“If I looked nice, he hit me,” Ana L., a mother of five in Colombia, told me.
Ana (not her real name) detailed years of abuse by her partner. He beat her when she was pregnant, and hit her head so hard that she suffered permanent vision damage. She sought help from a prosecutor’s office, but they never charged him, and failed to offer Ana an order for protection. Ana said she lived in a two-room house with 14 people, and struggled to feed her children. A dismal situation, but Ana was anything but dismal the day we spoke earlier this year. Surrounded by strong women in a community organization fighting for women’s rights, Ana’s voice rang out as she described helping other women, as well as her plans to start her own business.
In my line of work – human rights research and advocacy – violence against women and girls is a constant. My colleagues and I interview hundreds of women and girls around the world every year who endure domestic violence, rape, trafficking, female genital mutilation, and other abuses. We hear women’s accounts of cruelty, but also of resilience and courage. Many survivors go on to campaign to stop the violence, and to force their governments to act.
On November 25 every year, a grim accounting takes place: the world takes stock of violence against women, the toll it takes, and progress toward eliminating it. The International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women has been commemorated on November 25 for more than three decades. It’s a day each year when my colleagues and I focus on the courageous women we have met, the injustices they’ve suffered, and the hope they inspire.
Over the past year, progress, both big and small, has been made in efforts to reduce violence against women and to improve governments’ response.
Take Afghanistan. Women and girls there face extraordinarily high levels of violence. But rather than protecting victims, Afghan courts often jail them. About half of the women in prison and close to 100 percent of the girls in juvenile detention in Afghanistan are imprisoned for either “running away” from home (which is not even a crime under Afghan law) or being suspected of engaging in sex outside of marriage. Human Rights Watch interviewed women and girls in Afghan prisons, and found that most had fled home to escape domestic violence or forced marriage. Some had been raped and then convicted for unmarried sex. Judges ruled against them on the flimsiest of evidence, and prosecutors routinely failed to bring charges against the abusers.
But exposing this injustice and pressuring the government made a difference. In April 2012, Afghanistan’s attorney general issued instructions that girls who run away for the purpose of getting married are not to be prosecuted. In September, the Afghan parliament held a meeting on the issue where the minister of justice and a deputy minister of interior publicly confirmed that “running away” is not a crime and there should be no arrests or prosecutions under this charge. This is far from the end goal, but important progress nonetheless.
Or take the situation of domestic workers. There are some 50 million to 100 million domestic workers worldwide, the vast majority women and girls. Domestic workers face a wide range of serious abuses and labor exploitation, and some suffer physical and sexual abuse by employers.
“The woman [her employer] beat me whenever I did something she didn’t like,” Fatima K., a child domestic worker in Morocco, told us earlier this year. “She beat me with anything she found in front of her. Sometimes with a wooden stick, sometimes with her hand, sometimes with a plastic pipe.” Hundreds of domestic workers in dozens of other countries have described to Human Rights Watch physical abuse by employers ranging from slaps to severe beatings using shoes, belts, sticks or household implements; knocking heads against walls; and burning skin with irons.
Fortunately, in 2012, enough countries ratified a landmark international treaty on domestic workers to trigger it coming into force next year. The International Labour Organization’s Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers establishes the first global labor standards for domestic workers worldwide, and includes specific protections against abuse, harassment, and violence.
Fatima told us, “I would like to do a job to keep girls from working as child domestic workers because I know how they feel.” We have a long way to go in combating violence against women and girls, but with Ana, Fatima, and countless others like them in the fight, perhaps next November 25 we’ll have less to mourn – and more to celebrate.