27 November 2004

Women who walk into doors

By Marguerite Finn

"None of the doctors looked at me. I didn't exist. They stared at the bruises for a split second, then away ... there was nothing there. I could go to the shops ... and no one saw me. I could smile and say Hello ... they could see the mouth that spoke the words. But they couldn't see me. The woman who wasn't there; The woman who had nothing wrong with her. The woman who walked into doors."

In 'The Woman Who Walked Into Doors', Roddy Doyle perceptively charts his heroine's gradual loss of identity, self-esteem and slide into alcoholism, trapped in a violent marriage. Women will understand - men may have to read it twice.

In the time it took to read the quotation, two more incidents of domestic violence will have been reported to the UK police. In Britain, on average 2 women per week are killed by a male partner or former partner and 1 in 4 women will be a victim of domestic violence in their lifetime.

Amnesty International is currently running 16 days of activism to highlight its "Stop Violence Against Women" Campaign. Amnesty aims to raise awareness of a global human rights scandal that has yet to be fully acknowledged - and to challenge the attitudes, laws and practices that sustain it. Amongst the issues highlighted will be:
  • Violence to women in the family (e.g. battering by partners, sexual abuse of female children, genital mutilation and marital rape);
  • Violence to women in the community (e.g. sexual harassment, rape, forcible psychiatric treatment to 're-orientate' lesbian women, violence by officials against refugee women).
  • Violence to women perpetuated or condoned by the state (e.g. rape by government forces during armed conflict, torture in custody, trafficking, forced labour and prostitution);
  • Violence against women is not confined to any particular political or economic system.
It cuts across boundaries of wealth, race and culture. For 25 years, women's rights activists worked tirelessly to raise public awareness of the issue. The Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women in 1979 was their first major success. A further breakthrough came in 1993 when violence against women - in public and private - was declared a human rights violation. The subsequent UN 'Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women' obliged states to take responsibility for ending violence against women. The major challenge has been - and still is - to ensure that the commitments made by governments are translated into action. It hasn't happened yet.

Despite comprising more than 50% of the world's population, women remain under-represented as problem-solvers, decision-makers, elected officials or leaders. The UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) promotes women's efforts around the world to participate in the political and economic life of their countries, but the task is enormous and their resources are finite. Amnesty International's worldwide campaign is a contribution to these efforts - It aims to mobilise both men and women to counter violence against women. The main underlying cause of such violence is gender discrimination - the denial of women's equality with men in all areas of life. The structures within society that perpetuate gender-based violence are patriarchal, deep-rooted and intransigent. What divine right have men to under-privilege half the human population ?

Violence against women is neither 'natural' nor 'inevitable'. It persists only because society allows it to.

Violence against women during armed conflicts has reached epidemic proportions. It is used as a weapon of war to dehumanise the women themselves and to persecute their community. Wars are no longer fought on remote battlefields but in our homes, schools, communities. Post-conflict situations have accelerated the growth in trafficking of women and children. Trafficking is modern day slave trading. There is irrefutable evidence that the number of women trafficked in post-conflict zones is increased by the introduction of peacekeeping forces. This screaming paradox led to UN Deputy Secretary General Louise Frechette's insistence that women are vital to resolving armed conflicts and rebuilding the peace and they must be involved at every stage. The perpetrators of violent crimes must not be able commit them with impunity. Peacekeeping forces are immune from prosecution - and it has been suggested that this makes them 'more part of the problem than the solution'.

The main thrust of Amnesty's campaign in the UK is to make people aware of the problem and to work with other relevant agencies to overcome it. You can help by joining the Norwich branch of Amnesty International and becoming involved in this campaign and/or offering your support through donations. Telephone David on 01508-538353; http://www.amnesty.org.uk/; or http://www.problemwhatproblem.com/.

Thanks to Catherine Rowe, Norwich Amnesty, for help and inspiration.