WORLD SOCIAL FORUM: VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN: THE “OTHER WORLD” MUST ACT

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WORLD SOCIAL FORUM

VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN: THE “OTHER WORLD” MUST ACT

Introduction

It was decided that for the second meeting of the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre there would be a forum for reflection and debate on alternatives to the “culture of violence.” The World March of Women agreed to write the paper that will serve as the basis of discussion for this forum. We have deliberately chosen to talk about violence against women in order to illustrate how central this form of violence is to the so-called “culture of violence.” It could be said that this is the original form of violence, even the paradigm on which other forms of violence are modelled. We chose to talk about violence against women precisely because feminists have always been the ones to speak about this phenomenon. Apart from the contributions of feminists and the pressure we have brought to bear, the public discourse on this issue has been like violence against women itself: invisible.

It is somehow terrible to talk about a “culture of violence.” It seems paradoxical to casually pair the words culture and violence—one, with its positive connotations and the other, with all its negative associations. The use of the word culture suggests, to varying degrees, social endorsement, assent and transmission. This is exactly what happens with violence against women.

Without denying the importance of other forms of violence, we believe that if the causes and consequences of violence against women are thoroughly understood, the groundwork can be laid for alternatives to construct another world based on equality and respect of others.

The aim of this paper, then, is to demonstrate the universality of violence and its diverse forms and, especially, to pinpoint its causes in order to succeed in eradicating it. We denounce the patriarchy—a system which for thousands of years has imposed inequality, exploitation, privilege, discrimination, values, standards, and policies, based on the presumed natural inferiority of women as human beings and on a hierarchy of social roles assigned to women and men. It is this system that generates violence. We denounce neoliberal capital globalization that is supported by a sexual division of labour that creates additional inequality between men and women and concomitantly, the potential for increased violence. Our goal is to put an end to violence against women and we will enumerate the elements that must be changed in order to do so. Naturally, this directly concerns all who are active in the struggle against liberal globalization.

We hope that everyone who reads this paper will contribute to it with his or her thinking and proposals so that we will arrive in Porto Alegre in 2002 with a powerful text that invites action. We welcome your comments.

IN THE DAWN OF THE 21ST CENTURY: DEEPLY ROOTED TOLERANCE AND COMPLICITY WITH ALL FORMS OF VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN

Violence against women: a transnational and transcultural reality

Violence against women takes different forms depending on the society or culture in question, but it is a social phenomenon that cuts across all social classes, cultures, religions and geo-political situations. There are no exceptions, and the rule is unfortunately confirmed every day.

Indeed, every minute women are abused, humiliated, assaulted, raped, beaten, exploited and killed, most often by men close to them—and this has been true for thousands of years.

Violence occurs most often in the private realm (feminists have amply shown that the “private is political”): for example, within the family, in the form of incestuous rape, genital mutilation, infanticide, son preference, forced marriage, etc.; and within marriage or a sexual relationship, in the form of marital rape, blows, psychological control, pimping, “honour” crimes, femicide, etc. The public sphere is also the arena for violence against women in the form of sexual and psychological harassment in the workplace, sexual assault, gang rape, sex trafficking, pornography, organized procurement rings, slavery, forced sterilization, etc. Violence against women is most often an expression of one man’s domination, but it may also be practiced in an organized manner by several men or by a state (systematic rape in Bosnia and Haiti). Too often it is tolerated, excused or encouraged by silence, discrimination, women’s dependence on men, theoretical justifications and psychological approaches that support various stereotypes and myths: men are unable to control themselves, especially their sexual impulses; rapists are mentally ill; women love “real” men, etc.

The multiple manifestations of violence against women

Some global statistics on violence against women (taken from Sexism and Globalization, World March of Women, 2000):

• 20% to 50% of women are, to varying degrees, victims of wife assault. • An estimated 5,000 women and girls in the world are victims of “honour” crimes every year. • According to UNICEF, one in 10 women in the world is raped at least once in her lifetime. • According to most published studies on the subject, women are most often raped by a man they know. • There are an estimated 130 million women in the world who have suffered genital excision; every year nearly two million more women are subjected to this custom, at a rate of roughly 6,000 per day, or five girls per minute. • Estimates of the number of women in the sex industry range from a low of nine million to as high as 40 million women throughout the world. • It is estimated that the sex trade generates $52 billion every year for organized criminal networks. • It is evaluated that four million women and girls are bought and sold around the world every year, to future husbands, pimps or slave merchants. • In the region of Southeast Asia alone, nearly 70 million women and children have been victims of sex trafficking over the last 10 years. • Over 100 million girls are missing around the world because of son preference. • In India, an average of five women are victims of dowry-related burnings every day, and many other cases are never reported. • In 2000, a study conducted in the 15 member states of the European Union revealed that 2% of women workers (three million) have suffered sexual harassment at work and 9% of women and men workers have experienced psychological harassment.

