Julia Gillard/wikipedia commons

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Summer was ushered in this year by a series of reports on violence against women around the world, perfectly designed to ruin anyone’s holiday. These papers, prepared by an international team of experts including the World Health Organization, are on the one hand predictable — we know the situation is appalling — but yet infinitely worse than anything many of us can have imagined.

It’s not too much to say that everywhere on earth there is a war raging against women and girls and that it shows little sign of waning. While there are countless women and some men everywhere attempting to fight this scourge, with some success, the ugly truth is that we seem quite unable to make more than modest progress. In some cases we are actually regressing. It is a sad commentary on men everywhere.

Based on analyzing 141 studies in 81 countries from 1983 to 2010, the researchers found that nearly one in three women around the world will be victims of physical or sexual abuse by a partner. The incidence is highest by far for central sub-Saharan Africa at 66 per cent. For South Asia — India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka — it’s 41 per cent. In the rich world — notwithstanding real advances in the status of women since the 1960s — some 20-25 per cent will be physically and sexually abused by their husband or boyfriend. Within these rich countries, and this includes Canada, in some communities the figures are dramatically worse.

More than 600 million women live in countries where domestic violence isn’t even considered a crime. Many hundreds of millions more are considered their husband’s property. Almost two in five murdered women are killed by their partners, more in rich countries. The figure for men is 6 per cent.

Let me note two things. First, much violence against women goes unreported, so the crisis is even worse than these data convey. Second, this research dealt only with actual violence, physical or sexual. But abuse of women runs along a continuum, murder and rape being at the extreme end. This new research does not include all the many other ways women around the world are verbally abused, disrespected, psychologically tormented and in general treated as second-class human beings.

Few woman in the world have not suffered some kind of abuse at the hands of misogynist men who refuse to see them as equals. Any given week produces its abundance of examples, from Afghanistan to Australia. When political opponents labelled former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard a “bitch” or “witch,” they dehumanized her, and as genocide scholars have found, once you dehumanize a person or a group, any and all kinds of ill-treatment can be justified.

How can this sickness be reduced, let alone stopped? Obviously nothing less than a major global offensive is required. Anyone anywhere who has influence on male behaviour, from sports and entertainment celebrities to religious leaders to business and government leaders must be mobilized to spread the message: Real men don’t abuse women. All physical abuse must be severely punished.

But more immediately, experts believe reducing violence requires more funding for women’s rights groups around the world. One study found progress to be greatest where feminist organizations at the community level were active.

In poor countries, it’s foreign aid that largely funds such groups, the same aid that is so cavalierly mocked and dismissed by so many of today’s smart thinkers. In rich countries, it’s local women’s groups that are most successful. Yet in Canada, government funding for groups that work on violence against women both at home and abroad, dedicated groups with fine track records, has been slashed from the moment Stephen Harper formed his first minority.

Just this past March the government proudly announced that since 2006 it had approved $57-million for projects designed to end violence against women and girls. That’s good, though $8-million a year distributed across 13 provinces and territories seems distinctly modest given the need.

As well, from 2006 to 2010 there was a 43 per cent funding cut by the government to women’s advocacy groups and initiatives, the closing of 12 of 16 Status of Women offices across Canada and the elimination of funding for legal voices for women. In 2009, Kairos, an excellent Canadian NGO working with a Congolese NGO that protects the rights of women who’d been raped, was defunded. In 2010, the government abruptly ended funding for 14 women’s groups, including the highly-regarded Match International.

Why would the government have done this? It defies all reason.

The total number of these groups, large and small, grass-roots and international, runs into the many dozens, perhaps more. The good work they did has suffered greatly. It makes no sense and, to say the least, makes you wonder about the Harper government’s real commitment to tackling this great outrage.

This article originally appeared in The Globe and Mail.

Photo: wikipedia commons


Gerry Caplan

Gerald Caplan has an MA in Canadian history and a Ph.D. in African history from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. He is an author, teacher, media commentator,...