70% of women will be sexually abused at some point in their lives. Middle Eastern countries have a particular responsibility to revert that trend, as their societies remain plagued by discriminatory laws and traditional practices against women. Kamilia Lahrichi reports from the UN headquarters in New York.
When she was 7, Teri was abused by her uncle. She did not tell her parents because she was convinced that it was her fault.
At 17, she finally found the courage to write in her diary what had happened and gave it to her mother to read.
Her parents admitted they had suspected something was going on but they were burdened by confusion so they did not say anything.
A few years later, Teri read in the newspaper that a woman from her hometown wrapped her head in a towel and shot herself. In her suicide note, she wrote that Teri’s uncle had molested her.
Ms. Teri Hatcher is today a renowned American actress. She spoke of “the dangers of silence” at the United Nations headquarters in New York on November 25, 2014. It is the U.N. Official Commemoration of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.
It is the first of 16 days of activism to gather support for the cause.
Estimates set out that one in three women on the planet experienced physical or sexual violence at home. In addition, 70% of women will be sexually abused at some point in their lives.
“It only makes me one of three who were forced to accept violence as part of their life story,” said Ms. Hatcher. “This is a statistic that has to change.”
She explained that “one of in three women should not feel afraid to come forward and report because they think they will not be believed or taken seriously.”
The truth is that “we foster a society where the abuser continues to abuse,” pointed Ms. Hatcher.
International commitment to end gender-based violence
“Violence against women and girls is a global pandemic that destroys lives and communities and hinders development,” said Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the U.N. during the conference. He was coined “the most feminist Secretary-General the U.N. has ever had.”
Mr. Ban reaffirmed the importance to abide by the Security Council resolution 1325 on women, peace and security. It stresses the need to protect women from rape and other sexual abuses in situations of armed conflict.
“One in three women on the planet experienced physical or sexual violence at home”
Yet, much effort is needed to ensure gender equality, especially in war-torn regions like the Middle East.
Ms. Lana Nusseibeh, Permanent Representative of the United Arab Emirates to the U.N. warned against the risk to politicize gender-related violence and confine it to a specific culture, religion, socio-economic environment or group of women.
“When half of the world population has to live in fear (…) it is a problem for all of us,” she said. “Besides, whatever the progress we make at the national level, it is sadly a global problem requiring a global answer,” she added.
Ms. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of U.N. Women explained that “no country, no culture, no woman – young or old – is immune to this human rights violation.”
The Middle East is not immune
Discriminatory laws and traditional practices in the Middle East have worsened women’s situation and perpetuated gender-based violence usually by their own family members.
A 2013 report on female genital mutilation and cutting by the U.N. Children’s Fund found that more than 133 million girls and women have suffered from this custom in the 29 Middle Eastern and African nations that practice it.
Additionally, honor killing is another prevalent aspect of Middle Eastern and African societies. UNFPA estimates that 5,000 women are victims of this practice every year in the world.
Child marriage too is a critical issue related to violence against women. In Afghanistan, for instance, 40% of women are married by 18, compared with 21% in the Palestinian Territories and 17% in Egypt and Iran.
This problem threatens women’s health and thwarts their participation in society because child brides are vulnerable to sexually transmitted infections and are unlikely to get a proper education.
There is also increasingly high numbers of Syrian refugee girls forced into marriage in Jordan.
“Every girl has the right to be a girl, not a bride,” said Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, Executive Director of the U.N. Population Fund at the U.N. conference.
Finally, rape has routinely been a weapon of war. “From Syria to Iraq to South Sudan to Central African Republic and regions ravaged by conflict and natural disasters,” women’s safety and health are even jeopardized, he explained.
Getting men into the picture
“Men and boys are finally taken their praise as partners in this battle,” said Mr. Ban, in reference to the He For She campaign launched earlier this year at the U.N. It aims to mobilize one billion men and boys to end gender inequality.
“The cycle cannot be broken without involving men because violence against women is not a woman’s issue. It is a public issue,” said Ms. Ayla Göksel, Chief Executive Officer of Mother Child Education Foundation, a Turkish non-governmental organization that empowers men and women through family-based education.
Notwithstanding that gender-based violence does not come from a particular region, Dr. Gustavo Jalkh, President of the Judicial council of Ecuador, shed light on the correlation between violence against women and the prevalence of machismo cultures in patriarchal societies of Latin America as well as the Middle East.
“Men’s fear is the source of violence against women,” he said. “We need to ask every violent man: what are you afraid of?”
Engaging civil societies
A key step to eliminate violence against women is to engage civic organizations. “Civil society has a responsibility to uphold human rights and ensure justice and safety,” said Dr. Osotimehin.
In Morocco, for example, Article 475 of the penal code allowed a rapist to dodge jail if he married his underage victim. The law was amended in January 2014 after NGOs mobilized and called for the annulation of the law.
They gathered momentum when a 16-year old teenager committed suicide after she was forced to marry a man who had allegedly raped her. Her parents had forced her to get married to protect the family’s honor.