Fundamentalist regimes: extreme examples of the institutionalization of violence against women

Fundamentalist regimes like that of the Taliban in Afghanistan have institutionalized violence against women, conferring on all men the divine right to employ it at any time. Over the centuries, the absolute control of women and appropriation of women’s bodies has manifested itself in different ways, ranging from outright horror to manipulation. The 20th century saw progress in women’s rights but no significant reduction in the violence of which women are the specific targets. We know about “honour” crimes, dowry-related crimes against young women, and the levirate: all practices that give men in the family life and death power over the women and girls. Furthermore, in the West, despite broad recognition of women’s rights, violence and diverse forms of control persist (a woman is raped every 6 minutes in the United States, non-recognition of marital rape and the right to abortion in Switzerland; expansion of sex trafficking; massacres of women like that of 1989 in Montréal). No society is free of violence against women because there is no society where women and men are equal, even where equality of rights or formal equality has been recognized.

On the international scene at the moment, the situation of Afghan women is probably the most striking example of the indifference or tolerance of the intolerable in societies claiming to respect fundamental human rights. Before October 7, few countries had actively called for the end of the Talibans’ abuse of women that had gone on since 1996. Since the beginning of the war, however, it has become popular to justify the bombing by pointing to the non-respect of women’s fundamental rights. According to Amnesty International, the number of women victims of armed conflict has risen from 5% during the First World War, to 50% during the Second World War, to almost 80% during the 1990s. There is no reason why the present war should be any different. Women in Afghanistan, like the rest of the population, want the bombing to end, and with the departure of the Taliban, to see the institution of equal rights. Afghan women’s groups also want to be actively involved in peace negotiations and in the restoration of democracy in their country.

Rape as a weapon of war

Another manifestation of violence against women is the use of women’s bodies as war booty or a weapon of war. In all armed conflict, from ancient times to the present, aggressors have used rape as a way of attacking their enemies. Rape camps were organized during the Balkan war, for example, as part of the “ethnic cleansing” campaign. It has now been revealed that during the Algerian war, French combatants committed rape on a massive scale. Between 1932 and the end of the Second World War, Japan set up camps so that its army could be “serviced” by sexual slaves. In these rape centres, termed “Recreation Centres,” 200,000 women were forced into sexual slavery. The slaves, known as “comfort women,” were kidnapped from neighbouring countries who were at war with Japan. Since the end of the war in Kosovo, women from Eastern Europe have been kidnapped, confined, terrorized and taken by organized crime networks into brothels in Pristina. Almost half of the men frequenting these brothels are international NGO workers and peacekeeping forces. The list goes on and on.

Women fight back and organize

Despite the suffering they have endured, women everywhere fight back against violence every day. They organize with each other and demonstrate to change laws, ensure their implementation, challenge the “customs” for which women pay the price, and to offer solidarity to women who are victims of violence, etc. Every day, women who have been violently attacked find the courage to rise up in loud and determined protest. They are the principal fighters against this social scourge. Here are just a few examples: the Maurician women who mobilized against wife assault and had a law passed in 1997; the plays created by Filippina women to prevent sex trafficking; Women in Black in Serbia, who protested Milosevic’s militarist and nationalistic policy and supported women refugees in Kosovo; and associations in Burkina Faso who work with adolescent girls to prevent genital mutilation and forced or early marriage.

THE CAUSES OF VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN

Violence against women is rooted in the hatred of otherness and the belief that domination is a viable means of survival. The patriarchy instituted a system of masculine domination (social, economic and political) over women. Despite the progress of feminism in the last few years, men and boys in all societies and social classes derive large benefits and concrete privileges from this system of domination: for example, domestic work and the raising of children are everywhere the almost exclusive domain of women and girls, who do it for free. Boys and men everywhere are accorded more value than women and girls. In order to impose and to maintain what is the oldest and most persistent system of exploitation and oppression, violence, or the threat of violence, is used as a tool of control and punishment for disregarding the patriarchy’s established rules (hierarchy, submission, obedience, etc.). Our societies have developed (and continue to develop) from a foundation that espouses a hierarchy of individuals according to sex. In this context, otherness is seen and constructed as a threat rather than as an advantage. From this springs the need to dominate in order to survive that is the basis of the patriarchy. The desire to preserve the privilege inherent in the status of the oppressor leads to the use of violence as an affirmation of masculinity and as a tool for maintaining dominance. A bond of solidarity is thus constructed among men to assure the continuity of this situation. As long as we refuse to challenge these realities, we will not succeed in eliminating violence against women.

