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Celebrate International Women’s Day by acknowledging gains — and demanding action

Even though the United Nations acknowledges that violence against women is a pandemic, it has no treaty solely dedicated to its elimination.

Cheryl Thomas

As International Women’s Day draws near, we need not look further than last month’s Academy Awards to see that violence against women remains one of the most heartbreaking and intractable barriers to women’s equality in the world today. The award for best documentary short went to Pakistani director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy for “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness,” the story of an 18-year-old girl who was shot and thrown in a river for marrying the man she loved. And later in the program, we saw Lady Gaga’s impassioned performance of the theme song to “The Hunting Ground,” surrounded by victims of sexual assault from college campuses across the country.

There is a common thread here. When it comes to violence against women and girls, the world and its institutions are united in their failure to effectively address the problem. No matter how civilized we claim to be, no matter what country we reside in, we are bonded as a human race by the enduring pandemic of violence against women and girls.

The statistics are stark. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost 20 percent of U.S. women have been raped at one point in her life and nearly a third of U.S. women have experienced domestic violence. Among those, a quarter report severe physical violence such as being strangled, hit with a fist or stabbed. In the U.S., an average of three women a day are killed in domestic homicides. 

A worldwide problem

Worldwide, the picture is no less harrowing. The World Health Organization estimates 35 percent of women internationally have experienced domestic violence or sexual violence in her lifetime. The International Center for Research on Women estimates there are more than 70 million child brides worldwide – an entrenched and accepted system of child rape and abuse.

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Our “clash of cultures,” as The Economist recently labeled the sexual assaults of hundreds of women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, is a misnomer. In fact, violence against women is institutionalized across borders. In all countries, violence is used to demoralize, subjugate and terrorize women and girls. The physical and psychological harm cuts sharp and deep for individual victims and continuously haunts them. The constant threat of violence has a chilling effect on all women as they make choices about every aspect of life, including careers, work, school, transportation and residence. As a global community, we have shackled half our population with the threat and reality of violence.

A growing movement

While the generalized failure to effectively address violence against women and girls is tragic, there is a growing movement to end it. Although our organization is relatively young, members of our staff at Global Rights for Women have traveled to more than 30 countries over the past 24 years to work with organizations dedicated to ending violence. Each of those countries is home to passionate women and men who are demanding action from their governments. Importantly, these heroic activists would be offended by any characterization of their culture, nation or religion as intrinsically violent. They understand it is not culture, ethnicity or religion that causes violence; rather it is the universal social message, whether hidden or overt, that men are entitled to power and control over women and their bodies. Exposing and addressing this imbalance of power and equality is the greatest challenge.

Shockingly, even though the United Nations acknowledges that violence against women is a pandemic, it has no treaty solely dedicated to its elimination. Activists are forcing discussions about a new treaty that could affect many more countries than the recently established Istanbul Convention, a powerful Council of Europe treaty that holds governments accountable for creating strategies to end violence against women and girls.

Clearly, the U.N. and its affiliates have no aversion to treaty making, having adopted more than 160 international agreements, including the International Plant Protection Convention and the International Agreement on Olive Oil and Table Olives. Now is the time for the world’s pre-eminent international organization, whose stated mission includes working for the protection of the human rights of all people, to give the elimination of violence against women and girls the priority it deserves.

While we persevere in our efforts to end violence, International Women’s Day — Tuesday, March 8 — is a good time to celebrate victories. We celebrate the laws that have been passed to keep women safer and hold offenders accountable. We celebrate the advocates who serve survivors and guide victims through the system so they get their due justice. We celebrate the communities working to shift social norms by explaining that violence against women and girls is rooted in inequality and is unacceptable. International Women’s Day is a good time to recognize that we all have the tools to end violence against women and girls, and we need to recommit ourselves to ending this pervasive violation of human rights.

Cheryl Thomas is the founder and executive director of Global Rights for Women, a local nonprofit working to end violence against women around the world. She has been working in human rights since 1993 and with the U.N. since 2008. A graduate of Simpson College and the University of Minnesota Law School, Cheryl remains dedicated to achieving global women’s human rights. She and staff attorney Amy Lauricella will be speaking at the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women on March 14-15.

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