Violence Against Women: Do the Homework



Misunderstanding of abuses like trafficking is still widespread, even among liberals, as a new book demonstrates.

After three years of discussion, the United Nations General Assembly last month adopted a resolution to restructure gender institutions in the UN system. The UN Development Fund for Women was merged with the UN Division for the Advancement of Women, the Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues, and the International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women.

UN Secretary-General Ban-ki Moon announced the next day that the new single entity will be headed by an undersecretary general, and will promote gender equality and women's well-being. Noting that “sexist attitudes lead to sexual exploitation,” he declared that its establishment underscored the UN's commitment to combat violence against women. “There can be no security without women's security, and we need to shed the silence that shields perpetrators,” he said.

The significance of his announcement was underlined by its setting: a special panel at the UN's Trusteeship Council Chamber organized by the Vienna-based UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), to mark the publication of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, a book by New York Times journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.

The book's title comes from the Chinese proverb, “women hold up half the sky,”

And it reads as a collection of life stories of women in the developing world who have been subjected to gender-based violence: beatings, acid burnings, human trafficking, rape (including war rape), female genital mutilation, medical negligence and honor killings.

It is particularly ironic that Kristof and WuDunn preach what our country cannot practice. The United States has yet to ratify three of the most important global treaties related to this issue: 1979 Convention on All Forms of Discrimination Against Women; the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child; or the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

Although the panel (and the book) dealt with violence against women in general, sexual trafficking was an important sub-theme

Global Failure

And on this subject, the failure to develop an adequate legal response is global. A recent UNODC report shows that half of UN member states have yet to convict a single perpetrator of human trafficking. The lack of political will plus widespread corruption help explain this disturbing statistic. Even where there is legislation, there is a lack of enforcement.

Of course, the success or failure of the struggle against human trafficking is hard to measure with numbers alone. UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa said at the panel that he was unable to report whether human trafficking had increased or decreased in the last three years. “Anyone providing you with numbers to argue either way is simply shooting from the hip,” he said.

Ironically, the limitation of such “shoot-from-the-hip” responses was underlined by the book itself. Half the Sky is a gory read for newcomers to these issues–and a tedious read to those familiar with them. But as someone who teaches this material to undergraduates, I found it surprisingly annoying.

Kristof and WuDunn have facile explanations for gender-based violence. They ignore men as perpetrators (indeed, they are as invisible in their book as women have been invisible in the past), cite research results when those results support their arguments, and offer simplistic (albeit well-meaning) solutions. At the same time, they ignore the vast body of research on violence against women, and perhaps most importantly, considering the panel's setting, they ignore relevant international law and UN efforts in this arena.

Much of the book is ethnocentric. There is a chapter about Islam and misogyny, where the authors admit to being “politically incorrect” without realizing they are also ignorant of the nuances that plague the study of world religions and gender. While there is much discussion of the developing world, there is little discussion of the violations of women's rights in the developed world, including the United States.

And although Kristof argued “detailed examples that judiciously use evidence” are the best mechanism for raising consciousness, the authors appear ignorant of the strides made by other countries, even if such strides fall short of guaranteeing full human rights for women.

India's Innovative Approaches

India, for example, receives quite a bit of criticism. Yet it enacted a landmark domestic violence law in 2006 and established all-female police units to respond to domestic violence (see Women Police in a Changing Society by John Jay College Professor Mangai Natarajan). The authors' own employer, The New York Times, last month called attention to some of India's innovative approaches, such as establishing all-female commuter trains in large cities to protect women from so-called “Eve-teasing” (groping and harassment) on public transport.

Natarajan, director of John Jay's international criminal justice major, who also attended the panel, observed afterwards that “countries who are making efforts to improve need to be encouraged, not chided. Oftentimes, although they seem behind, they have come a very long way.”

In what was perhaps an indirect critique of the authors' approach, UNODC Director Costa said that his agency is responsible “for the whole sky, not just half the sky”–thus emphasizing that both men and women are responsible for gender equality. Such points may already have had their desired effect: one of the main messages in the book, “women are not the problem; they are the solution,” now appears on the book's website with the afterthought “… along with men.”

The authors made no secret that their strategy of avoiding hard numbers and examples that might soften their thesis was central to their notion of developing a “grassroots” movement to broaden the campaign against gender violence, which would contain elements such as microfinance and education programs. WuDunn bluntly told the UN audience, largely made up of NGO representatives, that “psychological and neurological research demonstrates that statistics have a dulling effect on human motivation.” As if to make the point clear, their final chapter is entitled, “What You Can Do: Four Steps You Can Take in the Next Ten Minutes,” followed by an appendix listing organizations that help women worldwide.

In looking for verdicts, I usually ask my students. I gave my seniors a New York Times Magazine excerpt from the book published in August, and assigned them to attend the UN panel event. “Where are their references in APA style?” one student angrily asked, referring to the authors' selective and sparse use of scholarly evidence. Another argued in her critique that microfinance programs for downtrodden women are only one way towards gender equality. “We must educate boys about the value and respect for human life,” she wrote. “Laws must punish those who do not learn this respect, and we must understand that women did not cause the inequality and thus cannot be the only ones to fix it.”

Kristof and WuDunn are to be congratulated for pushing readers towards action. But their view of the issue still needs much more homework, including an understanding of gender, its intersection with crime and victimization, and the complexities of international norms.

Rosemary Barberet is Associate Professor in the Sociology Department of John Jay College of Criminal Justice (CUNY), and a representative of the International Sociological Association to the United Nations.

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