Article Movement & Migration

A glaring exception in the fight against gender-based violence

Despite progress in many areas for women's equality, acid attacks and rape inflicted on young women are on the rise

UN Women has released its summary report: The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action turns 20. Progress, challenges and lessons learnt for the worldwide realisation of gender equality, the empowerment of women and the human rights of women and girls in the post-2015 context are presented in this summary.

The report shows that progress has been uneven in most areas of violence and discriminatory practices against women, including in Aids-related deaths, discriminatory laws, enrolment of girls in primary and secondary education, participation of women in the workforce, and harmful practices such as child marriage and forced marriage. Despite this, in the expanded normative commitments to women’s and girls’ human rights, there remains a gap in implementation leading to collective failure. There is a glaring exception, however: adolescents and youth.

Despite the great progress made, new forms of violence and discriminatory practices among adolescents and youth have actually risen. Rape and acid attacks are now leading practices of violence against girls in the world and have become the second biggest cause of death of adolescents and young girls worldwide. Similar to rape, acid attacks are about the assertion of the masculine monopoly of social, political and economic control. As in other countries, in Nepal patriarchy is perpetuated by religious and ethnic ideologies.

Examples from different countries

A recent acid attack on two schoolgirls aged 15 and 16 at their educational centre shocked Nepal. It makes one wonder if this is the consequence women should expect for turning down a man’s proposal. Acid-throwing demonstrates ideology at its most extreme. Awareness and empowerment programmes, TV and the internet, and teaching young women to stand their ground have empowered women and girls to express their opinions in matters of love and relationships. And these are the very women who are then attacked, the ones who transgress gender norms, who reject traditional dress, exert their independence from men, or show any manner of “immorality” as defined by men.

Acid and its consequences

Industrial-strength hydrochloric or sulphuric acids are used in textile manufacturing. Acid burns through eyes, skin, flesh and bone. It restricts breathing because of its toxic fumes and causes oesophagal damage. It is as easy to buy as a bar of soap, cheap and reliably destructive. Because it can do such damage with minimal effort, the psychological effects on women vulnerable to the threat of acid-throwing are profound. Victims of such attacks not only suffer pain and agony, they suffer stigma throughout their lives leading to psychological trauma from which they may never recover. However, there are also examples of victims who have fought back and achieved victory.

Relationship between masculinity and acid-throwing

Masculinities have different definitions in different cultural contexts around the world. In various countries, hegemonic masculinity dominates society to a greater extent than any other forms of masculinities. Hegemonic masculinities are interpreted as “being a man” or domination over femininity, generally “subordinate”, “complicit” and “marginalised”. Sometimes such hegemonic masculinities are lost through the traditionally masculine functions and modernity, so such gender-based violence is the way to compensate for the loss of those (traditional) ways to prove masculine identity.

Acid attacks and rape are an extreme form of male reaction against the perceived loss of status and identity that some men experience when gender relations undergo sociocultural change. Progress toward gender equality is often two steps forward and one step back, as men react against women’s newfound gains in employment and public life by experiencing women’s gains as their own losses and lashing out against them to sustain their “social status” and economic entitlements.

Glaring exceptions

The term “violence against women” is broadly indicative of any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life (United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women 1993). Women’s rights groups, donor organisations and civil societies have managed to established women-friendly conventions and programmes to empower and support women. Countries like India, Pakistan, Cambodia and Bangladesh where such violence is high, have managed to make such crimes punishable by death, or years of imprisonment. However, only a few perpetrators have been tried in courts, let alone received the death penalty. Hence, enforcement of laws that criminalise violence against women still remains a serious problem in Asia.

UN Women and the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women have organised several programmes, campaigns and initiatives all over the world. With the support of UN Women, in partnership with Equal Access, *Samajhdari (Mutual Understanding) and White Ribbon are part of the voices against violence; the radio show aims to provide “a new platform to increase awareness, connect people to appropriate service and encourage community action” (UN Women, 2015).

Samajhdari is a new platform to increase awareness, connect people to appropriate service and encourage community action.

Such campaigns and programmes have encouraging innovative approaches to reach girls through an appropriate medium. However, members of the constitutional assembly, government officials, donors and civil societies only partake. Campaigns like White Ribbon, Samjdhari and HeforShe engage women and men and pledge to engage young people. However, young people’s participation may easily be hijacked or usurped by others’ interests (UN Women, 2015).

The prevention of such kinds of violence must not only involve strong legal reforms and rehabilitation facilities, but also programmes and curricula, capacity-building that helps shape the attitudes of men and women towards masculinities and from an early age. While a quarrel, rejection or being jilted in love can be disheartening; an eye-for-an-eye attitude is unacceptable. With so much violence by and on young people and adolescents, the fight against gender-based violence clearly needs adolescents and youth to play a greater role in research, programs and policy-making.

This article is a response to the topic idea; How can adolescent girls really be heard?.

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