INTERNATIONAL: Analysis: Poll highlights Hidden but Deadly Dangers for Women

Wednesday, June 15, 2011
Trust Law
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

From gang rape and honour killings to domestic abuse and acid attacks, millions of women suffer horrific violence every day, but nowhere more so than in the five countries a Thomson Reuters Foundation poll identifies as the most dangerous places to be born female.

Afghanistan came top of the list followed by Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan, India and Somalia.

But what is striking is that even in Afghanistan, the poll suggested non-sexual violence and lack of access to economic resources and healthcare were greater threats to women than the insecurity and fighting which continues to ravage the country.

This underscores what is perhaps the survey's most provocative finding: women face dangers far beyond - and far more subtle than - suicide bombers in a marketplace or systematic rape in a conflict zone.

"When you actually allow women and girls to express themselves, these are the problems they cite: 'We can't go to school. We can't make enough money to support our families. We can't access the local health clinic, either because our husband won't allow us or it's inaccessible.' These are real problems," said Elisabeth Roesch, who works on gender-based violence for the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Washington.

Often it is these more neglected problems that represent the greatest perils, particularly in the long term. Lack of education may seem comparatively benign, but it can prove deadly, condemning many women and their children to lives scarred and shortened by poverty, sickness, deprivation and violence.

A lack of antenatal care is again not a subject that's going to grab headlines. Yet a worldwide shortage of midwives means that for many women becoming pregnant is a death sentence.

In Somalia, another country wracked by insurgency, the women's minister, Maryan Qasim, even goes as far as to say that pregnancy, not war, is the biggest danger for the country's women. The risk of dying in childbirth is one in 14. In Afghanistan the odds are even worse.


Respondents to the poll frequently cited discrimination as the root of many dangers to women.

"Pakistani women are left with little, if any, protection from violence and discrimination," said Noreen Haider, chairperson of the Madadgar Trust for Research and Development in Pakistan.

"In addition to Pakistani laws being discriminatory, the judicial system condones and exacerbates the problem by failing to view violence against women as a serious violation of women's human rights."

In India, discrimination starts before birth. Studies suggest up to 12 million girls have been aborted in the last three decades.

"India largely tolerates abortion of female foetuses and other types of violence and neglect exerted against girls because of dowries and discrimination against women," said Antonella Notari, director of WomenChangeMakers, a group supporting women social entrepreneurs.

Despite years of campaigning against female foeticide and government schemes to promote girls, the traditional view remains that boys are assets and girls liabilities, not least because of the cost of marrying them.

There are many other examples of how women suffer when cultural attitudes, tribal customs and religious practices routinely trump any rule of law - girls may be pulled out of school, subjected to female genital mutilation, forced into early marriage or banned from inheriting land.

In parts of Sudan, families stop girls going to secondary school or university because of traditional views that it makes them unmarriagable or that they might run into trouble with boys.

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is internationally recognised as a human rights violation which can cause severe physical and psychological damage and even death. Yet an estimated 140 million girls and women have undergone FGM worldwide and the practice is even on the rise in some countries.

"Sometimes the least safe place for a woman is in her very own home," said the IRC's Roesch.

That is as true in Democratic Republic of the Congo as elsewhere. A report by The American Journal of Public Health estimates that 1,152 women are raped in the DRC every day – that is 48 women every hour.

In many cases rape is being used as a weapon of war by both the Congolese military and rebel soldiers. But the study also suggests that domestic violence and rape by spouses and partners is a growing problem.

In Afghanistan, there is still no law criminalising rape. Haiti only criminalised rape in 2005. And Pakistan fails to recognise marital rape and severely punishes women having sex outside marriage.

But some progress is being made, say gender specialists.

For example, India, Bhutan, Nepal and Pakistan have either passed or are in the process of passing laws against domestic violence.

Pakistan has laws protecting working women from sexual harassment, abduction and intimidation.

And countries including Namibia, Sierra Leone and Nicaragua have set up special police units to handle cases of rape and domestic abuse.