“A promise is a promise: Time for action to end violence against women.”

Following International Women's Day, a call to end violence

“A promise is a promise: Time for action to end violence against women.” This was the United Nations’ theme for 2013’s International Women’s Day, ...

Mar 16, 2013

“A promise is a promise: Time for action to end violence against women.”
This was the United Nations’ theme for 2013’s International Women’s Day, observed across the world on Friday, March 8. Ban Ki-Moon, UN Secretary General, noted in his message for the occasion that the past year has held no shortage of examples of tragic and intolerable violence. Two were especially recognized worldwide: In India, a young woman was gang raped to death, spurring protests across the country. In Pakistan, a teenage girl was shot for daring to stand up for her and other girls’ rights to an education. She, Malala Yousafzai, is now the youngest ever nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize.
The UN reports that globally, up to seven in 10 women will be beaten, raped, abused, or mutilated in their lifetime. The forms in which this violence manifests are many: domestic abuse, human trafficking and sexual assault compose the major categories. Most of this violence is perpetrated in intimate relationships. While more than 125 countries have laws that penalize domestic violence, 603 million women live in countries where it is not a crime. Women’s own attitudes are often self-defeating, especially in this region; 39 percent of women in Egypt, 59 percent in Iraq, and 90 percent in Jordan believe that a man is justified in hitting or beating his partner under some circumstances.
Developed high-income countries are not beyond reproach either. The United States, my home country, has disappointed me in recent months as it allowed the Violence Against Women Act to expire at the end of 2012, an embarrassment to its 18-year history of bipartisan support. Though it has since been reenacted, it is troubling that such seemingly obvious legislation was cast aside at the end of the last term <>. The U.S. military is now also facing congressional scrutiny of its treatment of sexual assault cases in the ranks. Rape is considered an occupational hazard for members of the military, and though 19,000 assaults occur annually, fewer than 500 ever go to trial <>.
Prominent advocates for women’s advancement, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and journalist Nicholas Kristof, have characterized women’s rights and advancement as the greatest struggle and opportunity of the 21st century <>. I agree wholeheartedly, which has been my motivation for founding the Women’s Leadership Network (WLN) on campus. Our mission is to advance women’s equality, empowerment, and leadership. There is no question that female students here are not already accomplished women leaders. But one of my most important visions for WLN is that they bring back initiatives, skill building and positive change to their home countries.
Changes to violent behavior require nothing less than transformation of culture. Worldwide, women victims are far too often blamed for sexual crimes against them. They lack rights and resources to escape from abusive family members and spouses. They are bought and sold as no more than objects to be used. The problems are great, and each of us small. But the fact that the crimes referenced earlier, heavily covered by the media, provoked very strong responses to the problem of violence against women, gives me faith that the world grows ever more ready for the advancement of women’s rights and opportunity. Change is slow, moving in fits and starts in response to tragedies rather than in prevention of systematic brutality. But it continues nonetheless, and with each passing year we collect small victories.
It is my hope that when I observe International Women’s Day 2014, there will be more inspiring stories like Malala’s on which I may reflect. Perhaps a handful of countries will have instituted new laws against domestic abuse. There might be a new feminist viral sensation that changes the way people think about rape culture. Maybe parliaments will see an increase in representation of women, leading to fairer and more sensitive legislation on issues of violence. Whatever the future may hold, given we continue to aspire to and fight for an end to the violence, we will continue to draw closer to a more equitable, just, and promising world.
Olivia Bergen is a contributing writer. Email her at
Photo courtesy of Olivia Bergen
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