Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 16 October 2019

Protests against gender-based violence must be heard

South Africa's spate of deadly attacks against women is symptomatic of a global problem

Woman holds a banner as part of a protest action against gender-based violence in South Africa. EPA
Woman holds a banner as part of a protest action against gender-based violence in South Africa. EPA

An estimated 87,000 women are murdered worldwide every year, more than half by someone they know, according to UN figures. Yet too often perpetrators of gender-based violence get away with their crimes. For example, in the US less than 1 per cent of rapists have been convicted in the past 20 years.

From Johannesburg to Ramallah, from Mexico City to Baghdad, women are taking to the streets to say enough is enough. Their voices can no longer be ignored.

The situation has become so critical in South Africa, where a woman is killed every three hours, that on Friday president Cyril Ramaphosa announced he was cancelling his visit to the United Nations General Assembly annual meeting next week to deal with the crisis.

Protests have filled the streets of cities such as Pretoria and Johannesburg this month, with women demanding government action so they can feel safe.

Mr Ramaphosa has promised harsher penalties and new courts to deal with sex offenders, vowing to review laws to “prioritise the needs and interests of survivors”.

He is also considering publishing a public register of offenders. These are important steps to curb gender-based violence but more could still be done.

In South Africa, the protests were triggered by the killing of Uyinene Mrwetyana, a 19-year-old student who was attacked and murdered last month by a post office employee while delivering a parcel. Just one in a series of attacks on women, it prompted the hashtag AmINext, a reminder of the fear which has become part of the fabric of everyday life.

But gender-based violence is not South Africa’s problem alone. According to UN figures, 35 per cent of women worldwide have experienced either physical or sexual violence in their lifetime.

Too often, crimes against women around the world either go unreported or the offenders are treated with undue leniency. Some victims do not know their attackers. For others, the greatest threat is in their own homes.

An estimated 50 countries, among them Iraq, have yet to criminalise domestic violence. This week, Iraqi women demonstrated against parliament’s lack of action in passing a draft bill on domestic abuse, thanks to intervention from religious leaders, which has meant it has been stuck in limbo for eight years.

Then there are the wrongly termed "honour killings", usually committed by close family members. Last month 21-year-old Palestinian Israa Ghrayeb was beaten to death, allegedly by her relatives, for posting pictures they disapproved of, sparking mass protests across the West Bank where she lived. Yet judges can drastically reduce sentences in honour crimes when there are “extenuating circumstances” and a 2004 law that would offer better protection has still to be passed, 15 years on. There is no honour in these crimes.

Neighbouring Arab countries have proven that change is possible. Lebanon instigated its first law against domestic abuse in 2014, followed two years later by Jordan scrapping legislation that allowed rapists to evade justice if they married their victims.

Global movements such as MeToo and Time’sUp have shown that the need for protection of women from harassment and assault is not restricted to one region.

They shed light on the pervasiveness of gender-based violence, even in the heart of Hollywood.

On the other side of the world, two out of every five women in Australia said they had been sexually harassed in the workplace, despite laws in place to prevent such victimisation. Clearly, legislation is not enough to eradicate violence against women. A cultural and societal shift is needed too.

Change cannot come soon enough. Societies in which women can live and exist free of fear are better for everyone. Laws need to be introduced to protect them but of equal importance are protections provided by families and communities.

Updated: September 17, 2019 08:26 PM

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