By Aminat Lawal
On March 8, a day commemorating International Women’s Day, thousands of women took the streets in Mexico to protest against the rise of femicide in the country. The next day, streets, offices, and schools were void of women. This was because of a national strike intended to raise awareness of the fact that every day, 10 women in Mexico are killed.
At this point, sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) needs no explanation. For many years, women all around the world have been clamoring for an end to it. Films, documentaries, songs, articles, and all other forms of media have explained the negative impacts of SGBV and the need for its prevention. Non-governmental organizations, sexual assault referral centers as well as helplines have been set up over the years in several countries to provide relief for survivors of SGBV as well as to raise awareness of this issue. Sexual and gender-based violence has been referred to as a “pandemic” with the World Health Organisation estimating that about 1 in 3 women would have experienced a form of sexual and gender-based violence in their lifetime. At the time of writing this article, there is an ongoing international campaign to raise awareness of violence against women and girls. It is called “16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence” with the theme, “Orange the World; Fund, Respond, Prevent, Collect!”
With all these efforts, the question at this point should be are these efforts making a difference? Is the world listening? Has the world become more responsive to Sexual and Gender-based violence? In Asia, violence against women has been referred to as one of the deadliest forms of violence in the region with reports showing it to cause more deaths than armed conflicts. Between 2011 to 2015, India recorded more than 40,000 dowry-related deaths, which is only one of many forms of gender-based violence faced in the country. Although most countries in Asia provide for laws against domestic violence, half of them exclude protection for intimate partner violence as well as economic abuse. This is an issue because several statistics have shown that intimate partners perpetrate most forms of gender-based violence in Asia.
In a survey by the National Health Family Survey in India, it was reported that every third woman suffers sexual or physical violence at home while 27% of women have experienced physical violence since the age of 15. In 2013, the Indian parliament elaborated the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005 to include new categories of offenses as well as impose more serious punishments. There was also the creation of fast track courts solely for the prosecution of rape cases, which has been said to yield better results. Recent cases of violence against women such as the 2018 abduction, gang rape, and murder of an 8-year-old girl, Asifa Bano have led to the introduction of the death penalty for the rape of minors in at least four states in India.
However, there is still the problem of underreporting as women are afraid to report attacks for fear of being stigmatized due to a criminal justice system that offers little to no protection for survivors as well as witnesses. Police officers also often are not cooperative and may refuse to file a report. Many communities in India are patriarchal in nature thus a lot of women and girls have accepted violence as part of their cultural setup. Thus, there is still the need for awareness and sensitization campaigns to make sexual and gender-based violence a mainstream issue’
In the Middle East and North Africa, patriarchal structures founded on the supremacy of women and the inferiority of men continue to contribute to the escalation of sexual and gender-based violence. It is estimated that 37% of women in Arab countries have experienced domestic violence. According to a United Nations report, approximately 200,000 women were victims of domestic violence in Israel between 2014 and 2015. In Egypt, 92% of women and girls between 15 and 49 have experienced Female Genital Mutilation. 14% of Arab girls marry under the age of 18. The police, justice system, and legal system also do not prioritize it as many countries in the region do not criminalize rape, domestic violence, female genital mutilation, and other forms of gender-based violence. Gender-based violence is critically underreported in the region as victims are afraid of speaking up from fear of retaliation.
However, there have been few changes in the region’s response to the crisis. In Morocco, Article 475 of the penal code, which allowed rapists to marry their victims to avoid prosecution, was recently repealed. In addition, in Tunisia, a draft bill condemning and criminalizing domestic violence was approved in 2016. In Egypt, Beit Hawa (The House of Eve) was founded as the first comprehensive women’s shelter in the country as well as the region. There have also been several protests held in several countries within the region with several of them leading to an increase in complaints about domestic violence.
A 2014 survey on violence against women by the EU Fundamental Rights Agency showed that 33% of women had experienced physical and/or sexual violence from the age of 15. In 2016, a woman was killed every three days as a result of intimate partner violence in France. There were more than 100.000 cases of domestic violence against women in Germany in 2015. Hungary in particular has been lacking in its response to gender-based violence. The Hungarian state does not protect women from experiencing intimate partner violence and one in five Hungarian women suffer regular abuse from her partner. The country signed the Istanbul Convention but it has failed to ratify it. In Italy, one woman is murdered every day with 157 femicide cases reported in 2012; 179 in 2013; 152 in 2014, 141 in 2015; 145 in 2016. In 2013, the state finally approved a law against femicide.
Several actions have been taken by the government as well as organizations in Europe to combat sexual and gender based violence such as the Spotlight initiative was launched from a partnership between the United Nations and European Union. It is focused on eliminating all forms of violence against women. In Hungary, silent witness exhibitions were set up to raise awareness as well as commemorate women killed by partner abuse. The Italian Women’s Network against Violence was founded in 2008. It now coordinates 80 women centers and shelters, which supports thousands of women as well as lobbies for change at the national level.
Mexico has been rated as one of the most violent countries for women in the world. According to the National Institute of Statistics and Geography in Mexico, 66.1% of all women aged 15 and older have experienced some kind of violence in their lives. Femicide in Mexico increased by 10% between 2018 and 2019 going from 7 reported cases per day to 10 per day. This year, figures show that femicide climbed by 7.7% in the first few months. Although the prison sentence for Femicide has been raised, culprits often still go unpunished.
This year, the Mexican government approved a 75% budget cut for the federal women’s institute as well as a proposal to withdraw state funding for women shelters operated by non-governmental organizations. Despite the surge in gender violence, the government continues to perpetuate claims that most of the domestic violence calls to emergency services are fake and made up by people who oppose the government. The Mexican President has attributed “loss of values” as the cause of sexual and gender-based violence in the country. After the death of Ingrid Escamilla, a 25-year-old brutally murdered, allegedly by her boyfriend, the President when questioned by reporters about the matter said he did not want “femicides to distract from the raffle”. He was referring to a raffle his administration had organized around the sale of the presidential airplane.
