“Violence against women is a heinous human rights violation, global menace, a public health threat and a moral outrage,” Secretary General of the UN, Ban Ki-moon said in a recent statement to frame the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in New York. The recent commission, bringing together 140 leaders from countries around the globe had the primary aim of agreeing a clear global standard regarding gender equality: governments are obligated to protect women, and in no way are religions, traditions, or national customs to provide a loophole within these obligations.
The focus on education and awareness among young-people seems particularly encouraging. It is only through education that our entrenched constructions of and assumptions about gender will be shifted. Men and women, we are taught from a young age, are this and that – women are submissive, emotional, in need of protection – and men are strong, dominant, and aggressive. If we are taught to accept that men are naturally predisposed to attack women, act violently, to rape – then what results are comments such as UK and Indian police chiefs locating the cause of rape in the actions of women, and the banning of miniskirts and certain types of trouser in Swaziland due to these items being ‘rape-promoting’. The simple essentialising assumption that men simply cannot help themselves and women must adjust their behavior according to this will never reduce the shocking fact that seven out of ten women globally are subject to violence. The location of the solution for this problem by the commission in prevention and education is therefore a stride towards long-term improvements in gender equality.
“We will keep moving forward to the day when women and girls can live free of fear, violence and discrimination. The 21st century is the century of inclusion and women’s full and equal rights and participation,” UN Women’s Executive Director, Michelle Bachelet concluded after the commission – although this is not entirely the case. Countries such as Russia, Iran and the Vatican all took issue with the wording of the commission, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and pro-life groups in America – fearing that it would lead to the disintegration of traditional values and structures. It is telling that countries such as Iran, Russia and Vatican all have vested political interest in maintaining male dominance as a requisite of preserving illegitimate power. Of course they would dress up their opposition in terms of structural changes being a threat to “culture” or “tradition”. These two sacred terms are often seen as things that should not be modified, indeed we should fight at all costs to preserve them – more often than not these are simply ways of justifying present dominations and injustices.
Whilst the impact of the commission is limited until superpowers such as Iran and Russia adopt a more decisive stance against violence towards women, its focus on education and prevention should have far reaching positive consequences in the future. What needs to be assaulted is the very way in which we understand what the labels ‘woman’ and ‘man’ mean, and how they work to create inequality. The entrenched assumptions of difference and dominance (men are stronger than women, naturally dominant, naturally prone to be violent, gender roles are natural), in my opinion, will only change if addressed from the very earliest stages of education and cultural upbringing.
Jack W. Lewis