UNITED NATIONS — The evidence is ubiquitous. The gang rape of a
young woman on a bus in New Delhi sets off an unusual burst of national outrage
in India. In South Sudan, women are assaulted by both sides in the civil war. In
Iraq, jihadists enslave women for sex. And American colleges face mounting
scrutiny about campus rape.
Despite the many gains women have made in education, health and even political
power in the course of a generation, violence against women and girls worldwide
“persists at alarmingly high levels,” according to a United Nations analysis
that the Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is scheduled to present to the General
Assembly on Monday.
About 35 percent of women worldwide — more than one in three — said they had
experienced violence in their lifetime, whether physical, sexual, or both, the
report finds. One in 10 girls under the age of 18 was forced to have sex, it
The subject is under sharp focus as delegates from around the world gather here
starting on Monday to assess how well governments have done since they promised
to ensure women’s equality at a landmark conference in Beijing 20 years ago —
and what to do next.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, who attended the Beijing conference in 1995, is
scheduled to speak on Tuesday.
Since the Beijing conference, there has been measurable, though mixed, progress
on many fronts, according to the United Nations analysis.
As many girls as boys are now enrolled in primary school, a sharp advance since
1995. Maternal mortality rates have fallen by half. And women are more likely to
be in the labor force, though the pay gap is closing so slowly that it will take
another 75 years before women and men are paid equally for equal work.
The share of women serving in legislatures has nearly doubled, too, though women
still account for only one in five legislators. All but 32 countries have
adopted laws that guarantee gender equality in their constitutions.
But violence against women — including rape, murder and sexual harassment —
remains stubbornly high in countries rich and poor, at war and at peace. The
United Nations’ main health agency, the World Health Organization, found that 38
percent of women who are murdered are killed by their partners.
Even as women’s groups continue to push for laws that criminalize violence —
marital rape is still permitted in many countries — new types of attacks have
emerged, some of them online, including rape threats on Twitter.
Where there are laws on the books, like ones that criminalize domestic violence,
for instance, they are not reliably enforced.
The economic impact is huge. One recent study found that domestic violence
against women and children alone costs the global economy $4 trillion.
“Over all, as you look at the world, there have been no large victories in
eradicating violence against women,” said Valerie M. Hudson, a professor of
politics at Texas A & M University who has developed world maps that chart the
status of women. The vast majority of countries, by her metrics, do not have
laws that protect women’s physical safety.
In some cases, the laws on the books are the problem, women’s rights advocates
say. In some countries, like Nigeria, the law permits a man to beat his wife
under certain circumstances. But even when laws are technically adequate,
victims often do not feel comfortable going to law enforcement, or they are
unable to pay the bribes required to file a police report.
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the executive director of the United Nations agency for
gender equity and women’s empowerment — known as UN Women — said that for the
laws to mean anything, governments around the world have to persuade their
police officers, judges and medical personnel to take violence against women
“I am disappointed, I have to be honest,” she said about the stubborn hold of
violence against women. “More than asking for more laws to be passed, I’m asking
According to Equality Now, an advocacy group that tracks laws pertaining to
women, 125 countries specifically criminalize domestic violence. But so-called
wife-obedience laws still remain in some places. In some others, rapists can get
off the hook by marrying those they assault.
Yasmeen Hassan, the group’s executive director, said that governments need to be
reminded that they committed to making their laws fair for women. Cultural
differences cannot be an excuse, she said. “It’s always a cop-out for
governments to not do what they signed up to do,” she said.
The new round of global development targets that governments around the world
will have to agree to later this year, known as Sustainable Development Goals,
includes a separate requirement for women’s equal rights, including how they
protect their female citizens from violence.
The latest United Nations report draws attention to the rise of “extremism and
conservatism,” and without naming any countries or groups, it argues that what
they share is a “resistance to women’s human rights.” The assaults and
abductions by the Islamic State have brought new urgency to the issue.
Ms. Hudson, the academic, said the persistence of violence in so many forms is
in part because it can establish domination against women of all kinds, for a
broad range of personal and political purposes. A husband can just as easily
beat his wife if she is a high school dropout or a college graduate. An entire
territory can be claimed if fighters rape the local women — or take them as sex
slaves, as is the case of the Islamic State.
“I think violence against women is so darn useful,” she said. “That’s why it’ll
be so hard to eradicate.”
Violence can start before birth. Sex-selective abortions, have been reduced in
some countries, as in South Korea, but are higher than ever in other places,
like India, and are going up sharply in places like Armenia.
Harassment is commonplace. In the United States, 83 percent of girls aged 12 to
16 said they had experienced some form of harassment in public schools. In New
Delhi, a 2010 study found that two out of three women said they were harassed
more than twice in the last year alone.
Violence against women is often unreported. For instance, a study conducted in
the 28 countries of the European Union found that only 14 percent of women
reported their most serious episode of domestic violence to the police.
”Violence against women has epidemic proportions, and is present in every
single country around the world,” said Lydia Alpizar, executive director of the
Association for Women’s Rights in Development, a global feminist group. “Yet it
is still not a real priority for most governments.”
