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Despite some gains, violence against women remains a global 'pandemic'

The deadly shootings in Atlanta and the killing of Sarah Everard in London underscore a crisis that starts for many victims in their teens, experts say.
Image: Met Police Criticised Over Response To Sarah Everard Vigil
Members of the public protest Monday against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill and the actions of police at a vigil in London last Saturday.Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

On the same day U.S. lawmakers voted to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, members of Parliament in the United Kingdom took up a domestic abuse bill. Both of these votes come one day after a gunman in Atlanta killed eight people, six of them women of Asian descent, at three area spas.

The shooting rampage in the United States and the recent killing of Sarah Everard in London underscore a broader global crisis of violence against women, which starts for many victims in their teens, experts said.

According to a recent report released by the World Health Organization, 1 in 4 girls and young women between the ages of 15 and 24 who have been in a romantic relationship experienced violence from a partner.

Globally, intimate partner violence is the most pervasive form of violence against women and affects some 641 million people around the world, WHO found. Nearly 30 percent of women said they have been subjected to some kind of physical or sexual violence, but experts suspect the true figure could be much higher.

“It’s definitely a public health concern of pandemic proportions that we have failed to address systematically,” said Kalliopi Mingeirou, chief of the Ending Violence Against Women initiative at UN Women, which partnered with WHO on its recent study. “We’re seeing it happening across all countries, across all classes. Violence against women and girls doesn't happen in isolation. It is systemic.”

The problem is equally prevalent in the United States, where 1 in 4 women are victims of intimate partner violence, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

On Wednesday, the House of Representatives voted in favor of two resolutions that will strengthen protections for women. The Equal Rights Amendment stipulates that “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex." And the Violence Against Women Act, which expired in 2019, is aimed at helping to stop domestic abuse and violence, sexual harassment of women and girls, and at providing resources to victims and survivors.

The measures were met with praise and support from women’s advocacy groups, including the Feminist Majority, which said in a statement that now is the time to ensure “our generation and all future generations will not face persistent sex discrimination and violence, but rather will have new opportunities under the law.”

“It’s not about sex — it’s about power,” said Ruth Rosen, a former columnist and professor at the University of California, Davis. “It’s about power over another person, it’s about entitlement. A lot of men still feel entitled to take what they want, and that’s an act of power.”

Rosen has been involved in the women’s rights movement since the late 1960s and was herself a victim of harassment from male colleagues during her early years in academia. When she first joined the feminist movement, there were no terms for sexual harassment or even domestic violence, she said.

The tide started to shift in the 1970s when organizers held the first Take Back the Night march and then again in the 1990s when Anita Hill accused U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment, Rosen said.

Now, demonstrators in London and elsewhere are marching to “Reclaim the Streets” following the kidnapping and death of Sarah Everard, a London marketing executive whose body was discovered last week in a wooded area dozens of miles from where she was last seen alive. A male police officer has been charged with her murder.

“Every day I see another place where women are marching,” Rosen said. “When I see the women in Australia and England and Mexico and Japan, the #MeToo movement really has spread to other cultures, and it is becoming a global movement.”

Everard’s death sparked protests across the United Kingdom and Australia, where thousands of people marched earlier this week wearing all black and demanding an end to sexual violence and gender inequality.

Image: Women's Day protest, Mexico
Protesters clash with police during a demonstration to commemorate the International Women's Day in Mexico City, on March 8, 2021.Pedro Pardo / AFP - Getty Images file

Women in Mexico have also taken to the streets recently. Protests there took a violent turn last week after demonstrators clashed with local police and tore down metal barricades. During previous gender equality protests in Mexico, some women alleged they were sexually harassed or assaulted by law enforcement officers.

In 2019, Mexico registered 971 alleged victims of femicide, or the intentional killing of women, and an alleged 2,862 female victims of intentional homicides. Only 25 percent of the murder cases were investigated as gender-related crimes.

Amnesty International released a report earlier this month accusing Mexican authorities of using illegal force and sexual violence to silence women protesting violence against women.

“During the arrests and transfers, police officers spoke to the women using violent and sexualized language, threatened them with sexual violence and subjected them to physical and sexual violence," Tania Reneaum Panszi, executive director at Amnesty International Mexico, said in a statement. "Many women did not know where they were, who was arresting them or where they were taking them, meaning they were at risk of enforced disappearance.”

A rise in gender-based violence has also been recorded in India, prompting the United Nations in December to call the problem a “shadow pandemic” exacerbated by the coronavirus outbreak, which has forced more people to stay at home and lose access to social services.

“I personally don't know a single woman in my life who has not experienced harassment or abuse,” Mingeirou said. “The problem is that it’s considered a normal part of life. We grow up as women and girls to get used to that.”

But the global pushback against gender-based violence is yielding some results, she added. A coalition of United Nations member states, including Mexico, Germany and the United Kingdom, will convene later this month for the Gender Equality Forum to fuel lasting change for women and girls. And some countries, like Fiji and Australia, have already devised national action plans for addressing violence against women.

“Equality cannot be treated in isolation,” Mingeirou said. “We all need to join forces.”