Because women are physically weaker than men and because the major ity of women around the world live in societies where power resides in the hands of men, females of all ages remain vulnerable to violence. The United Nations estimates that one in ever y three of the world’s women has been beaten or sexually abused. Violence against women (VAW) is a crime that crosses all age, class, racial, ethnic, educational, and national barriers. VAW covers a wide range of practices, including battering, emotional abuse, rape, human trafficking, public beatings, stonings, bride burnings, and forced pregnancies and abortions.
The most notorious forms of violence against women have included female infanticide (particularly in China and India), Chinese foot binding, African female genital mutilation, the virtual enslavement of British women identified as “sinners” by the nineteenth-century Catholic Church in Magdalen laundries and asylums, and the so-called honor killings performed in some Muslim countries. Among some tribes in Benin, Ghana, Nigeria, and Togo, the practice of tro-kosi has allowed families to provide young girls for use as slaves by fetish priests to atone for offenses committed by family members. If these young girls die in service, families are honor bound to replace them with other young girls.
Women in war-torn areas and refugee camps who do not have access to stable political and social infrastructures are particularly vulnerable to various forms of violence. Women and children make up the majority of casualties in modern-day warfare. Even in the most developed countries, VAW is a major societal problem. For instance, a whole body of literature deals exclusively with the violence among members of the Canadian military.
Since the 1980s, the trafficking of women has increased, spreading from Asia where it was historically acceptable to other parts of the world. This increase has been partially a response to the economic crises and rise in organized crime experienced when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.Women from Russia and the Ukraine have been trafficked into Asia, Latin America, and even into parts of western Europe and the United States to be sexually exploited either by choice or because they were lured into believing they were headed toward legitimate jobs.
In response to pressure by women’s groups, the European Union became involved in the effort to stop human trafficking in the 1990s. The United Nations adopted a protocol against trafficking in women and children in 2000. That same year, bipartisan efforts in the United States led to the passage of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act.
According to the United Nations International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW), violence against women exacerbates in a wall of silence because of the stigma involved, the lack of access to legal information and power, the inability of governments to protect women through adequate legislation and enforcement, and a shortage of education that provides ways of dealing with the causes and consequences of violence.
The UN commitment to ending violence against women resulted in the 1993 adoption of the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, which declared that
Violence against women is an obstacle to the achievement of the objectives of equality, development and peace. Violence against women both violates and impairs or nullifies the enjoyment by women of their human rights and fundamental freedoms. The longstanding failure to protect and promote those rights and freedoms in the case of violence against women is a matter of concern to all States and should be addressed.
In 1993, the European Union (EU) launched a campaign to wipe out VAW, beginning with an acknowledgement by the European Ministerial Conference that violence against women violated the basic human rights of women and interfered with the right to fully participate in the democratic process. The Comprehensive Plan of Action on VAW was initiated in 1997. Today, the EU requires all members to commit to ending violence against women.
In the United States, the attempt to curtail VAW led to the passage of the Violence against Women Act (VAWA) in 1994. The law set federal penalties for interstate stalking and spousal abuse, created the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and increased penalties at the federal level for repeat offenders. The law also earmarked grant money for building and improving battered women shelters, expanding rape crisis intervention, hiring additional police officers, and providing training on rape and domestic violence. In 2000, the Supreme Court overturned the provision of VAWA that allowed victims of VAW to sue their attackers for violation of their civil rights in United States v. Morrison (529 U.S. 598).
- Giles, Wenona, and Jennifer Hyndman, eds. Gender and Conflict Zones. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.
- Parro, Andrea, and Nina Cummings. Forsaken Females: The Global Brutalization of Women. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2006.
- Penn, Michael L., and Rachel Nardos. Overcoming Violence against Women and Girls: The International Campaign to Eradicate a Worldwide Problem. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003.
- Stoecker, Sally, and Louise Shelley, eds. Human Traffic and Transnational Crime: Eurasian and American Perspectives. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005.
- United Nations. “Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women.” United Nations, 1993, www.un.org/documents/ga/res/48/ a48r104.htm.
- United Nations INSTRAW. “Violence against Women: New Challenges,” 2006, www.un-instraw.org/en/images/stories/Beijing/ violenceagainstwomen.pdf.
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