Why violence against women should be taken seriously

Point of view

Maria Holmblad (pictured right) is a recent Human Rights Studies graduate of Columbia University where she specialised in gender-based violence in conflict.

Here Maria talks about her perspective on this issue and her thoughts after attending the London Global Summit on sexual violence in conflict held during the summer.

Two major global events took place over last summer: the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict in London, and the World Cup in Brazil. What these (somewhat unexpectedly) had in common, beyond their ability to arouse global audiences, attract major celebrities, and mobilise significant resources, was their potential to have consequences for the ability of women worldwide to exercise their human right to a life in dignity, free from violence.

In a powerful campaign video by the charity Tender, it was recently reported that domestic violence in the UK (a majority of which is men’s violence against women) rises by a shocking 38% when England get knocked out of the World Cup. Whilst the London Summit is testimony to the current global momentum for putting an end to violence against women in all its forms, it is difficult for even the most optimistic among us to remain hopeful in the face of such appalling statistics. 

London Summit
I spent four days last June volunteering at the Summit with The Nobel Women’s Initiative on the International Campaign to Stop Rape and Gender Violence in Conflict, and am now suffering from a bout of feminist fatigue; whilst the conference appeared promising in that it brought together activists, survivors and political leaders from all over the world, a lot of us left the event disappointed, concluding that far from enough had been accomplished or promised. If we can agree that violence against women is a normalised product of a global system wherein women’s contributions, lives, ideas and dreams are not valued as highly as those of men, why are we not brave enough to attack precisely this?

Whereas world leaders at the summit committed to providing resources to develop much-needed services for survivors of sexual violence, to strengthening efforts to hold perpetrators accountable and to ensuring women’s participation in post-conflict processes (all of which are of course necessary), actual change on the ground is going to be hazardously slow.  

The Summit was the final culmination of the current government’s foreign policy focus on conflict-related gender violence, one that then Foreign Secretary William Hague made his signature issue. What should be of concern, however, is what it is that this political mobilisation around sexual violence in conflict – depicted as violence against foreign women by foreign men in far away countries – may obscure. As indicated by the frightening fact that the Human Rights Act (the piece of legislation that incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law) is under threat of being repealed, we certainly have not rid ourselves of the tendency to think that human rights apply to others, abroad, but have no major significance domestically.

Amongst many other things, such an approach to human rights perpetuates the harmful assumption that the ‘only’ women’s rights concerns in the UK context are those of a ‘softer’ nature, relating to economic independence or discrimination in the workplace. In reality, violence against women in the UK is widespread and grave, and takes many forms. It presents a serious threat to public health, harms the human dignity and integrity of women, and severely limits their ability to exercise full citizenship.

A cultural shift away from widespread violence against women will not take place unless human rights are at the very centre of the endeavour. Until we see women and girls as equal rights-holders and are willing to radically rethink our systems of privilege and power, sisters will continue to be raped by their partners, daughters will continue to have their genitals mutilated with razor blades, and mothers will continue to live their lives in fear of the hand that beats.

Girl Summit and FGM
Notably in the case of female genital mutilation (FGM), the tendency to hide behind the fallacy that rather than clearly criminal, such violence is culturally permissible, has gone on for too long. In response to this, DFID hosted the first ever Girl Summit in the summer aimed at putting an end to FGM and child, early and forced marriage in the world. Such efforts will only be meaningful if they choose to go beyond the ‘othering’ narrative that has continued to dominate, and only have an impact if the duty to defend all women and girls from all forms of gender-based violence is made a priority.

Community and grassroots organisations, both at home and abroad, have been doing fundamentally life-changing work on these issues for decades. The challenge ahead will be to commit to harnessing and empowering these not just with rhetoric, but also with resources.

Maria Holmblad currently works for a large UK charity and is a volunteer with the Labour Campaign for Human Rights. 
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