Nearly 300 schoolgirls abducted in Nigeria. A pregnant Pakistani woman stoned to death by her family for marrying the man she loved. Widespread rape in many war zones. And in California, a murderous rampage by a disturbed young man who had depicted sorority members as a prime target.
From across the world, startling reports of violence against women surface week after week. The World Health Organization has declared the problem an epidemic, calculating that one in three women worldwide will experience sexual or physical violence — most often from their husband or male partner.
Yet even as they decry the violence and the abundance of misogynistic rhetoric, women’s rights activists see reasons for hope.
“The violence has been happening forever — it’s not anything new,” said Serra Sippel, president of the Washington-based Center for Health and Gender Equity. “What’s new is that people in the United States and globally are coming around to say ‘enough is enough,’ and starting to hold governments and institutional leaders accountable.”
Even in India — where just this past week, two teenage cousins were raped and killed by attackers who hung their bodies from a mango tree — there are signs of change. Public outrage over the 2012 gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old student led the government to expedite legislation increasing prison terms for rapists. In April, a court sentenced three men to death for raping a photojournalist in Mumbai.
In the United States, the military says it’s stepping up efforts to combat sexual assault in the ranks and President Barack Obama’s administration is campaigning against sexual violence at colleges and universities. A month ago, for the first time, the Department of Education revealed its list of schools under investigation for how they have responded to the problem.
On May 8, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and several of her colleagues introduced the International Violence Against Women Act, a bill intended to make anti-women violence a higher diplomatic priority for the United States. And from June 10-13 in London, British Foreign Secretary William Hague and actress Angelina Jolie will co-chair the first-ever Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict.
“It’s absolutely essential that we shed a light on how pervasive this problem is,” said Julia Drost, policy advocate for Amnesty International USA’s women’s human rights program. “From the top on down — world leaders to family members — people need to take responsibility.”
In some important respects, the May 23 rampage in California was different from the systemic violence against women that abounds in much of the world. The assailant, Elliot Rodger, had been plagued by mental health problems for years, and four men were among the six University of California, Santa Barbara students that he killed.
Nonetheless, accounts of Rodger’s hostility to women, and his bitterness over sexual rejection, led to an outpouring of commentary and online debate over the extent of misogyny and male entitlement. On Twitter, using hashtags such as YesAllWomen, many women worldwide shared their experiences with everyday harassment and sexism.
“People are beginning to make the connection between the violence and how women are treated on a day-to-day basis,” said Liesl Gerntholtz, executive director of the Women’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch.
She welcomed the ever-expanding ability of women around the world — and their male allies — to show solidarity and voice anger via social media.
“It’s an issue that’s being taken seriously in a way that it wasn’t before,” she said. “Governments are acknowledging there’s a responsibility of the state to prevent violence against women — even in the home — and bring perpetrators to justice.”
The next crucial step, according to Gerntholtz and other activists, is to engage more men and boys in efforts to break down gender stereotypes and condemn anti-women violence.
Yet even as Rodger’s rampage prompted an outcry against misogyny, it also sparked a backlash from men and women who said it was wrong to suggest the California killings reflected a broader problem of sexism in the U.S.
“Sure, this guy hated women, but this is a hatred we should be able to recognize as insanity,” said Charlotte Hays, director of cultural programs for the Independent Women’s Forum. “This has nothing to do with violence against women.”
Rodger “hated everyone, he was a misanthrope,” said Christina Hoff Sommers, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who often writes skeptically about contemporary feminism.
“Is there misogyny in American culture? Yes,” she said. “But we also have a problem with male-bashing and hatred of men.”
Sommers questioned the efforts to link developments in the United States to the violence and discrimination faced by women abroad.
“We’re a society where women are equal before the law … though certain activists don’t like to hear that,” she said. “Creating this idea that women in America are an oppressed class, that we are held back by patriarchy similar to our sisters living under Sharia law — that’s just ridiculous.”
In contrast, Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, said it was appropriate to draw international parallels. She contended that government neglect of anti-women practices has been widespread, whether in developing nations where girls are blocked from attending school or in the United States, with its problems of sexual assault on campus and in the military.
“The specific expression takes different forms in different countries,” she said. “But the underlying attitude is the devaluing of women as human beings.”
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