One in three. Violence against women is a global pandemic

One in three women have suffered physical or sexual violence. With contributions from Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America, we look at how this shadow pandemic affects every corner of the world.

11th May marks the ten-year anniversary of the signing of the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. The Council of Europe convention is a binding international treaty, and the widest in scope when it comes to combatting this serious human rights violation. We look at different areas of the world to discern just how global the plague of violence against women is, with a focus on Europe, Italy in particular, South Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Violence against women is a global pandemic

One in three women worldwide have been subjected to either physical or sexual violence, according to the World Health Organisation. This trend is thought to have been aggravated by the financial strain and restrictions on movement unleashed by the coronavirus pandemic, the brunt of which have been felt by women the world over. So alarming is the situation that UN Women, which is dedicated to gender equality and women’s empowerment, launched the Shadow Pandemic campaign stressing the global rise in domestic violence on the backdrop of the Covid-19 crisis.

International Women's Day in Mexico City
“We’re not numbers, we’re lives,” reads graffiti in Mexico City, Mexico for International Women’s Day on 8 March © Toya Sarno Jordan/Getty Images

Europe. Can Italy comply with the Istanbul Convention?

by Valentina Neri in Milan, Italy

The Istanbul Convention is a precious instrument that becomes legally binding once it’s been ratified – an obligation Italy complied with eight years ago. On paper, therefore, the country prevents violence, protects victims, and prosecutes offenders. But is this reflected in practice?

In June 2012, Elisaveta Talpis from the province of Udine called the police for the first time following yet another episode of violence at the hands of her partner, an alcoholic. After several months of assaults, calls for help and complaints filed, on 26th November 2013, Elisaveta’s assailant tried to stab her and killed their 19-year-old son, who had intervened to save his mother.

This dramatic episode marked the beginning of a story that has reached the highest echelons of Italian institutions. Talpis decided to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), essentially to condemn the fact that she’d been abandoned in the face of the escalating violence – which ended in tragedy. On 2nd March 2017, Italy was found guilty of violating three articles of the European Convention on Human Rights: Article 2 on the right to life, Article 3 on prohibition of torture, and Article 14 on prohibition of discrimination.

The Court reminded the Italian government that it had made specific commitments by signing and ratifying the Istanbul Convention, and recommended a number of measures to ensure its compliance: implementing new laws, filling legislative gaps, establishing an ad hoc framework, as well as working on education and female empowerment. 

This sentence was followed by the implementation programme established by Article 46 of the ECHR, according to which the sentenced country is continuously monitored by the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers until it has demonstrated to have fully complied with the Court’s rulings.

In response, Italy presented an action plan, which was found lacking on two occasions, first in 2018 and again in 2020. One of the weakest points is the country’s lack of data collection on protection orders, the number of complaints received, authorities’ average response time and the number of protection orders actually implemented. The Committee had given Italy another deadline, 31st March 2021, to provide answers to the many questions that still remain unaddressed, but the government has so far not updated its position on the issue.

violence against women, italy, Lucia Annibali
Lucia Annibali is an Italian lawyer, MP and acid attack survivor who is active in the fight against violence against women © Ansa

A report published in 2020 by GREVIO, a group of 15 independent experts responsible for monitoring the Istanbul Convention’s implementation, does, however, highlight some positive aspects of legal reforms enacted in Italy in recent years. 2009 legislation on stalking is considered “very innovative”, especially for increasing awareness of how dangerous this phenomenon is. A 2013 decree on femicide is also lauded as the “fruit of years of work by women’s organisations”, as are a 2015 decree that grants victims of violence special paid leave and a 2018 decree that grants protection victims of domestic violence’s orphans.

However, these laws are often implemented once crimes have already been perpetrated. That is, once it’s too late. “GREVIO is particularly concerned about the sexist hate speech, misogyny and tolerance towards violence against women which occurs in public debate, whether in traditional or online social media,” as its report reads. “Women taking a stand against gender inequality and gender-based violence are often prime targets of organised attacks aimed at silencing them”.

This is why the committee “strongly encourages the Italian authorities to pursue proactive and sustained measures to promote changes in sexist social and cultural patterns of behaviour, especially of men and young boys, that are based on the idea of inferiority of women”.

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violence against women, italy, protest
“We teach respect for women,” reads the placard held during a march organised by the Non Una di Meno (Not One Less) movement against violence against women © Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images

Africa. A dramatic Covid-19 lockdown for women

by Mike Mwenda in Lusaka, Zambia

Gender-based violence is a profound problem impacting the lives of millions of women and girls on the African continent. This scourge is widespread, particularly through certain forms of violence such as child marriage, intimate partner violence, female genital mutilation, honour killings and trafficking.