Patriarchal domination generally models itself on the dominant economic system or existing mode of production. The mode of capitalist production therefore coexists with its forerunner, patriarchal domination, and uses it to great profit. Regimes that were supposedly socialist have also operated hand in glove with patriarchy and women’s historical experience with these types of societies has convinced us that a “progressive” regime will not automatically guarantee women’s equality and be resolved to eradicate sexist violence. Women are obviously present in all social classes. It is women, however, who constitute the majority of workers in the informal economy, the free economic zones, and those without paid work in the South. In the North, women form the majority in the ranks of the unemployed and of those with unstable, flexible and part-time jobs. Women—in the South and the North—still perform virtually all domestic labour for free. These areas of heightened vulnerability may also present the risk of increased violence and make it harder for women to escape violence.

Women are further rendered vulnerable by racist discrimination. These different modes of oppression intersect, interpenetrate and mutually reinforce one another. A disability, youth or old age, lesbianism and prostitution are additional factors that increase the likelihood of women being targetted.

THE CONSEQUENCES OF VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN

The repercussions of sexist violence on the lives of women victims are never negligible. The entire being is profoundly shaken, with everything that was previously taken for granted now thrown into question. Paradoxically, whatever the circumstances or forms of violence we have suffered, we feel ashamed and guilty. We feel shame for the invasion of our intimate beings, for being robbed of control and of our physical and psychological integrity. We feel guilty for our supposed failure to offer resistance (the reality is always more complex than it appears). This is true in every part of the world—South and North, East and West.

The repercussions of violence are most obvious in women’s health: physical consequences of genital mutilation such as repeated hemorrhages and even septicemia; multiple contusions, broken bones, etc. from repeated blows.

By definition, violence can also result in death: the murder of newborn girls in China, “honour” crimes in Jordan and Morocco, the murder of women in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. But death can also result from wife assault: a blow struck a little harder than usual by a husband, in a particularly vulnerable spot. Even the World Bank has to admit that violence against women, as much as cancer, is responsible for death and incapacity in women of reproductive age, and causes more health problems than road accidents and malaria combined.

The consequences are also psychological: loss of self-esteem, depression, suicidal feelings, nightmares, anxiety attacks, psychosis, fear of sexual relations, vulnerability to sexual exploitation (prostitution), etc.

Consequences are often material in nature: forced move, job loss, termination of studies, etc. Relations with intimates may be upset: separation with spouse, distancing from erstwhile friends, etc.

The primary consequence of violence against women, even the threat of violence, is that it maintains women in a state of constant fear and vulnerability and restricts our movements (especially in the evening or nighttime), access to public spaces where we can feel safe, social participation, and autonomy. Women are thereby denied access to full citizenship. Violence fulfills a role of social control of women. Furthermore, these consequences also manifest themselves as economic costs.

VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN AND LIBERAL GLOBALIZATION

One of the results of liberal globalization is the relocation of businesses from the North to the South in the quest for cheaper labour. The labour market is thereby opened up to women, but under the most severe conditions: pay that is not adequate to live on, intolerable working conditions presenting grave health risks, non-existent labour rights, prohibition of unionization. The precariousness of their situation in the labour market renders these women extremely vulnerable: for example, during hiring interviews in the maquiladoras of Mexico, women workers must answer questions concerning their sexual practice, menstrual cycle, and birth control measures. Companies also demand pregnancy tests. Because most of these women are single mothers or are the main source of income for their family, they submit to these humiliating controls over their bodies. In plants that have been relocated to Bangladesh, women workers have two big fears: fire and rape. In June 1996, 32 women were burned in Dacca because the factory had no emergency exit or fire extinguishers. News spread fast. Inversely, when it comes to rape, the law of silence prevails. Women routinely suffer sexual harassment and are threatened with dismissal if they do not submit to their male bosses.

In the North, changes in work organization (increased duties, accelerated work pace, more pressure on employees, etc.) and the development of all kinds of unstable and atypical jobs have led to rising psychological harassment, with women being the principal victims because they form the majority of the people in these jobs.

As capitalist globalization evolves, we see a growing feminization of migration, for the most part toward industrialized countries. These women are forced to emigrate because they can no longer support themselves at home and must help their family with regular shipments of money back home. Some countries, like the Philippines, even encourage this migration. Women are often employed in the home where they may be forced to endure sexual harassment and rape by their employers in addition to being dependent because of their undocumented status. This was the case of the Filippina Sarah Balabagan (14 years old) in Saudi Arabia, and Véronique Akobé from Ivory Coast. Both were tried and sentenced for attempted murder or murder of employers who had raped them.

