Violence against women

December 6th is National Day of Remembrance & Action on Violence Against Women. On this day in 1989, fourteen women were gunned down at the École Polytechnique in Montreal. This event has led to much debate over the issue of violence against women in Canada, leading the country to be one of the first to build memorials to remember women victims of domestic violence. I wrote about that day and listed their names on last year’s post about the event. You can watch a video here of an interview with Sylvie Gagnon, who survived a bullet in the head in that fateful day.

This time I would like to remind you that according to Statistics Canada, 600,000 women in common-law or marital relationships reported in 2004 that they were physically or sexually assaulted by their spouse. Half of Canadian women can expect to experience an act of physical or sexual violence in their lifetime.

In a poignant article in today’s Toronto Star (“End violence against all women”), Jasmeet Sidhu highlights the plight of immigrant women, who often come to Canada accompanying their husbands and whose ability to report an abusive spouses is limited by cultural, social, and economic circumstances. Immigration leaves them economically dependent on their spouses and away from the kinship groups or family-support networks to which they belonged in their native country. She asks that the government make more of an effort to reach out to these women and give them support that is sensitive to their cultural constraints.

In Ontario alone, over 20 women are killed every year by men with whom they had been intimately involved.

As Sidhu rightfully points out, violence against women is not simply a matter of women’s rights, it is a human rights’ issue. Lest we forget…

International Women’s Day

March 8th is International Women’s Day. This year’s event is devoted to ending violence against women and Denise, from Sindrome de Estocolmo, called for a collective posting on the issue to raise awareness. Since I’m in Spain at the moment, I decided to look into the issue of violence against women here, how does it compare to other countries in Europe and what has been done about it.

A 1994 study of ten selected causes and risk factors for disability and death among women between 15-44 years old has shown that rape and domestic violence rated higher than cancer, car accidents, war, and malaria. Imagine that! It kills or disables more women than cancer!
The Council of Europe has recently launched a campaign against domestic violence throughout Europe calling parliaments, governments and local authorities of the 46 member states to join forces with local and international NGOs to eradicate this pernicious crime. Currently, 12% to 15% of European women over 16 have suffered domestic abuse in a relationship and many have died.

The Council defines domestic violence as: “one of the most serious and pervasive forms of violence against women. It exists in all Council of Europe member states and occurs at all levels of society. Domestic violence is most often perpetrated by men against former or current intimate partners, although it is recognised that violence is also perpetrated by women and occurs in same-sex relationships. (…)
…the term ‘violence against women’ is to be understood as any act of gender-based violence, which results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion, or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life. This includes, but is not limited to, the following: a. violence occurring in the family or domestic unit, including, inter alia, physical and mental aggression, emotional and psychological abuse, rape and sexual abuse, incest, rape between spouses, regular and occasional partners and cohabitants, crimes committed in the name of honours, female genital and sexual mutilation and other traditional practices harmful to women, such as forced marriages.”

In Spain there is a Instituto de la Mujer, part of the Secretaría General de Políticas de Igualdad, which issued a comprehensive study on the issue of violence against women in Spain last year. According to this study, 3.6% of women in Spain over 18 declares having been victim of abuse during the last year by a person living in the same household. This percentage represents a total 677,352 women. A further 9.6% are considered “technically” abused, which represents a total 1,786,978 women. Not all is bad news – these numbers have improved in recent years. The first used to be 4% in 2002 and the second came down from 11.1% (2002). In 1999 the figues were 4.2% and 12.4%. In Catalunya the percentage of abused was 12.1% (1999), 9.7% (2002) and 8.9% (2006).

Over 75% of abuse is caused by the woman’s partner – whether husband, fiancée, boyfriend or ex. Over 66% of women declare having been suffering abuse for more than five years.

In 2006, 68 women were killed in Spain by their partner or ex-partner. So far, 3 women were killed in Catalunya this year, the latest being Mercedes Molina from the town of Badalona who was burned alive by her husband. She was 58 years old.
To celebrate International Women’s Day, the Catalan government has announced a new law to fight domestic violence. There are two main changes to the current law:

  • official charges will no longer be necessary to guarantee a woman’s protection and access to juridical & social services. This was brought forward by the fact that only 30% of the women killed by their partner had previously denounced them to the authorities.
  • government officials will take in consideration only the woman’s income when granting the right for free legal services; this decision used to be based on the family’s income which prevented many women abused by their husbands who were nevertheless economically dependent to have access to legal counsel and other services.

I haven’t been here for long but I can say that the issue is discussed continuously on the media. A new law came into effect in 2004 to deal with the issue and while I don’t have the specifics on the impact it has been having, people are always calling on the government to closely monitor its effects and update what isn’t working. A sign of this is the new law being proposed here in Catalunya. I can say that there is at least awareness of the problem and with awareness will come a higher sensitivity and less tolerance towards those who commit these kinds of crimes.

Women in both Spain and Catalunya seem to be highly organized and vocal. Hopefully the numbers of women killed/abused will recede even more in the upcoming years.

Some links:

International Women’s Day 2007

Combating Violence Against Women: Stocktaking study – very thorough study listing recommendations and monitoring what individual European countries have done to tackle the issue.

Status of Women Canada – International Women’s Day in Canada


If you have a blog, join us in this “group posting” about International Women´s Day. Write something about March 8th, women, gender violence, or simply post about local events associated with the day on your blog. You can also post a picture, a poem…  If you do, let me know! 

