The Politics of Violence

The Politics of Violence

by Charlotte Bunch

Global military spending has, for decades, consumed national and international resources desperately needed for human development. The state of permanent readiness for war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union and actual warfare in the Third World has permeated our globe with a militaristic atmosphere that glorifies violence and accepts domination by some over others as inevitable. This militarization of society has been accompanied by high levels of violence against people because of their race, ethnicity, religion, sex, sexual orientation, or class.

All types of violence and “hate crimes” against members of distinct groups are interrelated: Each is based on the dynamic of domination which assumes that where there are differences, one must be superior and dominate, and that respectful equality between diverse peoples is not possible. Some forms of bias and hate crimes, particularly those between ethnic groups or races, have come to be seen and deplored as serious political problems that threaten the fabric of society. However, crimes of gender — violence against women because we are female — have largely been ignored at the level of public policy. These violations of women’s human rights must be recognized as among the most pervasive, yet hidden, forms of violent conflict that occur in all regions. And as long as violence continues to haunt the lives of women and children, “peaceful” will not describe their world reality.

Statistical data on the extent of violence against women has just begun to be collected in the past decade. However, what we do know is staggering: Where recorded, battery figures range from 40 to 80 percent for women who have been beaten at home, France reports that 95 percent of its victims of violence are women, 51 percent of those at the hands of a lover or spouse. Other countries find between 30 and 65 percent of female homicides are committed by male family members. One rape occurs every six minutes in the U.S.; worldwide projections posit a rape a second. Brides burned for dowry, female mutilation, gang rapes on campus, sexual torture of political prisoners and withholding food rations for sex in refugee camps are only some of the many forms such violence takes. Violence against women is not random — the risk factor is being female. Sex discrimination kills females from infancy when, according to the World Health Organization, more girls die of malnutrition, to adulthood where domestic battery is the leading cause of injury to women worldwide. Yet, the violence of sexism is rarely considered a political issue because it is relegated to the realm of the private, often even sanctioned by law, and dismissed as humorous by many. If some other group were so systematically maimed and frequently killed by another, we would see it as a state of war on that group’s human rights.

Violence against women must be addressed as a local and global issue that has ramifications in many areas: HEALTH: Violence causes physical and mental disabilities threatening death throughout the female life cycle, from the fetus aborted because it is a girl to the widow abandoned because she is no longer considered useful.

DEVELOPMENT: Violence against women is an economic and human development problem which few nations can afford.

HUMAN RIGHTS: Violence against women is a fundamental abuse of the human right to life, mobility and liberty, free from torture, imprisonment and persecution.

PEACE: Daily violence against women in the home, on the streets, and in the media is a major underpinning to acceptance of militarism as well as a direct contradiction to hopes for a peaceful world.

Over 50 percent of children experience violence against their mothers and/or themselves at the hands of their “protectors,” and greater numbers watch violence regularly on TV. Thus society teaches that violence toward women and domination between people who are different is natural, inevitable and sometimes even pleasurable. As Lucille Mair, Secretary General of the United Nations 1980 World Conference on Women, wrote when discussing the connections between the economic distress of Third World countries and militarism:

“This cultural violence follows an ideological continuum, starting from the domestic sphere where it is tolerated, if not positively accepted. It then moves to the public political arena where it is glamorized and even celebrated; it becomes part of the national ethic and threatens to become the norm of international conduct. Women and children, above all, are the prime victims of this cult of aggression.”

Many measures need to be taken to reduce violence against women nationally and internationally. First, the silence that surrounds it must end, and it must be seen as one of the central human rights issues of our day. The incorporation of violence against women as a human rights issue deserves the attention of the legal and political communities that determine international policies regarding matters such as refugee status and national and local sanctions against violators. Opposition to such violence is now recognized as inherent to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The CEDAW Committee and the UN Commission on the Status of Women have called for government reports and responses to this issue and they need to be strengthened as the bodies responsible for monitoring measures aimed at securing women’s human rights.

Those concerned with peace and disarmament must give attention to violence against women as an aspect of militarism. Unless we end world complacency toward the violence at the core of our societies, we cannot hope to end the violence against other races, religious groups or nations. The issue of peace is not divisible. Eliminating militarism goes with eliminating violence at home. Protecting the human rights of women and minorities is the flip side of ending warfare between nations. Both must be priorities for leaders in the 21st century.