To address the problem in Africa, it’s imperative for us to understand the harmful gender stereotypes that are deeply embedded in social and cultural norms. These suggest that women must always submit to men, or that a man who beats his partner does so because he loves her, with this trend being common in Madagascar, Mozambique, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe, among other countries.

violence against women in africa, Rape survivor Congo
A rape survivor in DR Congo tells her story © Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Covid-19 lockdowns imposed by several African countries have led to a surge in cases of rape, cruelty and violence against women and girls trapped with abusive family members and nowhere to report crimes or escape danger. Women who have suffered as a result of these circumstances have struggle to report abuse because non-profit organisations and campaigners working to provide them with protection and support have often been classified as “non-essential services”. Faced with severe restrictions of movement, they’ve been forced to abandon reporting gender-based violence to the police or filing such cases in court.

One horrific episode recorded during the ongoing Covid-19 crisis in South Africa involved the murder of 28-year-old Tshegofatso Pule, who was eight months pregnant when her body was found hanging from a tree. Her boyfriend Ntuthuko Shoba was charged with planning the murder and the case sparked protests among rights groups across the country. A man identified as Mzikayise Malephane appeared in a Johannesburg court and was slapped with a 20-years prison sentence after he pleaded guilty to murdering Pule. According to the plea agreement read out by his lawyer, the 31-year-old had been offered 7,000 rand (480 US dollars) by Shoba to execute the killing, but Melaphane declined. When he was offered 70,000 rand (4,899 dollars), he then proceeded to accept.

In another event, a two-year-old girl from South Africa is alleged to have been raped while in a coronavirus isolation ward. According to reports, the girl’s mother took her to hospital after she began showing symptoms of Covid-19 and was told the toddler would need to be isolated.

Furthermore, the Kenyan government has recorded more than 4,000 girls falling pregnant  during the Covid-19 lockdown. Since the pandemic hit the East African country, healthcare providers have been warning about the risk of increased rates of teenage pregnancies. The pandemic in the country has triggered restrictions on movement, making it harder for girls to access contraceptives and family planning health services, coupled with mandatory curfews trapping girls in their homes with predatory family members and neighbours.

There are several barriers to justice for victims and survivors of gender-based violence across Africa. These include a lack of trust in the criminal justice system and secondary trauma which victims and survivors often suffer at the hands of authorities, including the police and health services, when they attempt to report cases.

It’s time African governments strengthen institutions such as the police, which have been accused of dismissing gender-based violence complaints because they see them as family matters and not crimes. Women’s voices must be respected on this continent, as elsewhere.

violence against women in africa
“The situation was already bad for women before the pandemic. The pandemic merely lifted the veil from what was not being seen,” Jean Paul Murunga of the women’s rights organisation Equality Now told DW © Spencer Platt/Getty Images

South Asia. Justice delayed is justice denied

by Gurvinder Singh in Kolkata, India

A patriarchal mindset coupled with a rigid culture and age-old traditions have continued to make women play a second fiddle to the male members of their families in South Asia since time immemorial. Man-made boundaries may have given separate names and identities to South Asian nations, but they’ve failed to change the fortunes of their women, who continue to face appalling levels of violence, sexual abuse, murder and honour killings in these countries.

Court proceedings that often stretch for several years break the morale of women who make endless rounds seeking justice, with no respite in sight. The sexual assault of a woman by a group of men in a bus in Delhi, India’s capital, in December 2012 is a classic example of delayed justice.

violence against women in south asia, India protests
The gang rape of 23-year-old paramedical student Nirbhaya in a moving bus in 2012 rocked India, leading thousands to protest against lax laws and the government’s handling of this and other rape cases © Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

The case got global attention because of the sheer brutality unleashed by the six men on the victim, who was famously nicknamed Nirbhaya, “the fearless one”, and who lost her life due to the brutal attack. After endless appeals and strong protests voiced by the media and civil society, four perpetrators were convicted of the death penalty and hung in 2020, eight years after the brutal gang rape, while one of the accused was set free because he was a minor at the time the crime was perpetrated. The last committed suicide in jail.

“She got justice because the case led to a nationwide cry, as it was such a brutal crime, but I’m strictly against capital punishment as it isn’t the solution,” says Aparajita Ganguly, a Kolkata-based social worker who spent 13 years in jail after being falsely implicated in her husband’s murder. “The poor don’t get justice and cases often fail to come to their logical conclusion. We’ve also witnessed dowry murders which are quietly passed off as ‘mysterious’ deaths. The harassment and absence of justice isn’t limited to India: it’s the same story in other South Asian countries too”.

Protest against rape in Dhaka, Bangladesh
Women’s rights activist protest against gender-based violence outside the parliament in Dhaka, Bangladesh © Iqbal Hossain

An average of 87 rape cases were registered daily in India in 2019, with crimes against women rising by 7 per cent relative to 2018, according to a National Crime Records Bureau report released in September last year. And women continue to face harassment and torture in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Afghanistan too. “South Asia has the highest rate of child marriage in the world, with 46 per cent of girls married by age 18,” according to a 2014 World Bank report.

