Thursday, November 25, 2010

Breaking the Silence on Violence

The 1989 Montreal Massacre converted November 25 into a rallying day for campaigns fighting violence against women. Today is White Ribbon Day and the first day of the annual 16 Days of Activism to End Violence Against Women.Although we may see Western societies as gender equal, the hidden reality is that 45% of all women in Europe are estimated to experience gender-based violence at least once in their lives. These campaigns can help raise awareness and reverse this trend, says Emelie Laurin

First published in Polemics

On this day in 1989, an enraged gunman shot 14 women engineering students to death in a classroom in Montreal. The tragedy became known as the Montreal Massacre, and has for the last two decades been a galvanising force for movements aimed at the elimination of violence against women.

Today is the first day of the annual 16 Days of Activism to End Violence Against Women. First organized by the Center for Women’s Global Leadership, New Jersey, in 1991, the campaign brings groups from all over the world together in speaking out against all forms of gender violence.

Two Austrian dailies  recently published articles about an increase during 2009 in the amount of women and children seeking help in ”Wiener Frauenhäuser”, an organisation in Vienna that provides shelter and support for women and children experiencing domestic violence and abuse. The articles speak of an increase that amounts to 26 more women and 57 more children than in 2008, adding up to a total of 583 women and 571 children during 2009 seeking refuge in one of the four shelters provided by the organisation in Vienna. A rough 50 percent of the women turning to ”Wiener Fraunhäuser” during 2009 were migrants. Another shelter is planned for 2012.

In armed conflicts, women and children are ruinously targeted in campaigns of violence that are clearly gender – based, be it physical abuse, sexual violence, genital mutilation, forced marriage, trafficking and murder.

On our home ground, we repeatedly hear boasts of the emblematic features of our continent’s progress in eliminating gender inequality and promoting human rights, and we can find plenty of women holding top-level decision making positions. Since the end of the Balkan Wars in the 1990’s, there is also no real armed conflict to speak of. Yet, in our society, violence against women and children at the grass roots level – that is within the walls of family homes – is the most common violent crime and the greatest violation of human rights one can find in Europe today. In 2008, more than a thousand women in Austria reportedly fell victim to sexual violence according to the Statistical Database of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe.

Appearing among the top 20 states of the Human Development Index apparently does not affect a state’s risks of showing up on indexes measuring less becoming trends. Considered to be a highly developed country demonstrating a low level of gender inequality, Sweden made it to number one on a list of countries reporting remarkably high levels of rape and crimes of sexual violence, according to a study conducted by the European Union in 2009.

This rather disturbing result was explained by the higher tendency in Sweden to report crimes of sexual abuse, but also by the prevailing values and norms relating to the society’s stereotypical notion of sexual violence. Contrary to what many still believe, sexual violence rarely involves an unknown man attacking a woman in a public, dark place. Rather, sexual violence and other gender-based violence occur in daily life, in situations where the victims are very much at home. In Europe, 45% of all women in Europe are estimated to experience gender-based violence at least once in their lives.

Today is not only the beginning of the 16 days for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, but also the end of the White Ribbon Campaign for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. White Ribbon is a campaign specifically organized by men working to reduce violence against women by educating men and boys.

The 16 days campaign, by contrast, aims not only at emphasizing the fact that gender based violence is a violation of human rights, but also encapsulates other days dedicated to highlight issues relating to Human Rights, such as World Aids Day on December 1, The International Day for the Abolition of Slavery on December 2, International Day for Disabled Persons on December 3 and the Human Rights Day on December 10. More than 150 countries have participated in the campaign so far. It was officially recognized as a United Nation’s campaign day in 1999.
Here in Austria, the ”16 Tage Gegen Gewalt An Frauen” is officially acknowledged by representatives of state and municipalities all over the country who on November 25 symbolically hoist hundreds of flags carrying the slogan ”Frei Leben Ohne Gewalt” – A Life in Freedom Without Violence – as a sign of the Austrian community’s support for the campaign.

The day is particularly acknowledged here in Austria by the lobby ”Autonome Österreichische Frauenhäuser” (Independent Women’s Refuge in Austria) which functions as an umbrella organisation for establishments like Wiener Frauenhäuser. Being the main institutions in society with first-hand experience from the field, it makes sense that these establishments send out a particularly loud clarion call during these days.

What makes less sense is that while these 16 days of campaigning pass by, more than ten percent of all women in Europe will still face violence in the home every day, and women and girls will still make up nearly the entire group of the victims of international human trafficking who are used for commercial sexual exploitation.

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