06/27/2014 12:25 EDT | Updated 08/27/2014 05:59 EDT

It's Time to Connect the Dots on Gender-Based Violence

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More child kidnappings a few days ago in Nigeria, on top of the nearly 300 girls abducted nearly three months ago. A 15-year-old girl and her 14-year-old cousin raped, murdered, and hung from a tree in rural India. Meanwhile, in urban Pakistan, family members stoned to death a pregnant woman who married against their wishes. And in Cairo, a woman celebrating the election of the new president is stripped naked and sexually assaulted in broad daylight amid hundreds of thousands of well-wishers.


Photo: Plan International/Mary Matheson

All these recent headline-making events -- and there are more -- have focused the world's attention, at least for the moment, on gender-directed violence. However, these incidents, brutal as they are, form only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. When the headlines fade, the daily, persistent, and pervasive violence against girls and women around the world will continue unabated and generally unreported. And it will persist until people and their governments start connecting the dots between these headline-making atrocities and the everyday, out of the headlines, violence targeted at girls and women on public streets, in the household, in the workplace, and in and around schools and why these incidents happen.

International studies tell us that more than one out of every three women worldwide (35 per cent) has experienced sexual violence at some point in their lives. That's more than one billion people. When it comes to children, up to 1.5 billion annually experience some sort of sexual, physical or psychological violence because they are girls.

Such violence is pervasive. No country is immune. In Canada, one-quarter of women say they were victims of sexual abuse before their 16th birthday. And only recently have the authorities finally acknowledged the plight of some 1,200 missing and murdered Aboriginal women.

Unfortunately, we seem to live in a world where routine violence against women and girls is background noise and regretfully expected, although not shocking. It takes a lot more to shock these days. This is simply unacceptable. As a first step, we need to make the connection between such abhorrent behaviour and the attitudes that nurture and support it.

I often wonder why the media pays attention, and the public takes note, only when the atrocity level crosses a certain tolerance line? Why is it that there is no universal outrage when we report that one-third of girls worldwide are sexually assaulted before they turn 16? I am dumbfounded that our tolerance for violence against girls and women runs so high until it crashes, albeit briefly, when something occurs that simply stuns us -- like 300 school girls taken away by militants or another report of a particularly appalling gang rape. I am amazed that people aren't saying, "Surely, that can't be. You must be imagining it."

Sadly, no. We are not making this up. The facts are consistent and no one refutes them. It is the reality confronting half the world's population.

Typically, people attribute the headline-making examples of gender-based violence as the actions of crazy people. No, again. Day in and day out, "normal" looking, and otherwise normally acting, boys and men do horrible things to girls and women. The violence ranges from sexist taunts through pushing and shoving to using date-rape drugs and sexual assault.

Violence against women is so systemic and pervasive, that being on guard against it has become part of the female DNA. Instinctively, they check out sidewalks and look over their shoulders, even for such routine activities as walking to their car in the office parking lot after a day's work.

What can be done? Lots, as it turns out. Societies that link stereotypical negative attitudes about females with violence against women and girls are making headway in tackling the problem.

One global leader in this regard is Australia. Australia has unified its largely autonomous states and territories around a national action plan to end violence against women and children. We should have a national action plan to end violence against women and children in Canada as well. The key elements of a made-in-Canada approach should include effective legal enforcement, a safe climate for reporting violence, building strong partnerships among law enforcement and community organizations, especially child protection agencies, and funding school-based, anti-gender violence initiatives.


Photo: Plan International/Bea Uhart

Ultimately, we must begin with our children, especially our boys. We need to focus on the family and home. What happens at this level, from the earliest age, determines gender attitudes. Parents must talk with their daughters about standing up for their human rights and with their sons about violence in all its forms and the dangers of stigmatization. Progress will come with progressive attitudes. We must not tolerate the passive acceptance of something so wrong.

Often ignored in the fight against gender-based violence is the role of education. We know that developing nations will never reach their potential until one-half of their population participates fully in their economies. And that won't happen until girls receive the same educational advantages boys can take for granted.

Today, some 65-million girls are not receiving a primary or secondary education. Many of them are not in classrooms because they have experienced violence at school. Early, child and forced marriages and forced domestic work also contribute to their school absences.

Ending these practices will not only make it easier for girls to attend school, but recent studies show that the more schooling a girl receives, the less likely she is to be a victim of violence.

The struggle to end gender-directed violence will take time, but the strategies can be straight-forward -- once we connect the dots behind the headlines.


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