A public health emergency that has deep economic, social, health and personal repercussions on millions of women worldwide, the issue of gender-based violence is one that we often address in the most cursory of terms and fail to examine or act upon in any meaningful way.
Called "A universal problem of epidemic proportions" in a recent United Nations press release, the Council of Europe in 2002 declared gender violence a public health emergency, finding that such violence causes more ill health and deaths than traffic accidents and malaria combined. It even rivals cancer as a cause of death and incapacity among women aged 16 to 44.
Too often viewed here in America as something that, while horrific, only occurs in headline grabbing cases, gender-based violence is a severe global issue that is sadly overlooked as a minor crisis for only particular sets of women around the world. It is startling that, while attention is given to potential epidemics such as avian flu or other diseases, the deadly disease of gender violence is ignored as something that is viewed as a by-product of war, conflict or simply a "domestic issue" to be dealt with on an intrapersonal or community level. While community action is fine, it is time to realize that this is a bigger issue that claims a massive amount of lives, deaths that are absolutely preventable.
In looking around the world and here at home, the facts about gender violence are startling. In El Salvador, the aid organization Oxfam America found that even those who were commissioned to stop gender violence were perpetrators; 98 percent of the female police officers in the country experienced on-the-job gender violence and harassment from the male co-workers.
Such violence and harassment lead to death. In 2002, the World Health Organization found that in Australia, Canada, Israel, South Africa and the United States, 40 to 70 percent of women who were murdered were in situations where their intimate partners abused them before death. The UN indicated in a report that in the country of Georgia, 50 percent of families experience gender violence. "In India," reports the UN, "statistics indicate that 14 wives are murdered by their husbands' families everyday."
Gender violence is often intimately linked with other conflicts. Rape, mutilation and attack of women and girls are often used as a tool of war or are rampant in environment after conflicts.
"The magnitude of gender based violence is difficult to determine even in normal situations, and all the more difficult in disaster situations where barriers to reporting- fear of retribution, powerlessness, lack of support, breakdown of public services and the dispersion of families and communities – are greater," reported in the WHO in a recent report. Such violence can lead to other epidemics, such as the HIV/AIDS pandemic, as well. In places such as war-torn Rwanda, two-thirds of the women attacked in the 1994 genocide are now infected with AIDS and are slowly dying.
The issue of gender violence should be seen not just as isolated incidents or a problem that women in individual communities should attack, but a global concern linked to broad social, health, justice and economic concerns. Indeed, the CDC estimated in 2003 that costs for gender violence "in the United States alone exceed $5.8 billion per year: $4.1 billion in direct medical and health care services and almost $1.8 billion in productivity loss." Consider the implications of factoring in issues such as the spread of AIDS that often results from gender violence globally, and we can recognize that this is an issue on par with any global health concern.
It is at times disturbing that the issue of gender violence is so often couched as a woman's issue. It is often seen as something separate from economic, social and justice issues that are discussed as men's issues. As the majority of perpetrators of such violence, the issue of gender violence should swiftly become a men's issue as well, and men at all levels (grassroots to government) should be willing to partner with women in order to end this global problem.
The pervasiveness of gender-based violence shows us just how far from equitable treatment women all around the world and here at home are. Bringing the issue of gender violence into the light and recognizing it as a severe global epidemic that is preventable is something that must be done in order to work towards ending the multitude of tragedies such violence causes.
Meg Burd is a graduate student in anthropology. Her column runs every Thursday.