Rates of violence against women still astounding

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According to Amnesty International, half the world's population is singled out for rapes, sexual enslavements, “honour” killings, forced and underage marriage, pregnancies that endanger lives, genital mutilation and spousal abuse.

Conditioned from birth to accept ill treatment — refraining from talking about it out of shame, fear of families' reprisals, or the belief that perpetrators are likely to get away with their crimes, many women continue to be victimized in 2005.

Canada's rates of male violence against women are still staggering, advocates say. Statistics Canada reports that 61 per cent of sexual assault victims are youths — mostly females — under the age of 17. And in the majority of reported cases, victims are familiar with the accused.

According to the central statistical agency, physical, sexual and psychological violence remains a major factor in women's health and well-being. Their shared medical costs, which exceed $1.5 billion every year, include those for short-term therapy for injuries, long-term physical and psychological care, as well as the use of transition homes and crisis centres. Ignoring violence, the Government of Canada says, leads to misdiagnosis and inadequate treatment.

In December, the Ontario government promised $56 million for counselling and housing support for victims, as well as training for front-line workers and public education campaigns, as part of a comprehensive scheme on domestic violence against women and children. The four-year Domestic Violence Action Plan was designed by 180 experts across the province, to better protect victims in diverse, at-risk communities.

“The action plan is a major step forward, placing a new emphasis on preventing abuse before it happens and supporting victims when it does happen,” Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty told the press. “Women can't build the lives they deserve when they live with the threat of violence or the reality of physical and emotional abuse. And children can't reach their full potential when they fear what happens in their own homes.”

Sandra Pupatello, the Minister Responsible for Women's Issues, maintained that domestic violence is everyone's concern. “We all share a responsibility for the protection and safety of women in abusive situations. Our plan brings together a wide range of partners to improve public awareness, change attitudes and help break the cycle of violence,” Pupatello said.

Labelling male violence is the first step before resisting it, according to veteran activist Ken Hancock. Although young men, in particular, oppose the term, they must realize they are either bullies or by-standers themselves, he said. They need to be challenged to break through the silence, and talk about ending the many ways they are violent towards women. “When you look at the history of liberation struggles, the language is the key part of how people describe their reality. We've named this issue around the perpetrators and not the victims.”

Hancock has heard “hundreds of horror stories” from Canadian women. He founded and continues to organize the annual Walk Against Male Violence, an Ontario-based initiative now in its 14th year. “I really wanted to structure (this walk) so that men would check their egos at the door, that it would be about the issue of male violence,” Hancock said. He launched the awareness campaign in response to the 1989 massacre of 14 women at the University of Montreal by gunman Marc Lepine, an avowed anti-feminist.

Since 1991, the march has matured into a national event, raising nearly $1 million for women's support services in Canada and Afghanistan — 99 per cent of the proceeds raised by high school students. According to organizers, one-third of money will support Emily Stowe Shelter for Women in Toronto. Another third will again be donated to Nazoo Anna School for Girls in Afghanistan, where under former Taliban rule, females were not permitted to attend school or leave their homes unaccompanied by males. Tents, water tanks, rugs and school supplies will be purchased — and teachers' salaries paid.

“There is a higher consciousness about the issue because of women. When we first started doing this walk, 80 per cent of marchers were female, but now an estimated half of all participants are men,” said Hancock, who discusses the issue with high school students in rural towns and major cities across Ontario. He maintains females' freedom cannot be achieved until the threat of violence is first eliminated in the most sophisticated societies. “Today, men are as dangerous to women as cancer.”

According to Amnesty International, half the world's population is singled out for rapes, sexual enslavements, “honour” killings, forced and underage marriage, pregnancies that endanger lives, genital mutilation and spousal abuse. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, some 40 women are sexually abused daily and cut off from medical treatment. Ninety per cent of Somali women are subjected to genital mutilation. The same percentage of Pakistani women has been abused by their male spouses, the human rights group's figures reveal.

Even in industrialized countries such as Russia, women are still socially and legally disadvantaged. More than 14,000 members of the population are killed by partners or relatives annually, without a law addressing domestic violence. Amnesty's statistics also show 50 per cent of women over 16 have been victims of physical or sexual violence in North America — 20 per cent in Ireland.

Contrary to the UN's Declaration on Human Rights, domestic, political or systemic violence against females is even more rampant in poor and war-torn countries. Sexual assault is often a tool of combat. And selective abortions of undervalued, female fetuses are as commercial as fast food service, according to Suzanne Sicchia, a research associate with the Toronto-based Centre for Research in Women's Health (CRWH). A partnership between the University of Toronto and Sunnybrook and Women's College Health Sciences Centre, CRWH's staff is active in clinical settings, academic institutions and communities around the world.

“(Women) are far too often attacked physically, sexually, emotionally, financially and spiritually. Violence against them continues to be a serious problem in every community here and abroad,” Sicchia said. “Globally, it is still very secret and even tolerated by many females — those who are not supposed to threaten or dishonour their families by making (their affairs) public. And some countries' laws don't always respect the integrity of a woman's body — and her right to say 'no.'”

Since 2002, the doctoral candidate has been completing an international, trans-disciplinary project on globalization, gender and health. She began examining sexual violence against women when counselling juvenile sex offenders and survivors of physical violence. Initially unaware of the “global dimensions” of violence against women, she now advocates and fundraises for international women's health and human rights.

“We can choose to have respectful and healthy relationships, and prevent the continuation of this violence in daily lives,” Sicchia said. “It is not just a women's issue; it really does affect us all in profound ways. It is not specific to a particular religion or culture. Rather, at the heart of it is gender inequality and poverty and even racism. All of these dividers of society heighten violence against women. In some cases, it is a natural extension of the kinds of norms and relationships that exist.”

She continued: “There are many people who are really committed to addressing this violence and improving the world. There is a great deal students can do, too ... For example, the Walk Against Male Violence is one seed — the very beginning of their commitment to the fight against abuse.”

Hancock tells younger people: “All you can really do is speak your truth, do it with passion and then just let it go. If you're not going to walk against the abuse of females, don't walk under the myth and law that the (annual demonstration) doesn't make a bit of difference, because it always makes a difference. It's an incredible achievement.”

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