VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN: WALLS THAT IMPRISON
By René Wadlow
When in his Nobel Peace Prize address (1974), Sean MacBride (1904-1988) cited torture along with the development and acceptance of indiscriminate nuclear weapons, the use of chemical weapons, and political assassination as signs of a “near total collapse of public and private morality in practically every sector of human relationship”, he stressed his central theme: the necessity of nongovernmental actions to ensure survival.
Although MacBride had served as the Irish Foreign Minister from 1948 to 1951 and played an important role in the creation of the Council of Europe, it was as a non-governmental organization leader that he made his full mark: as an early chair of the Amnesty International Executive Committee (1961-1974), as Secretary General of the International Commission of Jurists (1963-1970) and as chair of the International Peace Bureau. It was in his efforts to highlight the wide use of torture that we started to work together in Geneva. He denounced torture techniques “that make the medieval thumb screw and rack look like children’s toys”.
He was particularly critical of torture and violence against women. He had been largely raised by his mother, the actress and Irish nationalist Maud Gonne. His father, John MacBride, was hanged by the British for his participation in the 1916 Easter uprising when Sean was 12. Violence against women was doubly unjust: because it was violence and because women were to be respected.
When Sean MacBride through Amnesty International first raised the issue of torture in the United Nations (UN) Commission on Human Rights, the government representatives replied that torture might happen occasionally — there are always some brutal policemen or prison guards — but torture is rare and never a government policy. However, once the issue was raised and taken up by other NGO representatives, it became clear that torture is widespread, in different cultures and in different political systems. Finally, the UN Commission on Human Rights named a Special Rapporteur on Torture and developed a systematic way of looking at torture complaints.
Likewise, it has largely been the same pattern for raising awareness of violence against women. When the issue was first raised by representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), governments replied that violence against women exists but is rare or that it is “domestic violence” and governments cannot act unless there are actions taken by the police.
However, worldwide evidence was presented by NGOs that violence against women exists to an alarming degree. Violence against women is an attack upon their bodily integrity and their dignity. As NGO representatives stressed, we need to place an emphasis on the universality of violence against women, the multiplicity of its forms and the ways in which violence, discrimination against women, and the broader system of domination based on subordination and inequality are inter-related.
In a response to the evidence, the UN General Assembly has set 25 November as the UN-proclaimed International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. The value of a special “Day” is that it serves as a time of analysis of an issue and then of rededication to take both short-term and longer-range measures.
Both at the international UN level and at the national level, there have been programs devoted to the equality of women and to the promotion of women in all fields. There has been growing attention to physical violence against women, the creation of centers for battered women and attention given to the trafficking of women. It has often been repeated that it is necessary to ensure the education, training, good health, employment promotion, and integration of women so that they can participate fully and effectively in the development process.
Yet inequality continues, and walls still exist that imprison women. On November 25, this day for the elimination of violence against women, we need to look at the different forms of violence which keep such wall in place.
Prof. René Wadlow is President and Chief Representative to the United Nations Office at Geneva of the Association of World Citizens.