By the time a Salvadorian woman turns thirty, there is a high probability that she has experienced at least a form of gender-based violence. The sour reality is that these statistics represent the “lucky ones”, women who are not killed. In a 2011 study, El Salvador was ranked first as the country with the highest rate of femicide in the world, Guatemala ranked third with Honduras close behind in sixth place. One woman is murdered by a man every 24 hours in El Salvador. Femicide rates in the country have more than doubled between 2013 and 2017. Worse of it all is that these cases never make it to court and even when they do, only 3% of them get a guilty verdict. Most men and women in Central America have been conditioned to believe that gender violence is “normal” as “Machismo” permeates every aspect of their lives including the legal and judicial systems.
In an attempt to ameliorate the crisis, the Salvadorian government passed the “For a Life Free of Violence against Women” law in 2011. It criminalizes all form of sexual and gender-based violence and it provides stringent punishment for offenders. It also outlawed court-mandated mediation in cases of gender violence because reports from women showed that the process “teaches women how to cope with an abusive man” instead of punishing men for the abuse. The law also proposes re-education initiatives to teach society a new form of living based on equality. However, due to inadequate funding, implementation of the law has been slow and the Salvadorian government has only created two women’s shelters (both with a capacity of 15 women each) despite making a commitment to creating more.
In 2017, the Salvadorian government in its strive to continue to beat gender violence created specialized courts to deal with femicide and other forms of violence. Specialized judges trained by the government were placed in these courts and its hope was for gender violence cases to be tried away from already established patriarchal institutions. However, these courts exclude cases of sexual violence and intrafamilial violence, which are two of the most common forms of violence in the region. There are also only six established courts meaning that women who are not in these areas had to deal with the ordinary courts. The grim reality is that even though the country continues to pass laws to prevent gender violence, these laws have done nothing to reduce the crisis, as femicide rates remain extremely high. Laws without implementation are not going to be enough to resolve the issue and this is similar to most countries in Central America.
“El violador eres tu!”, “the rapist is you!” is the chorus from what has become a worldwide Feminist Anthem titled “Un Violador en tu camino.” The song was created and first performed in Chile last year and has now been performed hundreds of times and in every continent of the world except Antarctica. It was written to express the disdainful state of violence in the country. There are 42 cases of gender violence reported in Chile every day, that is, two cases every hour. In response to this, the government, in March, passed the “Gabriela law” which toughens the penalty for gender violence in the country. The law also covers physical, sexual, economical, institutional, political, and workplace violence.
Within the past year, in Sub-Saharan Africa, there have been several protests across several countries in the region calling for the government to take urgent action to combat sexual and gender-based violence. In Namibia, women called on the government to #ShutItAllDown after a series of gruesome attacks on women. Reports show that police were receiving at least 200 cases of domestic violence monthly in the country. The protests were intended to lead to the declaration of a state of emergency due to the rate of sexual and gender-based violence in the country. According to protesters, the government had put in place action plans both in 2016 and in 2018 to tackle this crisis but failed to implement them on both occasions.
This is similar to the situation in Nigeria where there were several protests held in June to call for action on the issue of gender-based violence after several women were raped and killed within a short period. In most countries in the region, there are laws against gender violence; however, they are rarely ever enforced, as most cases are barely reported. This is due to the culture of silence that has and continues to ravage the region. Women are still blamed and stigmatized if they speak out. In cases where reports are made, less than 30% of them are tried in court, and even less lead to a guilty verdict. In South Africa, the President recently introduced three new bills to bring justice to victims of gender-based violence by tackling these three issues; the process of applying for a protection order; state police not taking harassment claims seriously; and the lack of accountability and adequate punitive punishment measures for offenders. These laws are yet to be passed into law so we would only have to wait to see if they would actually be implemented.
Can we say the world is more responsive to Sexual and Gender-based violence? No. In my research for this article, I came across several facts that shocked me. The rate of femicide, sexual violence, physical violence, and all other forms of gender-based violence is at an all-time high. Less than 5% of global humanitarian funding is allotted to gender-based violence and even less of a country’s GDP is focused on combating the crisis. Several countries still do not have laws that punish offenders and/or protect survivors. In countries that do, the laws are rarely ever implemented. Patriarchal structures that condone and permit sexual and gender-based violence still exist in many parts of the world. Survivors continue to be silenced and stigmatized in almost all countries in the world, even the “progressive” ones.
The only light I see in the dark tunnel that is sexual and gender-based violence is the women who refused to be silenced. There has been a massive improvement in women speaking out fuelled by the #MeToo, #ShutItAllDown, #SayHerName movements, and several other protests that have occurred almost everywhere in the world. In Turkey, after several women were arrested for reciting the “Feminist Anthem”, female members of the Turkey parliament entered the next day reciting the chant. In Egypt, despite facing arrests, women continue to speak out for their rights. Venezuelan women continue to protest despite facing zero support from their government. Women in Namibia continue to protest despite threats of arrest. Young girls and women all over the world are speaking out against the abuse they face; it is up to the world to decide to listen.
 ‘The State of Conflict and Violence in Asia”, The Asia Foundation
 NANE data, http://nane.hu/erintetteknek/tudnivalok-a-nok-elleni-eroszakrol/
 A human rights treaty of the Council of Europe focused on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. As of March 2019, it has been signed by 45 countries and the European Union
 The Observatory on Gender Violence
 Strong or aggressive masculine pride
 “A rapist in your path”