s inability and/or reluctance to deal with the long range issues of population, balancing population with resources, climate change, addiction to fossil fuels, deforestation, acidification of the oceans, chemical contamination, skewing of budgets to favor militarization over education and health, and ubiquitous corruption–all of this will have nefarious effects for every living thing on earth and for women in particular. We ignore this situation at our peril.

I believe there is a connection in countries between population growth (births over deaths) and total fertility rates (i.e. children per woman) and GBV.  Pakistan has a birth rate of 3.87 children per woman and its population is expected to grow from  180 million now to 335 million by 2050.  GBV is prevalent and will increase. Guatemala has a birth rate of 4.02 children per woman and the population is expected to increase from 14 million now to 27 million by 2050. GBV is prevalent now and will increase.  Africa’s population will increase from 1 to 2 billion people over the next 40 years with a total fertility rate in sub-Saharan Africa of nearly 5 children per woman. There is no chance that GBV will become less prevalent in Africa.  Many women in Africa believe it is a man’s right to hit or beat his wife. Scientists also say that Africa is the continent to suffer the most from climate change with droughts and floods and concomitant wars over resources, where rape will continue to be used as a weapon of war and where women will be particularly vulnerable to violence in refugee camps.

From my point of view, the United Nations, in the years to come, will become not much more than a crisis response and crisis management entity. In many instances it will fail. Crises will simply be too big to handle. And in a resource depleted world, which will result in an Every Man for Himself (as the saying goes) ethic, women will bear the brunt of the unwillingness of the powers that be to not only tell the truth about where we are headed now but to make the necessary decisions for the long term that could make life on earth at least halfway decent for all of life as we know it.

To rid the world of gender based violence we need gender equality in all realms. Stephen Lewis, former U.N. ambassador to Africa for AIDS has exhorted us: “I challenge you to enter the fray against gender inequality.  There is no more honorable or productive calling.  There is nothing of greater import in this world.  All roads lead from women to social change.”  We need individuals to change, governments to change, cultures to change, religions to change, laws to change, economies to change, consciousness and consciences to change.  No small order. We need a complete revolution in thinking and doing.

One possible obstacle to expanding the definition of GBV and to dealing with the   deeper issues would be that the coalition against GBV might be weakened by the withdrawal of support by certain individuals and/or interests.  Being against GBV as presently defined is SAFE!  We have to be realistic. We might not want to lose members of the anti GBV coalition by expanding the definition. An interesting discussion of this conundrum could take place.

From my point of view, what the National Committee for UNIFEM and NCRW will be engaged in at this June conference is both laudable and necessary. Every tool must be used to combat GBV. But quite honestly, if we don’t expand the definition and deal with the deep long term issues mentioned above, gender based violence will continue to wrack the planet and 40 years from now we will all be back to square one.

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