Tipping point?

Ian Beales

After a series of horrific assaults that shocked the world, international outrage could at last be aiding the UN’s campaign for women’s equality.

Over the centuries, man’s inhumanity to man has seldom been more starkly systemic than when expressed as man’s inhumanity to women. That’s not just an historical truism – it’s a current reality. Gender violence on a scale that would have blackened the dark ages is a raging pandemic that continues to shame the 21st century.

An unrelentingly grim series of statistics (see Decode panel) from UN Women suggests as many as 60 percent of women worldwide face physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. Up to half of all sexual assaults are against girls under the age of 15.

If the statistics are shocking, the evidence is grotesque and all around us. In Pakistan, Malala Yousafzai, aged 15, is shot in the face by a Taliban gunman for daring to espouse the cause of education for girls. In New Delhi, a 23-year-old physiotherapy student dies after a horrific gang rape on a bus, which shocks the world. In Ohio, high school students use cell phones to film the rape of a 16-year-old girl too drunk to prevent it.

There seems little here to prompt hope, let alone dancing in the streets. Yet, in the months since these attacks, there have been both.

Shockwaves from the New Delhi gang rape helped to generate a surge of support for One Billion Rising, the global campaign against gender violence, led by Eve ‘Vagina Monologues‘ Ensler, and her organisation V-Day, attracting huge crowds worldwide to flash dancing rallies on St Valentine’s Day.

It is a curious, but undoubtedly potent, combination of sex, violence and rock ‘n’ roll that has caught the global imagination and won influential support at the UN headquarters in New York, where the campaign was backed by Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and UN Women’s Executive Director Michelle Bachelet.

John Hendra is UN Women’s deputy Executive Director for Policy and Programme, responsible for leading its global policy and identifying its future objectives across the range of women’s rights. He is an old UN hand: cautious, measured and doesn’t sound like a natural flash dancer. But even before Valentine’s Day, he was seeing seeds of hope in the international reaction to the Indian murder, the Ohio rape and the shooting of Malala Yousafzai.

“I think this could be a tipping point,” he says.

Engaging civil society in the campaign for equal rights is a central feature of UN Women’s strategy. Hendra sees this as an opportunity to maximise public awareness, help persuade women to report violence, change entrenched views and to win support from men and boys for re-calibrating old attitudes.

“Violence against women and girls is not a new pandemic. It is a deeply rooted and entrenched phenomenon with a long history,” he says. “What is new is the – perhaps historic – focus we are now seeing on ending violence against women. Breaking the silence is a very positive and important step in the right direction.”

So when Hendra describes the epidemic of gender violence, he is careful to identify causes, rather than to apportion blame or guilt. He won’t be drawn into arguments over the particular problems of patriarchal societies or cultural or economic backwaters. The problem is global, he says.

Gender inequality is strongly correlated to societies with high levels of fragility and conflict – including scarce economic resources. There is a vicious cycle: austerity intensifies household pressure, which can spark violence that cannot be adequately handled by social services whose funding has also been cut.

“We also see very significant problems in countries that are experiencing economic progress and which have modern and stable institutions – the recent terrible events in India are just one example. Developed countries such as the US and UK also have significant gender gaps and are not yet dealing adequately with violence against women. So I do not believe that we can single out one factor, such as religion or tradition, as a pre-eminent cause of gender inequality.”

In that, Hendra is supported by conflicting statistics on gender violence, which – as they are calculated to differing values – are often misleading. After the Indian gang rape, the media quickly branded New Delhi as rape capital of the world. Within weeks, that title had been applied to New York – home of UN Women – Los Angeles and London. Another statistic puts Sweden, often seen as a model for modern progressive society, at the top of the list.

Hendra looks forward, rather than back. He has a pivotal role in identifying post 2015 development goals to replace the frequently criticised Millennium Development Goals, which did not, for example, specifically embrace gender violence. While he defends the MDGs as having achieved much, he wants the new objectives to be more sharply defined and targeted. This time, gender violence will be a priority.

However, that struggle will not be fought in the UN, or in the citadels of government or state agencies, but in city streets, village communities, offices, factories, homes – and indeed bedrooms – around the world.

It will be won in the hearts and minds of men and boys, many of whom are deeply opposed to violence.

“We have to target men of all ages and backgrounds to rethink ideas of masculinity and discriminatory norms,” says Hendra. “What’s more, it’s especially important that we engage men and boys in efforts to end violence against women.”

This includes supporting initiatives to involve men in family planning and equal parenting, as well as encouraging them to stand up against gender violence. In some societies, it will be a new concept, but as public reaction to the Indian rape indicated, it need not be alien. John Hendra has another appeal to men that perhaps has echoes of earlier concepts of male values. He quotes Archbishop Desmond Tutu: “I call on men and boys everywhere to take a stand against the mistreatment of girls and women. It is by standing up for the rights of girls and women that we truly measure up as men.”

Whisper it softly, but could the secret weapon in the renewed campaign against gender violence be a return to chivalry, 21st century style?


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