Saturday, November 19, 2011

Our very lives are at stake

(Originally published in Guyana’s Stabroek News on 12 November 2011)

“You know this is not really a matter of women’s liberation, it is really a matter of survival.” This is what a friend said to me this week on Facebook. She was responding to this statistic I had posted on my page:

“Women perform 66 percent of the world’s work, produce 50 percent of the food, but earn ten percent of the income and own one percent of the property.” (UNICEF, ‘Gender Equality – The Big Picture’, 2007)

When my friend said those words, “it is really a matter of survival,” it pierced my heart and I realised that she was absolutely right. Some may think her words an overstatement, but I had just returned from a domestic violence awareness weekend in Orlando with Sukree Boodram where I shared some other vital statistics that prove my friend is right; it is really a matter of survival.

Here are some of those statistics:
  • More girls have been killed in the last 50 years, just because they were girls, than the number of males who were killed in all the wars of the 20th century. (Half the Sky, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn)
  • On average more than three women a day are murdered by their husbands or boyfriends in the United States. In 2005, 1,181 women were murdered by an intimate partner. (Family Violence Prevention Fund)
  • Women who have experienced domestic violence are 80 percent more likely to have a stroke, 70 percent more likely to have heart disease, 60 percent more likely to have asthma and 70 percent more likely to drink heavily than women who have not experienced intimate partner violence. (Family Violence Prevention Fund)
  • Approximately once every 2 hours, a practice known as “Bride Burning” takes place in India, due to inadequate dowry or to eliminate her so the man can remarry. (Half The Sky, Nicholas D. Kristoff & Sheryl WuDunn)
  • Fifty-two countries have explicitly criminalized rape within marriage. However, worldwide, 2.6 billion women and girls live in countries where rape within marriage is not explicitly criminalized. (UN Progress of the Women 2011-2012 Report)
  • In Canada, 21 percent of women abused by their partners were assaulted during pregnancy. Of those, 40 percent said the abuse started when they became pregnant. (Hot Peach Pages, International Directory of Domestic Violence Agencies)
  • The World Health Organization estimates 100 million to 140 million girls and women worldwide have been “circumcised,” which is also called Female Genital Mutilation [FGM]. These procedures all involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons, but rather to control when the woman may and may not have sex.
  • Despite impressive gains in gender equality, nearly 4 million women are “missing” each year in developing countries (World Development Report 2012: Gender Equality and Development)
  • The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates that perhaps as many as 5,000 women and girls a year are killed by members of their own families by “honour killings.” Many women’s groups in the Middle East and Southwest Asia suspect the victims are at least four times more.

The perceived dishonour which merits an “honour killing” is normally the result of one of the following behaviours, or the suspicion of such behaviours: (a) dressing in a manner unacceptable to the family or community; (b) wanting to terminate or prevent an arranged marriage or desiring to marry by own choice; (c) engaging in heterosexual sexual acts outside marriage, or even due to a non-sexual relationship perceived as inappropriate; (d) engaging in homosexual acts.

In other words, if a woman has a mind and will of her own, she should be killed.  I find no honour in that.

I have gathered so many statistics of this type that they would fill this entire newspaper. If four million men were killed in a war (which they started themselves), the world would weep. Yet four million women go missing in developing countries each year and not a tear is shed.

If there were a food or some other factor that increased the likelihood of stroke by 80 percent, the medical community would be in an uproar to encourage everyone to avoid that potential risk. Yet women who are abused are 80 percent more likely to have a stroke and we can hear the crickets chirp in the silence that follows.

The lives of women are so devalued that they can be beaten, tortured, burned to death, raped and brutally murdered without a blink of an eye.

The more statistics I gather, the more I realise that we really are in a fight for our very lives.

There are some who have questioned why I continue this fight. Why do I jump on sexist jokes? Why do I find such disgrace in a President who backballs on a political stage? Why do I insist that political parties make women’s issues a priority this election season? Why do I write so much on something so morbid as domestic violence? Why not just leave good enough alone? These statistics are the reason I continue and things are not good enough.

I spend one week a month in Guyana and while I am in town I do not hobnob with the elite and drink champagne at exclusive parties. I meet with women who are trying to escape their abusers. I talk with women who are being raped by their partners. I cry with mothers who have lost their daughters to abusers or murderers.

These women, and many more besides, are the reason I keep these issues alive. How can I be silent? How can I brush off a sexist joke when I know the disrespect it creates perpetuates the brutality suffered by my sisters?

This is indeed a fight for our lives and I intend to save as many women as possible in my lifetime. My additional hope is that every woman reading these words can find the strength to do the same. For those who do not yet have that strength, I understand and I have faith that it will come.

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