The international financial institutions (IMF and World Bank) impose structural adjustment programs on indebted countries in order to “restore” their economies. These programs prescribe the destruction of public services, drastic reduction of the civil service, major increases in the prices of essential goods, etc. They force women to even higher levels of unpaid work to compensate for the newly non-existent services, throw thousands of women and men on unemployment, and impoverish and starve entire populations. These pernicious actions destroy the social fabric, thereby setting the stage for the emergence of additional violence against women, in particular within intimate relationships. They promote the merchandizing of women’s and children’s (mainly girls’) bodies—the only thing they have left to sell—in prostitution, domestic slavery, organ trafficking, etc.

The sex trade: a vastly profitable industry

Liberal globalization has bestowed a planetary dimension on the sex trade, which had already morphed from a neighbourhood phenomenon into an industry. Internationalization has generated a huge market for sexual commerce where women and children have become consumer items to meet the male “demand.” Prostitution has expanded considerably in the Southern hemisphere during the past three decades, and in Eastern Europe, since the fall of the Berlin Wall. It appears in different forms. There is rising domestic prostitution linked with the movement from the countryside to the cities. Women and children are prostituted in the “red-light” districts of metropolises in their own countries: Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia, India, etc. Spurred by the ease of transportation and communications, the attraction of the “exotic,” the search for ever-younger prostitutes who are supposedly not HIV-positive, sex tourism is steadily growing. Some countries even depend on the income from prostitution to assure their development. Sex tourism is not only a phenomenon of countries in the South. It is also practiced in Europe, in Berlin, Hamburg and Amsterdam, which have become major destinations. These cities also happen to be in countries that have recognized prostitution as “sex work.”

Parallel to this local prostitution, the international traffic in women and children has exploded. In the cities of Japan, Western Europe and North America we now see hundreds of thousands of young women who have been “displaced” into prostitution. The largest contingent comes from countries in South and Southeast Asia: roughly 400,000 per year. Next is the former Soviet Union, followed by Latin America and the Caribbean. These women and children are sometimes kidnapped and sold from middleman to middleman until they reach the ultimate destination. Other women are forced out of desperation to leave their country, and subsequently fall prey to organized crime networks that assure the passage over borders, and promise well-paid work in a bar, or marriage with a man from the West. The Constitution of “Fortress Europe,” which drastically restricts the free movement of persons, the vision of Eldorado in the West, and the desire to flee war are some of the reasons women resort to these strategies.

In the crime networks, women are “conditioned” into prostitution by the use of violence to force them into obedience and submission: blows, humiliation, repeated rapes, etc. These networks generate huge profits. Interpol has calculated that the income of a pimp living in Europe is roughly 108,000 euros per year. Trafficking women for the purposes of prostitution is now more profitable than drugs: drugs generate one-time profits, while a prostituted woman is a year-long source of income to the pimp.

Prostitution networks are supported by the unrivalled and completely unchallenged growth of pornography: sex-shops, pornographic Web sites, videos, etc. These businesses transmit commercialized, degrading and violent images of women’s bodies, most of the time in complete legality. They do the same, this time illegally, with children. Women appearing in these films are often themselves victims of rape, violence and murder, as the demand for “hardcore” films and “reality shows” skyrockets.

ALTERNATIVES, PERSPECTIVES AND DIRECTIONS TO TAKE TOWARDS THE COMPLETE ELIMINATION OF ALL FORMS OF VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN

How do we stop it? What needs to be done so that this age-old violence is eradicated?

Discriminatory practices and sexual inequality are often, even today, entrenched and institutionalized in the laws of numerous countries. Throughout the 20th century and up to the present day, feminists have been struggling for recognition of our fundamental rights. We have demanded and pressured to have our gains formally written into law. Recognition of our formal rights is indeed the first battle to be won, whether at the national or international level. Our first demand, then, is that violence against women be prohibited by law in every country and that the content of international and regional Conventions (where they exist) be transposed into domestic legislation (see demands of the World March of Women in the Appendix).

Next, ensure that these laws prohibit all forms of violence. There are still some countries where marital rape is not a crime: for example, in India, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, and Serbia. There are countries, like Haiti, where wife assault, both psychological and physical, is not recognized. There are still countries where the criminal code stipulates that if a rapist marries the woman he raped, he will not be prosecuted, for example: Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Lebanon, Peru, Uruguay. There are still countries, France, for example, where only a superior, not a colleague, can commit sexual harassment in the workplace.

