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afrol.com, 21 September - At least one in every three women has been beaten, coerced into sex, or abused in some other way, usually by an intimate partner or family member, according to a new report by the United Nations Population Fund, UNFPA. In Africa, domestic violence, rape and other sexual abuse and female genital mutilation are of special concern.
Documenting the extent of the problem, The State of World Population 2000 report says that gender-based violence constitutes a life-long threat for hundreds of millions of girls and women around the world. Gender-based violence - in various forms including rape, domestic violence, "honour" killings and trafficking in women - exacts a heavy toll on mental and physical health. Increasingly, gender-based violence is recognized as a major public health concern and a serious violation of basic human rights.
The problem seems worst in Asia and in the Muslim world. However, African women are subject to a range of oppressive threats.
Violence against women and girls takes many forms:
At least 60 million girls who would otherwise be expected to be alive are "missing" from various populations, mostly in Asia, as a result of sex-selective abortions, infanticide or neglect;
Studies suggest domestic violence is widespread in most societies and is a frequent cause of suicides among women;
Rape and other forms of sexual violence are increasing. Many rapes go unreported because of the stigma and trauma associated with them and the lack of sympathetic treatment from legal systems. Estimates of the proportion of rapes reported to authorities vary — from less than 3 per cent in South Africa to about 16 per cent in the United States;
Two million girls between ages 5 and 15 are introduced into the commercial sex market each year;
At least 130 million women have been forced to undergo female genital mutilation or cutting; another 2 million are at risk each year from this degrading and dangerous practice;
So-called "honour" killings take the lives of thousands of young women every year, mainly in Western Asia, North Africa and parts of South Asia. At least 1,000 women were murdered in Pakistan in 1999.
Many cultures condone or at least tolerate a certain amount of violence against women. In parts of South Asia, Western Asia and Africa, for instance, men are seen as having a right to discipline their wives as they see fit. The right of a husband to beat or physically intimidate his wife is a deeply held conviction in many societies.
Even women often view a certain amount of physical abuse as justified under certain conditions. For instance, 80 per cent of women surveyed in rural Egypt said that beatings were common and often justified, particularly if the woman refused to have sex with her partner.
In a study in Ghana, close to half of all women and 43 per cent of men said a man was justified in beating his wife if she used a family planning method without his expressed consent.
Justification for violence stems from gender norms - distorted views about the roles and responsibilities of men and women in relationships. Worldwide, studies have shown a consistent pattern of events that trigger violent responses. These include: not obeying the husband, talking back, refusing sex, not having food ready on time, failing to care for the children or home, questioning the man about money or girlfriends or going somewhere without his permission.
Sexual abuse and rape
In South Africa, the incidence of rape is thought to be the highest in the world. Forced or unprotected sex puts women at risk of acquiring sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS. Rape victims are especially at risk of infection. Up to 30 per cent of women raped in the United States every year, for instance, develop an sexually transmitted disease as a result.
Molestation of young girls is another profoundly disturbing aspect of this problem. A study in Zaria, Nigeria, for example, found that 16 per cent of hospital patients with sexually transmitted infections were under age 5. At the Genito-Urinary Centre in Harare, Zimbabwe, doctors discovered that more than 900 children under age 12 had been treated for a sexually transmitted disease in 1990 alone.
Physical and sexual abuse also increases a woman's risk for a number of common gynaecological disorders, including chronic pelvic pain. In many countries, chronic pelvic pain accounts for up to 10 per cent of all visits to gynaecologists and one quarter of all hysterectomies.
Women who are abused or afraid to raise the issue of family planning with their partners are at risk of repeated unwanted pregnancies. Many abused women seek abortions. Violence has also been linked with increased risk of miscarriages, premature labour, foetal distress and low birth weight.
Throughout the world, perhaps as many as 5,000 women and girls a year are murdered by members of their own families, many of them for the "dishonour" of having been raped, often as not by a member of their own extended family. Many forms of communally sanctioned violence against women, such as "honour" killings, are associated with the community's or the family's demand for sexual chastity and virginity.
In Egypt, a father paraded his daughter's severed head through the streets shouting, "I avenged my honour."
Such killings have been reported in Bangladesh, Brazil, Ecuador, Egypt, India, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan, Sweden, Turkey, Uganda and the United Kingdom, according to the report. The report says that "honour" killings tend to be more prevalent in, but are not limited to, countries with a majority Muslim population. It adds, however, that Islamic leaders have condemned the practice and say it has no religious basis.
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)
Many societies in Africa and Western Asia practise FGM, often referred to as female circumcision. Worldwide, some 130 million girls and young women have undergone this dangerous and painful practice, with an additional 2 million at risk each year.
FGM is practised in about 28 countries in Africa - where the prevalence varies widely, from 5 per cent in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to 98 per cent in Somalia - and in the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf region. It also occurs among some minority groups in Asia, and among immigrant women in Europe, Canada and the United States.
FGM refers to the removal of all or part of the clitoris and other genitalia. Those who perform the more extreme form, infibulation, remove the clitoris and both labia and sew together both sides of the vulva. This leaves only a small opening to allow passage of urine and menstrual blood. Infibulation accounts for an estimated 15 per cent of all cases of FGM, and 80-90 per cent of cases in Djibouti, Somalia and the Sudan.
This terrible violation of girls' and young women's human rights is based on prevailing beliefs that female sexuality must be controlled, and the virginity of young girls preserved until marriage. Men in some cultures will not marry uncircumcised girls because they view them as "unclean" or sexually permissive.
Genital mutilation is nearly always carried out in unsanitary conditions without anaesthetic. It is also extremely painful and may result in severe infection, shock or even death. If the girl survives, she may experience painful sexual intercourse, degrading the quality of her life.
In some cases, FGM can lead to sterility. A study carried out in the Sudan found that women who had undergone FGM were twice as likely to be infertile as women who had not. In traditional societies, infertility is a particularly devastating condition, since a woman's worth in many of these cultures is measured by her ability to bear children.
NGOs Work against Gender Violence
NGOs' work worldwide on violence against women is one of the most important contributions to ending gender-based oppression.
Through the work of African NGOs, with the support of international organizations, FGM is being challenged and the practice outlawed, giving millions of girls and women hopes for a life with rights, health and security. The Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children, a network of affiliates in 26 African and 3 European countries, has led the increasingly successful fight against FGM through public awareness campaigns and training in schools, and communities with traditional and trained medical staff.
In South Africa, where the incidence of rape is thought to be the highest in the world, a group called WomenNet used the Internet for a Stop Rape campaign supported by international signatories. The government is now setting up 20 specialized "rape courts", the first such initiative in the world.