KUALA LUMPUR (Thomson Reuters Foundation)—The most extreme instances of violence against women typically involve crimes like rape and honour killings, but other forms of gender-based violence are often far subtler and more pervasive, according to a panel of experts.
Gender-based violence can be perpetrated powerfully with something as simple as words, said Yakin Erturk, a member of the Council of Europe’s Committee on the Prevention of Torture.
Erturk spoke Wednesday on a panel exploring the impact of gender-based violence on sexual and reproductive health and women’s rights at Women Deliver, one of the world’s largest conferences on the health and rights of women and girls.
After Turkey, which legalised abortion in 1983, witnessed decades of progress in women’s rights,“one day I woke up and my prime minister declared abortion a murder,” she said, citing as an example of how words can erode women’s rights a statement made a year ago by Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who called for outlawing all abortions that were not medically necessary.
“Even if they don’t change the law, it will have an indirect impact,” she said, noting that Erdogan’s public sentiments could influence doctors’ willingness to perform and women’s ability to access the procedure.
“We’re talking about a whole state discourse which can empower or disempower women and their ability to enjoy their rights,” said Erturk, a former United Nations Rapporteur on Violence Against Women.
Conservative Muslim clerics’ interpretation of the Koran is another example of how words can lead to gender-based violence, said panelist Asma Khader, Secretary-General of the Jordanian National Commission for Women.
Often clerics engage in a “misinterpretation of Sharia (law) that violence within the family is allowed by the Koran,” she said. “But when we looked at the Koran, we found just the opposite.”
The Koran, she said, tells men to “deal with women in a nice way or release them.”
But according to the interpretations of clerics steeped in patriarchy, Islam’s holy text affirms that “a man is head of the family and he has full right to deal with his wife and family the way he wants,” Khader said.
Unique forms of gender-based violence pose a particular threat to women and girls with disabilities, said Therese Sands, a member of Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA), an advocacy group run by and for women with all types of disabilities.
Sands said she considers these forms of gender-violence to include such government-authorisedinterventions as coerced sterilisation, abortion, contraception, forced menstrual suppression, denial of rights to parenting and the exclusion from reproductive and sexual healthcare.
These practices which are “very under-researched and unknown,” operate on the assumption that women with disabilities are asexual and should not be allowed to engage in sex or have children, according to Sands.
Disabled women are also three times more likely than other women to experience all forms of violence, including rape, she added.
WWDA has been engaged in a major campaign against forced sterilisation in Australia but the problem is international, Sands said.
GENDER-BASED VIOLENCE IN CONFLICT
More familiar forms of gender-based violence, such as rape, are particularly rampant in conflict and post-conflict areas, said Khader.
“In Libya, thousands of women were raped,” she said, noting that she was one of a three-member United Nations commission sent to assess the human rights situation in Libya after the revolution that overthrew former dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
Many of these women were subsequently divorced by their husbands and many committed suicide, she said.
In camps hosting Syrian refugees in Jordan, women and girls are vulnerable to rape, sexual abuse and exploitation, Khader said.
A two-year-long civil war in Syria has forced some 1.5 million people to flee to neighbouring Jordan, 75 percent of whom are women and children.
“Many Syrian girls under 18 are presented to any man who can marry them and feed them,” she said, describing the acts of desperately poor parents, some of whom don’t even ask for money in exchange for their daughters’ security.
Aid agencies on the ground are providing food, shelter and healthcare, but few offer help to victims of violence and rape, according to Khader.
Meanwhile, a rising wave of conservatism seeking to erode women’s rights is being
seen around the world, from the countries of the Arab Spring to the United States, said Erturk.
Sexual and reproductive rights are a fundamental component of human rights, “and yet today one of the main areas that is being challenged is this one,” she said.
“So, we’re up against a tide that’s very strong, but the more we surrender to this kind of situation, the more we contribute to the problem.”