Perhaps the biggest change in 20 years, say those who attended the 1995 Beijing
conference, is that the subject is now front and center in public discussion.
“There is actually a great deal more attention being paid today to violence
against women,” said Charlotte Bunch, a feminist scholar who attended the
Beijing conference. “The truth is, it’s a complex issue that isn’t solved
It would be nice to think that women who achieve power would want to help women
at the bottom. But one continuing global drama underscores that women in power
can be every bit as contemptible as men.
Sheikh Hasina, prime minister of Bangladesh, is mounting a scorched-earth
offensive against Muhammad Yunus, the founder of Grameen Bank and champion of
the economic empowerment of women around the world. Yunus, 72, won a Nobel Peace
Prize for his pioneering work in microfinance, focused on helping women lift
their families out of poverty.
Yet Sheikh Hasina’s government has already driven Yunus from his job as managing
director of Grameen Bank. Worse, since last month, her government has tried to
seize control of the bank from its 5.5 million small-time shareholders, almost
all of them women, who collectively own more than 95 percent of the bank.
What a topsy-turvy picture: We see a woman who has benefited from evolving
gender norms using her government powers to destroy the life’s work of a man who
has done as much for the world’s most vulnerable women as anybody on earth.
The government has also started various investigations of Yunus and his finances
and taxes, and his supporters fear that he might be arrested on some pretext or
“It’s an insane situation,” Yunus told me a few days ago at the Clinton Global
Initiative in New York, sounding subdued instead of his normally exuberant self.
“I just don’t know how to deal with it.”
If the government succeeds in turning Grameen Bank into a government bank, Yunus
said, “it is finished.”
Sheikh Hasina, in New York for the United Nations General Assembly, initially
agreed to be interviewed by me in a suite at the Grand Hyatt. At the last minute
she canceled and refused to reschedule.
Perhaps none of this should be surprising. Metrics like girls’ education and
maternal mortality don’t improve more when a nation is led by a woman. There is
evidence that women matter as local leaders and on corporate boards, but that
doesn’t seem to have been true at the national level, at least not for the first
cohort of female leaders around the world.
Bangladesh is actually a prime example of the returns from investing in women.
When it separated from Pakistan in 1971, it was a wreck. But it invested in
girls’ education, and today more than half of its high school students are
female — an astonishing achievement for an impoverished Muslim country.
All those educated women formed the basis for Bangladesh’s garment industry.
They also had fewer births: the average Bangladeshi woman now has 2.2 children,
down from 6 in 1980. Bringing women into the mainstream also seems to have
soothed extremism, which is much less of a concern than in Pakistan (where
female literacy in the tribal areas is only 3 percent).
To her credit, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has spoken up for Yunus: “I
highly respect Muhammad Yunus, and I highly respect the work that he has done,
and I am hoping to see it continue without being in any way undermined or
affected by any government action,” she said earlier this year. Two former
secretaries of state, George Shultz and Madeleine Albright, have also called on
Sheikh Hasina to back off.
She shows no sign of doing so. One theory is that she is paranoid and sees Yunus
as a threat, especially since he made an abortive effort to enter politics in
2007. Another theory is that she is envious of his Nobel Peace Prize and
resentful of his global renown.
Sheikh Hasina is disappointing in other ways. She has turned a blind eye to
murders widely attributed to the security services. My Times colleague Jim
Yardley wrote just this month about a labor leader, Aminul Islam, who had been
threatened by security officers and whose tortured body was found in a pauper’s
Yunus fans are signing a Change.org petition on his behalf, but I’d like to see
more American officials and politicians speak up for him. President Obama, how
about another photo op with Yunus?
I still strongly believe that we need more women in leadership posts at home and
around the world, from presidential palaces to corporate boards. The evidence
suggests that diverse leadership leads to better decision making, and I think
future generations of female leaders may be more attentive to women’s issues
than the first.
In any case, this painful episode in Bangladesh is a reminder that the struggle
to achieve gender equality isn’t simply a battle between the sexes.
It is far more subtle. Misogyny and indifference remain obstacles for women
globally, but those are values that can be absorbed and transmitted by women as
well as by men.
I invite you
to comment on this column on my blog,
Whenever a religious belief is criticised,
its adherents say they're victims of
Wednesday, 28 January 2009
The right to criticise religion is being slowly doused in acid. Across the
world, the small, incremental gains made by secularism – giving us the space to
doubt and question and make up our own minds – are being beaten back by
belligerent demands that we "respect" religion. A historic marker has just been
passed, showing how far we have been shoved. The UN rapporteur who is supposed
to be the global guardian of free speech has had his job rewritten – to put him
on the side of the religious censors.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights stated 60 years ago that "a world
in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief is the highest
aspiration of the common people". It was a Magna Carta for mankind – and loathed
by every human rights abuser on earth. Today, the Chinese dictatorship calls it
"Western", Robert Mugabe calls it "colonialist", and Dick Cheney calls it
"outdated". The countries of the world have chronically failed to meet it – but
the document has been held up by the United Nations as the ultimate standard
against which to check ourselves. Until now.