Dec 1st: World AIDS Day

The second date in the sixteen-day period that mark the campaign against gender violence is World AIDS Day.
In 2000, heads of states around the world promised to stop the epidemic by 2015.  Yet, 65 million people  around the world are infected with the HIV virus and according to health organizations around the world, this number keeps growing. Last year we heard Stephen Lewis deliver the final of the Massey Lectures, entitled Race Against Time, that deals precisely with the problem of the pandemic in Africa. I urge anybody who hasn’t read the lectures yet, to do so. They were collected and published in a book of the same name. The situation throughout the continent is desperate. A whole generation is being wiped out. In many places, there are only children and their grandparents left. Women are being infected in disproportionate numbers, often by their own husbands. Lewis mentions a visit he made to a village in Africa. After he gave his speech, teaching kids about prevention, one young girl raised her hand. She said the boys at her school were always on her case to have sex but she refused them. Her answer was simple: “I don’t want to die”.

That lecture was one of the few moments I felt proud of Brazil as state. Still back in the late 1980s Brazil made a serious commitment towards prevention and treatment. The prevention campaign is ubiquituous and intensify in periods of “risk” such as carnival. It involves education campaigns, distribution of free condoms to prostitutes, etc. Treatment includes full access to the drug cocktails free of charge. Obviously this means the program is super expensive and Brazil has played a leading role in pressuring American drug companies in lowering their prices for HIV drugs. Yet, it has worked. While the numbers keep growing across the world, they are starting to recede in Brazil.

For more about World AIDS Day and what you can do to help the world keep its promise, take a look at these:

Stephen Lewis Foundation

Give a Day of your work to help – a doctor in Ontari, Canada started a movement that initially involved 50 doctors but which now involves hospitals across the country. They each donate their income on World AIDS Day as doctors to an AIDS foundation. The idea is now to spread the concept over to different professions.

World AIDS Day site

UNAIDS – Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS

Nov 25th: International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women

Violence against women persists in every country in the world as a pervasive violation of human rights and a major impediment to achieving gender equality. Such violence is unacceptable, whether perpetrated by the State and its agents or by family members or strangers, in the public or private sphere, in peacetime or in times of conflict. … [A]s long as violence against women continues, we cannot claim to be making real progress towards equality, development and peace. —In-Depth Study on All Forms of Violence against Women: Report of the Secretary-General, 2006

Yesterday was International Day for the Eliminatio of Violence Against Women and the beginning of a period of 16 days chosen by women of 130 countries around the world to bring out awareness of the issue. Why 16 days? Because the period between Nov 25th and Dec 10th is marked by several important events in this fight:

Nov 25th: International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. This day was chosen because it was on this day in 1960 that the Mirabel sisters, three women who had the courage to oppose the dictatorship of Trujillo in the Dominican Republican, were murdered.

Dec 1st: World AIDS Day. Established by the World Health Organization in 1988 to focus attention on this world epidemic.

Dec 6th: École Polytechnique Massacre. On this day in 1989 a gunman breaks into an Engineering school in Montreal and kills 14 women before killing himself. The day became a hallmark for the fight against gender violence.

Dec 10th: International Human Rights Day. Celebrates the adoption by the UN in 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in response to crimes committed by the Nazis against Jews, homosexuals, Roma, communists, etc and the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the US.

Denise Arcoverde, from the blog Sindrome de Estocolmo and creator of the NGO Grupo Origem, made a public plea that we all say something about it during the next 16 days to create, hopefully, a bit more awareness. I felt compelled to answer so expect a post on each of those dates during the next 16 days… It would help if any of you in the blogosphere remember those dates, even if it is just one post during the next couple of weeks.

Around the world, violence against women is a major cause of death and disability among women aged 16-44 years of age. As an UN report points out, it is as serious a factor as cancer and a greater cause than traffic accidents and malaria combined. Here in Spain the issue is in every major newspaper. Over 60 women have been killed by their partner or former partner this year alone. Many had restraining orders issued against their attacker.

The numbers probably pale in comparison with places like Brazil, where over 200 are killed in one city alone, but it is intolerable nonetheless. The positive side of all of this is that people are talking about it. It seems most people I talk to are aware and concerned about it. They seem to agree that as long as women are in an inferior position, things like this will go on. But judging from the cases mentioned in the newspapers, it seems to me that many cases of violence against women are caused not so much by the woman’s inferior position but by the inability of certain men to accept their wive’s equal position within society and their marriage. While women’s rights and position have improved by leaps and bounds during the past 50 years, much within our societies has still to catch up with this change. Most women’s work is still of the underpaid, undervalued category, and many men (and women) still see women as inferior and treat them accordingly.

I think the first phase of women’s rights’ movements across the world involved, to a large extent, convincing women themselves of their rights and their equality. I think our governments and society now need to convince the men of that fact. We also need to admit that women are not equal to men. We are different. We are equal as human beings. We are equal perhaps in terms of capabilities. But we are different. It’s not enough to guarantee access to jobs and schools.  We also need a flexible workplace  that allows women who have children to consiliate their roles as mothers with their jobs. We need accessible childcare services so that single women can manage a family on their own. We need our law-enforcement services to adopt a zero-tolerance policy regarding violence against women. The list goes on. As the UN secretary-general said, our path towards peace, equality and development will be marred as long as violence against women persists. And violence against women will persist until our society fully embrace women’s rights and contributions.

Some sites on the issue:

Human Rights Watch: Women’s Rights – Latest news and campaigns regarding women’s rights around the world.

Instituto de la Mujer – Spanish government organ dealing with women’s issues. Provides many statistics regarding violence against women in Spain and the rest of Europe.

No más violencia contra las mujeres – Spanish site developed by Amnisty International.

Stop violence against women – Also by Amnisty International. Dedicated to the 16 days of activism to stop domestic violence.

Women’s Human Rights Resources Programme –  Located at the University of Toronto, Canada. Contains a database of legal resources related to international women’s rights as well as specific Canadian cases.

Not a minute more – Site devoted to the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women created by UNIFEM (United Nations Development Fund for Women).