25 November is marked across the world as the International Day of Action against Violence against Women. Its origin lies in the death of three women political activists: the Mirabal sisters of the Dominican Republic. Four Mirabal sisters were active in the resistance to the then dictator, Trujillo, of whom three, Patria Maria and Minerva, were killed on 25 November 1960. In 1981 a meeting of Latin American Feminists determined that the anniversary of their deaths should be a day of action which would galvanise international efforts against violence against women. The United Nations followed suit in 1999, as it slowly woke to the global pandemic of such violence, by declaring it a day of action for the elimination of violence against women. Elimination is key here – not reduction but the ending of violence against women.
To end violence against women we have to have some appreciation of the nature and scale of the problem. Unfortunately we are endlessly creative about the ways in which we are prepared to harm women and girls, including: witch-hunting; child sexual abuse; trafficking; war time sexual slavery; child marriage, forced marriage, domestic violence, sexual assault, rape, stalking, acid throwing, female genital mutilation, ‘honour’ crimes and dowry-related violence. Nor is it the case that such forms of abuse are negligible. Globally, up to six out of every ten women experience physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime. Think about it: on average six of the next ten women you see, or sit with in a train or bus, meet with at work or college will at some point experience such abuse. A 1994 World Bank study on ten selected risk factors facing girls and women aged 16-44, found rape and domestic violence more dangerous than cancer, motor vehicle accidents, war and malaria.
But women’s experiences of violence have for generations been neglected, silence
Violence against women is an abuse of their rights: rights to have control over their own bodies and to live in safety. Violence against women became a human rights concern in the 1990s and in 1993 the United Nations created a new expert position to investigate and report on this. It has also since defined violence broadly, to include physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women whether in public or private life.d, belittled or ignored. In the 1970s women across the world started agitate about violence with some brave women speaking of their experiences and helping us to start to understand the harm, trauma and implications of such abuse. Activists also starting agitating for violence against women being recognised as crimes – for example, rape in marriage at that time was not really even acknowledged let alone criminalised.
In the UK we saw in the 1970s an eye-opening television documentary on the response of the police to rape reports and the establishment of the first refuge for women fleeing domestic violence. More recently the Rochdale case has shown us that young women and girls remain at great risk not only of being abused but of being disbelieved in their accounts. The law that criminalises female genital mutilation has not yet resulted in a single conviction yet we are aware that this form of abuse does happen in this country.
So there is much that still remains to be done in order to create a world in which women can control their bodies and know safety. Too many men still have to learn to respect the women in their lives and be public about their opposition to abuse. This is agenda that we must all share and the 16 days of action provide a prompt for us to join hands in this effort. They run from 25 November to 10 December every year, the last being human rights day. The 16 days are intended to link the issue of violence against women to quest for human rights for all and invite us to stand together against such abuse.
Dr Purna Sen is Labour’s PPC for Brighton Pavilion.
You can follow her on Twitter at @Purna_Sen