By Jackie Hansen, Major Campaigns and Women’s Rights Campaigner
Events being reported in the Canadian media have launched a national conversation about violence against women. It is a difficult but important conversation about why so many people—mainly but not exclusively women—continue to experience violence, and in particular sexual violence, and very often feel unwilling or unable to report it; as well as why we as a society have failed to stop it.
In talking about allegations of sexual violence and harassment we are talking about some of our most fundamental human rights that each and every one of us possesses.
We are talking about our basic human right to live free from rape and other violence. We are talking about the right to equality. Despite having these rights enshrined in international human rights law and in our own domestic laws, at least one third of women globally experience violence at some point in their lives. This statistic applies whether you live in Canada or Morocco. And women in other countries, as in Canada, are unlikely to report acts of violence or harassment to the authorities.
In Morocco, 16-year-old Amina was raped. Her family reported the rape to authorities and were advised that she should marry her rapist to preserve her family’s honour (until January 2014 rapists in Morocco could escape jail time by marrying their victims). To escape the horror of being forced to marry her rapist, Amina killed herself by swallowing rat poison.
In Canada, Indigenous women are three times more likely than non-Indigenous women to experience violence. But this violence is underreported for a variety of reasons, including a fear that children will be taken away if violence is occurring in the home, and because of a very real fear that no one will believe them.
Women in Canada, and around the world, run through a mental checklist of why and why not to report violence. Will anyone believe them? Can anything be done if there isn’t bruising or other physical evidence? Do they want to have to tell their story again and again to police, judges, and in some cases the public? Do they want to be known as a victim? And to be further traumatized by the criminal process? Do they have the time and money to get through lengthy court proceedings? What would be the impacts on their families? What evidence is there to convict the perpetrator? What information could be used against them? Are they prepared to deal with the media and the public blaming them? What peace and closure will they find if the perpetrator isn’t held to account?
There are broad societal reasons why violence should be reported, including the need to make sure that perpetrators don’t go on abusing other people. But each victim has to make a difficult and deeply personal decision about what will be best for them, their family, and their friends.
At the core of this discussion is discrimination, and the fundamental human right to live free from all forms of discrimination. Women, men, and gender non-conforming individuals (who don’t neatly fit into the categories or male and female) all experience violence. But people of different genders experience violence in very different ways and for very different reasons.
According to Statistics Canada, overall, women face slightly higher rates of violence than men, but women face much higher rates of sexual violence than men. All too often this violence is specifically because they are women, or because they are gender non-conforming. This violence is compounded by discrimination on the grounds of race, ethnicity, sexual identity, social status, class, and age. Such multiple forms of discrimination further restrict women’s choices, increase their vulnerability to violence, and make it even harder for women to obtain justice. Violence against women feeds off discrimination and serves to reinforce it.
We have come a long way in the fight for gender equality. Women can vote, hold property and political office, and make up the majority of university students. But women still earn 20% less than male counterparts for the same work, do 50% more household work, and are more likely to be poor. Women only make up 9% of the police, 27% of the judges, and 27% of the parliamentarians worldwide.
To be equal, women need to live free from discrimination, and free from violence. Women need to be comfortable around men without fear of being attacked, and if women experience violence or harassment, they need to be comfortable coming forward. Women who come forward need to have confidence that perpetrators will be held to account in a process that recognizes the rights of victims and avoids re-victimization as much as possible.
One in three women has experienced violence. One in three of your female Facebook friends has experienced violence. Perhaps you have experienced violence and gone to the authorities or the media. Perhaps you have decided not to share your story.
The national discussion about violence includes all of us. We all come to the discussion from a different starting place. But we ultimately need to end at the same place—a place where we firmly reject discrimination and reject violence; a place where the human rights of all people are wholeheartedly respected.
For more information on Amnesty International’s work on women’s human rights visit www.amnesty.ca/women.