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Gerald Caplan

Violence against women: an international epidemic Add to ...

Twelve girls and women have been murdered by family members in Canada since 2002; these grisly deaths, perversely known as honour killings, have all taken place in certain minority communities. But these minorities have no monopoly on such savage brutality. In Ontario alone between 2002 and 2007, 202 women were murdered by their partners, an astonishing average of 42 each year.

These appalling statistics were the basis of my column last week on violence against women in Canada, which discouraged a number of readers who have long been engaged in the struggle to end this horror. What they rightly pointed out is how long this battle has been raging, and yet how widespread the phenomenon remains throughout the world.

The most depressing aspect of my column is that it could have been written any time in the past and anywhere in the world -a testament, alas, to a crisis that has been with us for as long as anyone has been conscious of the way females are treated by males.

In fact, such columns were written before, many of them right here in the peaceable kingdom of Canada. I wrote some myself over the years. More conspicuously, Canada's best-ever feminist columnist for many decades, Michele Landsberg, frequently drew attention to men's violence against women. Women's groups, often led by trade-union women, have long been in the forefront of the movement to stop such violence by men. The first Take Back the Night event in Canada -women demanding their right to a safe city - took place in Vancouver in 1978, followed by others in many North American and European cities as well as in Australia and India. Canada, of course, was the home of Marc Lepine, the Montreal mass murderer of women, but many countries are shamed by their own Marc Lepines.

About 20 years ago I was part of a small group of men who founded the White Ribbon Campaign - men working to end violence against women. It was one of the best things I've ever done. The campaign continues to operate both in Canada and many other countries, doing its best to make men aware that any kind of physical violence against women is completely unacceptable, full stop. There are no exceptions. The best-known of the founding members of the White Ribbon Campaign was Jack Layton and he has never tried to exploit his contribution for political gain, a rare example of integrity that I have long admired.

Thanks to the efforts of women, mostly, many governments in the developed world, some in the poorer world and the United Nations as a whole have been obligated to treat violence against women as a serious issue - or at least to pretend to do so. Never underestimate how much courage it has taken to promote this cause. Prominent outspoken feminists like Ms. Landsberg received many threats from the violent men her words exposed.

In 1982 - not exactly ancient history - NDP MP Margaret Mitchell was heckled and insulted shamelessly by MPs from the other parties when she raised the issue in Parliament. Most of the baiting came from the Conservatives, including one moronic MP who shouted out, "I don't beat my wife. Do you, George?"

Ms. Mitchell had raised the issue after a parliamentary report on battered wives concluded that one in 10 Canadian husbands beat their wife regularly. Statistically that meant that 25 to 30 male members of Parliament might have been among the wife-beaters, perhaps including the idiots who were heckling and the mysterious George.

But to be fair, and to repeat the key point, violence against women is a universal problem. Back in 1979, the UN adopted the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, sometimes known as the Treaty for the Rights of Women, which explicitly included the issue of violence against women. As of last year, 185 countries had ratified this convention. The small minority of countries failing to ratify include Iran, Sudan, and the United States. America is the only industrial democracy not to ratify. As it happens, one in every four American women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. 

Thanks to ongoing pressure by women's groups, in 1993 the UN issued another declaration calling for the elimination of violence against women in all of its forms, from violence within marriage and sexual harassment in the workplace to female genital mutilation and forced prostitution. These issues have since been pursued through a series of UN World Conferences on Women.

On the one hand, then, a problem that had been hidden forever has in recent decades been forced into the open. In some countries it is now politically incorrect to claim that a man has a right to treat a women any way he chooses. More women are, at long last, coming forward to report being abused. Although statistics are ambiguous, it may even be that all the work exposing the criminality of violence against women is having an impact.

And yet so much of the epidemic lives, even thrives. For all of the UN declarations, a 2006 report found that one in three women around the world suffered from serious violence by their mates. The report was naturally called "Ending violence against women: From words to actions."

As for right here in Canada, the 42 women murdered on average each year in Ontario tells only a small part of a tragic story. In Canada as a whole, no fewer than 178 women on average were killed each and every year between 1994 and 2008.

We need a perspective here. Between 2002 and July 20, 2010, a total of 151 members of the Canadian Forces have been killed serving in Afghanistan. Each received respectful coverage in the media, as they should have. Yet more women are killed on average each year, often with no public attention at all, than the total of soldiers killed since we joined the Afghan war. Why has our government not declared war against the enemy at home who continues to murder so many women?

Violence against women doesn't always end in murder. In Canada in 2007, nearly 40,200 incidents of "spousal violence" (i.e., violence against legally married, common-law, separated and divorced partners) were reported to police. And yet the figures show that such reported incidents had actually decreased by 15 per cent between 1998 and 2007. Let's put that another away. Despite a 15 per cent decline in those years, more than 40,000 Canadian women still reported being subjected to violence by their partner in 2007.

So the struggle for women's equality, including the simple right not be abused or murdered, continues. Today in Canada, the struggle must focus on the Harper government, surely the most anti-women government in modern times. Stephen Harper refuses to support terrific programs at home or abroad that promote women's equality. Charity from above for the less-fortunate, sure; solidarity with equals, not a chance.

MATCH is defunded, Kairos is defunded, the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women is defunded, Status of Women funding is substantially cut, Sisters in Spirit aren't told if they're to be funded, the court challenges program is terminated, employment equity is to end, maternal health programs will rob women of their right to decide on their own best interests.

There are many reasons to fear our own government. None is more urgent than this.

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