Next, we must continue to ensure that these laws are actually implemented. In almost all countries, laws prohibiting violence against women are poorly implemented due to the absence of a clear political will to ensure their enforcement. In reality, in those countries where women have the possibility of doing so, very few report their assaults out of fear of reprisal or simply out of fear of not being believed. The violence thus remains invisible. In all the countries of the world, it is feminists who have made it visible.

Some Western countries are old hands at double talk: shedding a few tears of compassion, they sincerely deplore violence against women; at the same time—in the name of freedom of expression—they allow the walls of their cities to be plastered with advertisements that degrade and debase the public image of women and incite and give permission to men to rape.

But laws do not solve everything. It is the responsibility of the state in all countries of the world to create a climate where violence against women is unacceptable to all citizens.

It is the responsibility of the state in all countries of the world to educate their population by every means possible toward this goal, starting with the youngest children.

It is the responsibility of the state in all countries of the world to sensitize professionals who will have contact with victims (social services, health, education, law enforcement, and the justice system) to the reality of this particular form of violence.

It is the responsibility of the state in all countries to recognize and promote sexual equality and women’s fundamental rights.

We have a long way to go, to be sure, when some states have even institutionalized violence against women. But we are here, after all, to press for utopia.

It is not only up to the states to assume responsibility

All social movements—anti-neoliberal globalization associations, trade unions and political organizations—must actively denounce violence against women. Unions, for example, must condemn sexual harassment at work and support any woman who has been the victim of wife assault and is facing the necessity of quitting her job because her spouse follows her to the workplace (this happens both in the North and South).

It is our individual and collective responsibility as women and men to speak out against violence wherever we see it, including within our own mixed activist organizations. We must work to prevent its occurrence. We must not repeat the behaviour of the people who, at 6 o’clock one evening in 1986, stood on the Paris métro platform and watched a young girl being raped and did not move to help her.

It is the responsibility of our male colleagues in social movements to publicly show their solidarity with feminists’ struggle against violence against women, in the name of the other society we want to build together. How about a solemn declaration by social movements and the World March of Women in which we commit to a common struggle? Why not organize an international tribunal on violence against women for the third meeting of the World Social Forum?

Violence of all kinds deprives women of our autonomy and undermines our physical, psychological, and intellectual integrity. It prevents us from working, from being politically active, from having fun—in short, from living. This must be heard and understood.

Violence against women is legitimized and generated by all forms of inequality, fanaticism, sexist discrimination, and the condition of inferiority and marginality in which society attempts to maintain us. Violence is the ultimate guarantee of women’s oppression; at the same time, our unequal societies are the breeding grounds of sexist violence. The struggle against inequality is also a struggle against the legitimization of violence.

Men will certainly lose a little privilege in the struggle against sexual inequality. But are we not gathering together to rid society of privilege, ALL privilege? Men, like women, stand to gain human relations based on reciprocal trust and respect. They, like women, stand to gain new individuals who have shed the garb of outdated tradition. Men, like women, will gain a society that is genuinely egalitarian, for which we are struggling in all other areas: racism, anti-colonialism, etc.

Many authors refer to the innate nature of violence, and its “natural” aspect. Freud proposes the existence of a death wish. Some even believe there is a “violence” gene. None of that has been proven, in our opinion. We might also suggest that violence is a social construction. Free of all harmful influences, it is quite simple to educate a child to non-violence. Those arguing that violence is “natural” would seem to be looking for ideological justifications or a way to legitimize it.

What is clear, meanwhile, is that violence is used to dominate. One cannot exert domination over another without violence. It need not always be explicit: ideology also serves to maintain the hierarchy of dominance.

One of the things that makes it possible to really live, as a human being, is the ability to relax in peace and not constantly be on one’s guard. A permanent state of war is intolerable. But that presupposes a minimum of trust in the Other—the basis of any “normal” human relationship. Some women do not even know what it is to trust in this way. For them, life consists of dealing with the unexpected: the violence of their partner or their superior at work. LIVING is virtually impossible. Their lives are reduced to mere survival and a slow psychic death.

WHEN WE WILL BE ABLE TO STOP IT? “A people who oppresses another people is not a free people.” To paraphrase: “A person who oppresses another is not a free person.”

Our capacity to build another world is also dependent on this: social movements must commit to challenging the unequal relations between women and men; they must undertake to incorporate in their analysis the links between capitalism, sexism and racism; demand the respect of women’s rights; commit to challenging the “culture of violence”— in both individual and collective practice. It is only by so doing that we have a chance of shaking the foundations of patriarchy and liberal globalization.

World March of Women www.ffq.qc.ca/marche2000