Honour killings are common in India, with women even being murdered for choosing their life partners rather than accepting arranged marriages, while horror images of women being shot in Afghanistan just for trying to step outside rigid social mores send chills down the spine. Stories of small children being abducted, raped and murdered in Pakistan bring shame to humanity.

The pandemic-induced lockdown has brought further miseries for women in South Asia as they’ve become the target of outbursts and anger by male partners and family members facing losses of income and livelihoods.

“We already have strong laws in place for crimes against women, but what is lacking is the will to bring the culprits to books,” Soumitra Karmakar Chakraborty, an advocate for women’s rights in India, points out. “There should be separate courts to hear cases relating to women to ensure speedy trials. The timely delivery of justice will deter people from committing such crimes. Women should also come out and speak fearlessly against oppression, or else their fate will remain unchanged”.

violence against women in South Asia, Pakistan acid attack survivor
Iram Saeed is a Pakistani survivor of an acid attack. Acid attacks occur throughout the world, but disproportionately in South Asia, with the highest numbers reported in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan © Paula Bronstein /Getty Images

Latin America. The silent pandemic of violence, disappearances and femicides

by Lise Hermann in Quito, Ecuador

Latin America is the region with the highest rate of sexual violence in the world, according to the UNDP. Furthermore, UN data highlights how in Argentina, Mexico, Colombia and other countries in the region domestic violence against women has increased dramatically over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, up to between 30 and 50 per cent. On its part, El Salvador has registered a 70 per cent rise in reports of gender-based violence.

In the city of Riberalta in the Bolivian part of the Amazon, near the border with Brazil, 31-year-old Maria (whose surname isn’t disclosed for her protection) is part of a single mother’s union. Many of its members are women who joined after leaving their partners, often the fathers of their children, because of domestic violence. This is the rule rather the exception around here, the women point out. Maria recalls her own violent relationship with the father of her four children, and how she suffered both physical and psychological violence. Sometimes, she was beaten so badly that she’d have to go to hospital – one such time, the violence was so severe that she suffered a pre-stroke. “But he made me feel that it was my own fault. So, I stayed with him for a long time,” Maria says.

The last photo of Joys Estefani Qqueccaño Huamani
The last photo of Joys Estefani Qqueccaño Huamani, a 24-year-old indigenous Quechua woman, before her disappearance from Peru’s Pampa Ansa community. In the image, Joys Estefani has her face bruised and her head bandaged after being assaulted by her ex-partner and father of her two daughters Arturo Ccana Condori. She sent this photo to her younger brother Percy Qqueccaño © Florence Goupil

In neighbouring Peru, an alarming number of girls and women – almost 12,000 – went missing last year. And unfortunately, the situation in the country only reflects Latin America’s as a whole.

Women disappearing during Covid-19 is a situation seen throughout the region”, says Marcela Huaita, professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru in Lima and former Peruvian minister for women and vulnerable populations. “It’s worrying that the disappearances are occurring in times of lockdown: the possibilities of these women leaving their homes are limited. So where could they be? One risk is that their disappearances are linked to human trafficking. But any kind of disappearance is linked to violence in general”.

The top of the pyramid of systemic violence are femicides. Ten of the twelve countries with the highest rates of femicide in the world are in Latin America.

The reasons behind this grim statistic? Profound machismo in society and state institutions is an important and serious underlying structural problem, which, for instance, makes it difficult for gender-based crimes to be investigated at all in some cases as these are, to some extent, culturally accepted.

Notwithstanding the depressive panorama, there’s also hope for women’s and girls’ rights in Latin America as women increasingly speak up for themselves. Cases in point are the Ni Una Menos (Not One Less) campaign against femicides, which is gaining attention in the public space, and the Green Wave Movement which originated in Argentina and is fighting for the right to abortion in a region where this is often criminalised. Recent victories include Argentina passing landmark legislation legalising abortion up to the 14th week of pregnancy and Ecuador’s Constitutional Court ruling in favour of decriminalising access to abortion in cases of rape.

violence against women, latin america
In part thanks to the Green Wave Movement’s relentless activism, at the end of 2020 Argentina adopted landmark legislation legalising abortion up to the 14th week of pregnancy © Tomas Cuesta/Getty Images

Returning to Bolivia: after years of abuse, Maria decided to end her relationship. “It’s horrible, often we feel trapped in our relationship with a person we’ve been together with since we were really young,” she relates. “Given my age, I’ve lived a sad life. It took me 13-14 years to realise that. However, I don’t regret my decision, which I took for myself and my children’s sake. I don’t wish for them to experience what I’ve gone through”.

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