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The Worldwide Epidemic That Needs Your Attention

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The headlines this past week made us want to scream in outrage.

The Oscar Pistorius murder case in South Africa; rape in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; gang rapes in India; Pakistan acid attacks, and missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada. Each news item was served up by reporters and anchors as a separate, isolated story. In fact they are all different versions of the same story, told over and over again, night after night, from one country to the next.

Why do we treat all these disparate threads around the world as unrelated events? According to UNIFEM, one in three women -- one billion members of our human population -- will be raped or beaten in her lifetime. It's time to wake up, connect the dots, and realize that violence against women is a global problem on the scale of climate change or world food shortages.

It is for the courts to decide Pistorius' guilt or innocence in the murder of his girlfriend, but the case highlights the broader problem of violence against women in South Africa. We spend two to three months of every year working in Africa, including numerous visits to South Africa, and we hear from our friends there the story behind the story. Last year, almost 65,000 sexual offences were reported to South African police, who estimate a woman is raped there every 36 seconds.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo has been dubbed the rape capital of the world, where sexual assault is a standard weapon of war. It is estimated more than 200,000 women have been raped in the civil war since 1998. In the northeast corner of the country, a criminal militia is now waging war to control rich local mineral, timber and wildlife resources. This militia is alleged to have abducted some 3,000 women to use as sex slaves.

India remains in upheaval after the brutal gang rape that took the life of a 23-year-old woman last December. The shocking incident provoked a long-overdue backlash against the epidemic of sexual assaults in that country, and the apparent indifference and inaction of police and the courts. It can take up to 10 years for Indian courts to process a rape case, and only 26 per cent of cases result in a conviction.

In Pakistan, women's organizations say the number of women who were the victims of acid attacks rose by 89 per cent last year over the previous year. Women are doused with strong acid that causes permanent disfigurement and even death -- most often by the victim's own husband or family as punishment for causing a perceived dishonour. Sometimes the vicious attack is for nothing more than looking at another man.

Of course there was also Malala Yousefzai, the 14-year-old Pakistani girl who barely survived an assassination attempt last year for the crime of speaking out for the education of girls.

And lest anyone think these news stories are confined to the global south, last week Canada saw the release of a report by Human Rights Watch claiming abuse by RCMP officers of Aboriginal women in British Columbia. Meanwhile the number of calls increase for a national inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal woman across Canada. The Native Women's Association of Canada says that if non-Aboriginal women were being killed or abducted at the same rate as Aboriginal women over the past decade, more than 18,000 non-Aboriginal women would now be dead or missing.

Perhaps most terrifying is the fact that each example we write of here causes us to think of one more. How many more news stories do people have to hear before they choose to raise their voices and take action?

We have always advocated fighting for the rights women and girls by empowering them with education, micro-credit, and self-directed water projects. But it's not enough -- the world needs system-level change.

The world's governments must treat rape as one of the most heinous of war crimes, and provide our police and military forces even greater power to intervene and create safe havens for women; nations like Canada must tie our trade and support for other nations to their enforcement of their laws for the protection of women; and Canada must look inward, to recognize and deal with the ways we have failed our own women.

The problem is huge and complex, and we certainly don't have all the answers. We do know that it's time to connect the headlines and expose the global epidemic of violence against women. And once we see the disease for what it is, move beyond outrage to global action.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in eight cities across Canada this year, inspiring more than 100,000 attendees. For more information, visit www.weday.com or follow Craig on Twitter at @craigkielburger

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