Despite the many gains women have made in education, health and even political power in the course of a generation, violence against women and girls worldwide ‘persists at alarmingly high levels’, according to a United Nations (UN) analysis that secretary general Ban Ki-moon was scheduled to present to the UN General Assembly on Monday. Photo: AFP  (AFP )
Despite the many gains women have made in education, health and even political power in the course of a generation, violence against women and girls worldwide ‘persists at alarmingly high levels’, according to a United Nations (UN) analysis that secretary general Ban Ki-moon was scheduled to present to the UN General Assembly on Monday. Photo: AFP
(AFP )

UN reports ‘alarmingly high’ levels of violence against women

About 35% of women worldwide said they had experienced violence in their lifetime, whether physical, sexual, or both

United Nations: The evidence is ubiquitous. The gang rape of a young woman on a bus in New Delhi sets off an unusual burst of national outrage in India. Colleges in the US face mounting scrutiny about campus rape. In South Sudan, women are assaulted by both sides in the civil war. In Iraq, jihadis enslave women for sex.

Despite the many gains women have made in education, health and even political power in the course of a generation, violence against women and girls worldwide “persists at alarmingly high levels", according to a United Nations (UN) analysis that secretary general Ban Ki-moon was scheduled to present to the UN General Assembly on Monday.

About 35% of women worldwide said they had experienced violence in their lifetime, whether physical, sexual, or both, the report finds. One in 10 girls under the age of 18 was forced to have sex, it says.

The subject is under sharp focus as delegates from around the world gathered at the United Nations starting on Monday to assess how well governments have done since they promised to ensure women’s equality at a landmark conference in Beijing 20 years ago—and what to do next.

Since the Beijing conference, there has been measurable, though mixed, progress on many fronts, according to the UN analysis.

As many girls as boys are now enrolled in primary school, a sharp advance since 1995. Maternal mortality rates have fallen by half. And women are more likely to be in the labour force, though the pay gap is closing so slowly that it will take another 75 years before women and men are paid equally for equal work.

The share of women serving in legislatures has nearly doubled, too, though women still account for only 1 in 5 legislators. All but 32 countries have adopted laws that guarantee gender equality in their constitutions.

But violence against women—including rape, murder and sexual harassment—remains stubbornly high in countries rich and poor, at war and at peace. The UN’s main health agency, the World Health Organization, found that 38% of women who are murdered are killed by their partners.

Even as women’s groups continue to push for laws that criminalize violence—marital rape is still permitted in many countries—new types of attacks have emerged, some of them online, including rape threats on Twitter.

Where there are laws on the books, like ones that criminalize domestic violence, for instance, they are not reliably enforced.

The economic impact is huge. One recent study found that domestic violence against women and children alone costs the global economy $4 trillion.

“Overall, as you look at the world, there have been no large victories in eradicating violence against women," said Valerie M. Hudson, a professor of politics at Texas A&M University who has developed world maps that chart the status of women.

The vast majority of countries, by her metrics, do not have laws that protect women’s physical safety.

In some cases, the laws on the books are the problem, women’s rights advocates say. In some countries, like Nigeria, the law permits a man to beat his wife under certain circumstances. But even when laws are technically adequate, victims often do not feel comfortable going to law enforcement, or they are unable to pay the bribes required to file a police report.

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the executive director of the UN agency for gender equity and women’s empowerment—known as UN Women—said that for the laws to mean anything, governments around the world have to persuade their police officers, judges and medical personnel to take violence against women seriously.

“I am disappointed, I have to be honest," she said about the stubborn hold of violence against women. “More than asking for more laws to be passed, I’m asking for implementation."

According to Equality Now, an advocacy group that tracks laws pertaining to women, 125 countries specifically criminalize domestic violence. But so-called wife-obedience laws still remain in some places.

In some others, rapists can get off the hook by marrying those they assault.

Violence against women is often unreported. For instance, a study conducted in the 28 countries of the European Union found that only 14% of women reported their most serious episode of domestic violence to the police.

“Violence against women has epidemic proportions, and is present in every single country around the world," said Lydia Alpizar, executive director of the Association for Women’s Rights in Development, a global feminist group. “Yet it is still not a real priority for most governments."

Perhaps the biggest change in 20 years, say those who attended the 1995 Beijing conference, is that the subject is now front and centre in public discussion.

“There is actually a great deal more attention being paid today to violence against women," said Charlotte Bunch, a feminist scholar who attended the Beijing conference. “The truth is, it’s a complex issue that isn’t solved easily." ©2015/The New York Times

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