On Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day, countless couples will celebrate romance by candlelight. On the same day, 1 billion women and men worldwide will stand up to shine a light on the darker side of gender relations.
According to the UN, one in three women worldwide will be raped or beaten in her lifetime. In some countries, up to seven in 10 women will be beaten, raped, abused, or mutilated. Often, the victims of such abuses are treated as criminals — dishonored, brutalized, ostracized, imprisoned and even executed — while perpetrators remain free. Millions of women suffer in this way, but their stories remain untold.
Last December, the brutal gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman in India — two months after Pakistan’s Taliban shot 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai for advocating education — triggered large-scale public protests. This outcry should mark the start of a global movement to lift the veil of silence that shrouds violence against women — which often begins at home — and protects the perpetrators.
From “honor killings” to child marriages, from date rape to sex slavery, crimes against women are prevalent in every society. However, when women are courageous enough to report abuse, doctors are often unhelpful, police are hostile and the justice system fails them. For example, one in three women in the US military is sexually assaulted, usually by a colleague, yet very few attackers are convicted. Likewise, in the UK, 473,000 sexual offenses are reported annually, 60,000 to 95,000 of which are classified as rape. However, in each of the last three years, only slightly more than 1,000 offenders were convicted of rape.
In the 1970s, feminists identified the connection between rape, male privilege and female sexual vilification. Today, readily accessible Internet pornography is teaching boys and men that sexual acts involving degradation and even violent abuse of women are acceptable.
Meanwhile, many privileged women, instilled with a strong sense of entitlement, dismiss feminism as passe. However, gender discrimination continues to pervade all aspects of society, with most social and political institutions continuing to foster “glass ceilings,” if not outright female subordination. Women receive equal pay and equal opportunities in very few countries.
Feminism thus has a crucial role to play in the 21st century. After all, as Michelle Bachelet, executive director of UN Women, has put it: “Violence against women is … a threat to democracy, a barrier to lasting peace, a burden on national economies, and an appalling human-rights violation.”
Governments must continue to advance women’s rights through legislation, while civil society must promote a cultural shift that rejects women’s marginalization or mistreatment. Only by enabling women to realize their potential can countries ensure economic and social progress.
This potential was evident during the Arab Spring uprisings, when women, empowered by recent advances in literacy and education, organized and led demonstrations that toppled decades-old regimes. In Egypt, even as female political activists and reporters were being sexually harassed in Tahrir Square, they continued to contribute to the revolution.
However, gender equality remains a distant goal in the region, with women being left out of the political process, exerting little influence in governing bodies or in drafting new constitutions. In fact, on the Egyptian revolution’s two-year anniversary last week, when thousands of demonstrators took to the streets to protest Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, at least nine female protesters were sexually assaulted in Tahrir Square.