| by Ruwantissa Abeyratne
“Aristotle maintained that women have fewer teeth than men; although he was twice married, it never occurred to him to verify this statement by examining his wives' mouths.”
- Bertrand Russell, The Impact of Science on Society
( July 3, 2014, Montreal , Sri Lanka Guardian) It has been said that Aristotle, one of the greatest thinkers of all time, was convinced that women were inferior to men. He based this erroneous theory on the even more fallacious view that it was the man's semen which formed the foetus while the woman's role in procreation was that of a mere inanimate receptacle. Small wonder then that lesser mortals whose blatantly inelegant and inadequate moral sense lead them to gang raping women and stoning pregnant women to death on the vile justification of honour killing. A woman cannot change her religion without the threat of being put to death or being sentenced to life imprisonment. If women are of the wrong caste and are vulnerable and too poor or weak to defend themselves they are raped, killed and hanged. If they dare educate themselves they are kidnapped in droves and made to vanish into thin air. Elsewhere, a young schoolgirl is shot for standing up for the rights of women to be educated. She barely escapes death.
I read in the most recent issue of the International New York Times that between February 2011 and April 2013, 500 women in Egypt had been abused and killed during the conflict situation in that country. The World Health Organization states that violence against women comprises a wide range of acts – from verbal harassment and other forms of emotional abuse, to daily physical or sexual abuse. At the far end of the spectrum is femicide: the murder of women. Femicide is the intentional killing of women just because they are women.
Women and children pay the biggest price in situations of conflict in countries. At the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict held in London in mid June this year, Angelina Jolie, UN Special Envoy for the UN High Commission for Refugees said: "Young lives are being ruined by sexual violence in Syria, South Sudan and Central African Republic, as we gather here, as we speak. For people in those countries, the actions we have promised cannot come soon enough. For them, shattering impunity must begin now. I hope that all of us, having met survivors here, will understand the true urgency of this situation. We can never again plead ignorance – we know what is at stake – and we must work to end impunity in those conflicts now".
At the same conference British Foreign Secretary William Hague said: "listening to the stories of suffering overcome and communities rebuilt through the effort, resilience and wisdom of women we have felt truly inspired this week. For the fact that we have never given this issue the prominence it deserves owes much to societal attitudes and failings: our failure never decisively to reject and condemn the denial or stifling of the full expression of women’s rights over a very long time. We have tolerated and still do tolerate violence and discrimination against women in many forms in all quarters of the world, and women still do not occupy their rightful place in the economics, in diplomacy and government of many nations".
Come to think of it, it is not only abuse of women that is despicable but also their marginalization on all counts. The third Millennium Goal of the United Nations is to Eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education, preferably by 2005, and in all levels of education no later than 2015. The goal goes on to say that the world has achieved equality in primary education between girls and boys, but few countries have achieved that target at all levels of education. The political participation of women keeps increasing. In January 2014, in 46 countries more than 30 per cent of members of parliament in at least one chamber were women. In many countries, gender inequality persists and women continue to face discrimination in access to education, work and economic assets, and participation in government. For example, in every developing region, women tend to hold less secure jobs than men, with fewer social benefits. Violence against women continues to undermine efforts to reach all goals. Poverty is a major barrier to secondary education, especially among older girls. Women are largely relegated to more vulnerable forms of employment.
Simone de Beauvoir, in her monumental book The Second Sex mused: "But first we must ask: what is a woman? ‘Tota mulier in utero’, says one, ‘woman is a womb’. But in speaking of certain women, connoisseurs declare that they are not women, although they are equipped with a uterus like the rest. All agree in recognising the fact that females exist in the human species; today as always they make up about one half of humanity. And yet we are told that femininity is in danger; we are exhorted to be women, remain women, become women. It would appear, then, that every female human being is not necessarily a woman; to be so considered she must share in that mysterious and threatened reality known as femininity. Is this attribute something secreted by the ovaries? Or is it a Platonic essence, a product of the philosophic imagination? Is a rustling petticoat enough to bring it down to earth? Although some women try zealously to incarnate this essence, it is hardly patentable. It is frequently described in vague and dazzling terms that seem to have been borrowed from the vocabulary of the seers, and indeed in the times of St Thomas it was considered an essence as certainly defined as the somniferous virtue of the poppy".
This brings to mind the odious and abhorrent practice of the partial or total removal of the female external genitalia, which is called genital mutilation. The World Health Organization has stated that female genital mutilation (FGM) includes procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. WHO goes on to say that this procedure has no health benefits for girls and women and can cause severe bleeding and problems urinating, and later cysts, infections, infertility as well as complications in childbirth and increased risk of newborn deaths. More than 125 million girls and women alive today have been cut in the 29 countries in Africa and Middle East where FGM is concentrated. FGM is mostly carried out on young girls sometime between infancy and age 15. FGM is a violation of the human rights of girls and women.
FGM is a social convention where a particular society traditionally calls for this atrocity to be committed against females. Similarly the rape and abuse of women is a social construct that is seen in some quarters as the expression by man of his physical superiority over woman and that ipso facto, a man would not be a man if this is not demonstrated. This came out in several interviews of the public by the media in the aftermath of the gang rape of a student in Delhi in December 2012. Often women dare not complain for fear of being ostracized, or accused of their guilt or in the extreme being murdered.
By 1976 the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women developed the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Its purpose was to create a medium to voice international standards and stop discrimination against women by individuals, organizations, and enterprises. In 1979 the United Nations General Assembly adopted an international bill of rights for women that defined discrimination, promoted equality in all arenas, and promoted freedoms that should be fundamental. A checks and balances system was also put into place so each country would be held accountable.
This is mere lip service at best. One wonders...should there be an international criminal court to handle this matter before which leaders of States will be brought to answer for crimes against females in their countries? If responsibility does not devolve at the top, the miscreant will always get away.
This could be one way of ensuring accountability.
The author is a former senior professional in the United Nations system. He currently runs his legal consultancy firm in Montreal.