by Khadijah Ali (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 42, No. 5, Sha'ban, 1434)
The physically weak have always been at the receiving end of violence. Their weakness is seen as an invitation to violence and aggression against them. This is most clearly visible among beasts.
The physically weak have always been at the receiving end of violence. Their weakness is seen as an invitation to violence and aggression against them. This is most clearly visible among beasts. The powerful beasts attack and kill weaker species but such aggression is the result of satiating their hunger. Thus, a lion would attack a deer or even a zebra for food but once its hunger is satiated, it no longer attacks other animals.
With humans, unfortunately it is different. Often stronger beings resort to violence against those that are weak because they are seen as getting in their way or possessing or utilizing resources that the stronger ones need. This is witnessed on a daily basis in the streets, towns and cities and on the global scale among countries. Those with strong militaries routinely attack and bully weaker countries. The US, the most militarized state in the world, is currently engaged in several wars simultaneously and has indulged in such aggression against other countries since the Second World War. True, it advances various justifications for its aggression but there is no denying its violent nature.
There is another kind of violence that has not been studied in any systematic manner until recently: violence by men against women, often spouses or partners. In the first comprehensive study of its kind, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has found that 35.6% or more than a third of all women worldwide will experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. The most shocking aspect is that such violence is perpetrated not by strangers but by male partners with whom the women share their lives. The WHO report has found that male partners are responsible for 30% of physical assaults on women and 38% of women are killed by their intimate male partners.
Nor is violence — physical and sexual — confined to any particular region of the world although incidents are more prevalent in some regions than others. The report found that domestic violence against women was highest in Africa, the Muslim East and Southeast Asia but cases of sexual violence were much more pronounced in Europe and North America. While the WHO report studied only 10 countries directly — including Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Japan, Thailand, Serbia — others were studied in regional groups.
Even though the highest rates of violence (37%) were recorded in Africa, the Muslim East and Southeast Asia, the figures did not provide a clear breakdown between physical and sexual violence. In Africa, both physical and sexual violence were grouped together while in the Muslim East and Southeast Asia, rates of sexual violence were relatively low compared to physical violence. According to WHO’s figures, 30% of women in Latin and South America and 23% in North America were the victims of male violence. In Europe and Asia, the comparable figures were 25%.
In reporting these findings, WHO researchers said scientists analyzed information from 86 countries focusing on women over the age of 15 to compile data on domestic violence. For data on sexual violence perpetrated by someone other than a partner, they assessed studies from 56 countries. No data, however, was available for sexual violence from the Muslim East. The experts then used modeling techniques to fill in the gaps and to come up with global estimates for the percentage of women that are victims of violence. How accurate these are may be open to question.
Cultural norms and values also play a role. For instance, sexual relations outside marriage are forbidden in Muslim societies and most Muslims adhere to this. In non-Muslim eastern societies, they are rare but are gradually breaking down. Despite this, they are still far lower than in the West. Similarly, according to the United Nations, more than 600 million women live in countries where domestic violence is not considered a crime. At the other end of the scale, sexual relations outside marriage are very common in the West. There is often a thin line between rape and consensual sex. Most often, incidents of such sexual violence are not reported and do not form part of the statistical data. How then does one come up with reasonably accurate figures in such an environment?
Let us consider Canada that is part of the West and calls itself a “civilized” society. According to 2010 data compiled by Statistic Canada, 40% of violent crime reported to police was committed against women by former or current spouses or partners. Obviously, there are many cases that go unreported and thus do not become part of statistical data. Of all the solved homicide cases 49% were women killed by their partners. These are shocking figures and provide a glimpse into the plight of women in Western societies.
Nor does higher income provide any protection against violence. For instance, in the industrialized north, 32.7% of women will suffer violence — physical and sexual — at some stage in their life.
According to the WHO report, 42% of women who were subjected to violence — physical or sexual — suffered physical injuries at the hands of their partners. But the harm to women goes beyond physical injury. Often, men who are prone to physical violence may prevent women from visiting health clinics or getting access to medicine or contraception. Physical and sexual violence are often inter-related and one may lead to the other. For instance, if a woman refuses her partner’s sexual demands, she may be subjected to physical violence.
Women who experience violence from a partner are more likely to be infected with HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases, to have an abortion, to give birth to underweight and premature babies, and to attempt suicide. These cases are more commonly found in societies where moral values are lax. Thus women in parts of Africa, Europe and North America are more likely to suffer from these ailments than in other parts of the world.
As a consequence, the WHO study found that women in such situations are more likely to use alcohol and are twice as likely to experience depression — factors which can be both cause of and be caused by a partner’s violence. These again point to non-Muslim societies since alcohol is prohibited in Islam and the overwhelming majority of Muslims do not consume alcohol. Women subjected to violence also suffer from raised stress levels. These lead to a range of health problems, including chronic pain, diabetes, heart disease and gastrointestinal disorders. The mental scars are far deeper and not easily treatable in a clinic.
The two reports from the World Health Organization — one on the prevalence of violence and the other offering guidelines on helping women to healthcare staff — have been produced by Dr. Claudia Garcia-Moreno, lead specialist in gender, reproductive rights, sexual health and adolescence at WHO, and Professor Charlotte Watts, an epidemiologist who specialises in gender, violence and health from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
“For the first time we have compared data from all over the world on the magnitude of partner violence and sexual violence by non-partners and the impact of these sorts of violence on health,” said Dr. Garcia-Moreno. Naturally, the findings were not uniform throughout the world but, said Dr. Garcia-Moreno, “in whatever region we looked at [violence against women], it is unacceptably high.” Dr. Margaret Chan, director general of the WHO, said, “These findings send a powerful message that violence against women is a global health problem of epidemic proportions.” She went on, “We also see that the world’s health systems can and must do more for women who experience violence.”
“I think the numbers are a wake-up call for all of us to pay more attention to this issue,” said Dr. Garcia-Moreno. Over the past decade there had been increasing recognition of the problem, she said, but “one has to recognise that it is a complex problem. We don’t have a vaccine or a pill [to cure the problem].”
The deeper issue is the question of values and social acceptance of violence against women because they are physically weak. Unless there are clear guidelines that emphasize that power or physical strength are not a license to indulge in violence against those that are weak, the problem will not go away. After all, there will always be power differentiations in society: some are rich, others are poor; some are strong, others are weak. These differences, or more accurately greater wealth or power, do not give one the right to indulge in violence against those that cannot resist. Power differentiations must be regulated through laws that stipulate proper conduct.
The problem goes much deeper than violence against women, shocking as it is. Those that believe they are entitled to suppress, oppress and rob others because they have the power to do so will continue to indulge in violence against those that are weak. And they will always find justification for such violence. The problem requires a change in values. Islam offers such values: respect for women and their dignity as human beings rather than as sex objects.