Starting in 1999, a coalition of Islamist tyrants, led by Saudi Arabia, demanded
the rules be rewritten. The demand for everyone to be able to think and speak
freely failed to "respect" the "unique sensitivities" of the religious, they
decided – so they issued an alternative Islamic Declaration of Human Rights. It
insisted that you can only speak within "the limits set by the shariah [law]. It
is not permitted to spread falsehood or disseminate that which involves
encouraging abomination or forsaking the Islamic community".
In other words, you can say anything you like, as long as it precisely what the
reactionary mullahs tell you to say. The declaration makes it clear there is no
equality for women, gays, non-Muslims, or apostates. It has been backed by the
Vatican and a bevy of Christian fundamentalists.
Incredibly, they are succeeding. The UN's Rapporteur on Human Rights has always
been tasked with exposing and shaming those who prevent free speech – including
the religious. But the Pakistani delegate recently demanded that his job
description be changed so he can seek out and condemn "abuses of free
expression" including "defamation of religions and prophets". The council agreed
– so the job has been turned on its head. Instead of condemning the people who
wanted to murder Salman Rushdie, they will be condemning Salman Rushdie himself.
Anything which can be deemed "religious" is no longer allowed to be a subject of
discussion at the UN – and almost everything is deemed religious. Roy Brown of
the International Humanist and Ethical Union has tried to raise topics like the
stoning of women accused of adultery or child marriage. The Egyptian delegate
stood up to announce discussion of shariah "will not happen" and "Islam will not
be crucified in this council" – and Brown was ordered to be silent. Of course,
the first victims of locking down free speech about Islam with the imprimatur of
the UN are ordinary Muslims.
Here is a random smattering of events that have taken place in the past week in
countries that demanded this change. In Nigeria, divorced women are routinely
thrown out of their homes and left destitute, unable to see their children, so a
large group of them wanted to stage a protest – but the Shariah police declared
it was "un-Islamic" and the marchers would be beaten and whipped. In Saudi
Arabia, the country's most senior government-approved cleric said it was
perfectly acceptable for old men to marry 10-year-old girls, and those who
disagree should be silenced. In Egypt, a 27-year-old Muslim blogger Abdel Rahman
was seized, jailed and tortured for arguing for a reformed Islam that does not
To the people who demand respect for Muslim culture, I ask: which Muslim
culture? Those women's, those children's, this blogger's – or their oppressors'?
As the secular campaigner Austin Darcy puts it: "The ultimate aim of this effort
is not to protect the feelings of Muslims, but to protect illiberal Islamic
states from charges of human rights abuse, and to silence the voices of internal
dissidents calling for more secular government and freedom."
Those of us who passionately support the UN should be the most outraged by this.
Underpinning these "reforms" is a notion seeping even into democratic societies
– that atheism and doubt are akin to racism. Today, whenever a religious belief
is criticised, its adherents immediately claim they are the victims of
"prejudice" – and their outrage is increasingly being backed by laws.
All people deserve respect, but not all ideas do. I don't respect the idea that
a man was born of a virgin, walked on water and rose from the dead. I don't
respect the idea that we should follow a "Prophet" who at the age of 53 had sex
with a nine-year old girl, and ordered the murder of whole villages of Jews
because they wouldn't follow him.
I don't respect the idea that the West Bank was handed to Jews by God and the
Palestinians should be bombed or bullied into surrendering it. I don't respect
the idea that we may have lived before as goats, and could live again as
woodlice. This is not because of "prejudice" or "ignorance", but because there
is no evidence for these claims. They belong to the childhood of our species,
and will in time look as preposterous as believing in Zeus or Thor or Baal.
When you demand "respect", you are demanding we lie to you. I have too much real
respect for you as a human being to engage in that charade.
But why are religious sensitivities so much more likely to provoke demands for
censorship than, say, political sensitivities? The answer lies in the nature of
faith. If my views are challenged I can, in the end, check them against reality.
If you deregulate markets, will they collapse? If you increase carbon dioxide
emissions, does the climate become destabilised? If my views are wrong, I can
correct them; if they are right, I am soothed.
But when the religious are challenged, there is no evidence for them to consult.
By definition, if you have faith, you are choosing to believe in the absence of
evidence. Nobody has "faith" that fire hurts, or Australia exists; they know it,
based on proof. But it is psychologically painful to be confronted with the fact
that your core beliefs are based on thin air, or on the empty shells of
revelation or contorted parodies of reason. It's easier to demand the source of
the pesky doubt be silenced.
But a free society cannot be structured to soothe the hardcore faithful. It is
based on a deal. You have an absolute right to voice your beliefs – but the
price is that I too have a right to respond as I wish. Neither of us can set
aside the rules and demand to be protected from offence.
Yet this idea – at the heart of the Universal Declaration – is being lost. To
the right, it thwacks into apologists for religious censorship; to the left, it
dissolves in multiculturalism. The hijacking of the UN Special Rapporteur by
religious fanatics should jolt us into rescuing the simple, battered idea
disintegrating in the middle: the equal, indivisible human right to speak