For Women, Violence
A Universal Threat
By Pat Orvis
12 March, 2005
first thing a longtime United Nations observer notices at a gathering
like Beijing Plus +10 is the presence of actual women.
Thirty years ago--when
the first U.N. World Conference on Women was held in Mexico--it was
mostly men who came, especially from the more tradition-bound "third-world"
cultures, to debate the issues for women.
But for the past
two weeks here, conference rooms have been filled to standing-room capacity
Among them: African
women, Asian women, Nordic women, Indigenous women. Women nursing their
feet in new white tennis shoes. Women making the smallest bowl of soup
do for a meal because without help from some sponsor they could not
Every one of them
"a mover and shaker in her own country," as an official from
the International Labor Organization expressed it, "or they wouldn't
They gathered for
"Beijing Plus 10," the decade-later meeting to assess and
reaffirm the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. Adopted at
the Fourth World Conference on Women, in 1995 in the Chinese capital,
that wide-ranging document identifies 12 critical areas of concern including
poverty, education, violence and mass media and is widely regarded as
the strongest policy statement in support of women's rights ever made
by the international community.
The Beijing Declaration
was affirmed, even by the U.S. delegation, which backed off its widely
reported ringer amendment on abortion after that caused an immediate
outcry from more than 150 organizations worldwide.
But while affirmation
of the declaration--and what the United States was going to do about
it--was the main discussion that this event received in the mass media,
the women inside the actual meetings were focused on talking about something
Sometimes shy and
hesitant, these women openly discussed topics from how to acquire property
rights which, though often theirs on paper, were not granted to how
more female doctors could increase opportunities for entering fields
like surgery, instead of always getting steered into gynecology. And
they broke centuries-old taboos by talking about the violence and sexual
abuse of females, which had been shielded in their cultures as too personal
for public airing.
The event was sprawling
and mammoth, hard to sum up, with overall attendance recorded by the
U.N. Department of Public Information at just over 2,600, including
a sprinkling of men. Some were from the more than 6,000 nongovernmental
organizations registered. Another 1,847 came with delegations from the
165 member states of the U.N. More than 150 registered from U.N. agencies
and intergovernmental organizations.
spoke out at press conferences, strategy sessions and panel discussions
that attracted names as well-known as actress Meryl Streep, Vagina Monologues
author Eve Ensler and South Africa's Desmond Tutu.
Streep, who chaired
a press briefing for the New York-based women's rights organization
Equality Now, said she was there--not because it was an "exotic"
thing to do--but because her grandmother raised three children, was
the smartest person she had ever met, yet could not vote in her own
Ensler chose to
launch one of her V-Day Violence V-Campaigns; events designed to end
violence against women and girls. This one pressed for recognition of
and solidarity with the 200,000 Korean "comfort women" who
were conscripted into service as sexual slaves by Japan's military during
World War II.
event, on Feb. 28, proved an appropriate start to two weeks of presentations
in which rape and sexual abuse were major themes.
According to the
talented individuals who keep the women's movement going, the biggest
universal threat to women is violence, from the trafficking of women
and girls by gangs of men and boys to the spousal abuse that costs the
City of New York alone $500 million a year, according to the U.N. Development
Fund for Women.
In the United States,
some of that cost includes emergency-room visits, court action and law
enforcement, as well as the money lost to employers from reduced productivity
Across the United
States, according to UNIFEM's executive director, Noeleen Heyzer--a
women's rights leader in her own Southeast Asia--women and girls are
raped or otherwise sexually assaulted routinely--some 15 percent of
those before reaching age 17.
to the studies, 1 out of every 3 women has been beaten, forced to have
sex or otherwise abused in her lifetime, usually by someone known to
Those figures of
reported cases of abuse--never mind all the cases that never get reported--include
"dowry murders" in India, where wives are sometimes killed,
often by burning, so that husbands and in-law families can extract a
dowry from the next wife.
They include "honor
killings," most common in Muslim countries, where women and even
young girls are killed--more than 1,000 each year just in Pakistan--or
otherwise punished to atone for the offenses of their own male family
members against women or for such non-crimes as having been raped.
The figure also
includes women who have been raped in war, which was recently made a
crime by the International Criminal Court.
The figure also
includes the trafficking in women and girls across borders for sale
into prostitution and slave labor.
A World Bank report
has placed violence against women on a par with cancer as a global cause
of incapacity and death among women of reproductive age, calling it
a greater cause of ill-health than traffic accidents and malaria combined.
Certainly, it was
a subject that needed airing. And with hope, at the next big convention
on women, there will be major progress to report, from every part of
Pat Orvis is
a U.N. correspondent who has traveled extensively on assignment in all
the developing regions.