Unicef Opens Global Drive to Halt Killings
by BARBARA CROSSETTE
(New York Times 03/09/00)
U NITED NATIONS, March 8 -- Unicef began a global campaign today against homicidal violence against women in cultures where laws and society fail to protect them.
A number of organizations are focusing on the issue as they meet in New York for two weeks to assess progress five years after the largest international gathering of women -- from the grass roots to governments -- assembled in Beijing to share their hopes and grievances.
They refer to the violence as culturally sanctioned homicide.
"This is a violence that is almost sanctioned," said Carol Bellamy, the executive director of Unicef. The campaign begun today, International Women's Day, will focus on acts like "honor killings," dowry deaths, female infanticide and acid attacks.
In some countries, even when laws defending the right of men to use violence against women are repealed, the culture that created them continues to exert a tremendous influence over behavior, these groups say. The situation is worst across a swath of countries stretching from the Mediterranean to the edge of Southeast Asia, especially Pakistan, India and Bangladesh.
"There's violence everywhere, there's gender discrimination everywhere," Ms. Bellamy said. "But South Asia -- when we assign people there they come back raving feminists in six months."
United Nations agencies and thousands of local groups have found that the path toward better lives for the most oppressed women leads inevitably to a collision with laws favoring men, leaders of the groups say. And they contend that that may explain why some countries never develop to their full potential.
Almost all of the violent attacks on women are technically illegal. But some recent information compiled by Unicef, with the help of grass-roots organizations, indicates that they continue. They found that in Bangladesh reported acid attacks on women and girls -- often by men or boys they had rejected -- rose from 47 disfiguring assaults in 1996 to more than 200 in 1998.
In India, more than 6,000 "bride burnings" or other dowry deaths were reported in 1997. The women died because they did not bring what in-laws considered satisfactory dowries or, sometimes, because the grooms were not happy with brides chosen by their families.
The State Department, in its latest annual survey of human rights, published on Feb. 25, said that in India about 10,000 cases of female infanticide were reported annually, not counting an unknown number of abortions to avoid giving birth to girls. "Unicef is a children's agency," Ms. Bellamy said, "but you can't deal with children without the implications of the parents, particularly the mother.
"The issue of child survival is already compromised if you're talking about a mother who is malnourished in the first place. As a child she's less well taken care of than a boy. She leaves school early for early marriage.
"She's very often physically abused, and so much of that abuse comes in the family. She doesn't get adequate prenatal care."
Adrienne Germain, president of the International Women's Health Coalition and a former Ford Foundation representative in Bangladesh, said that many societies where unrestricted male power is misused evade the issue by using culture and religion as a cloak.
"In the last couple of years, female genital mutilation came to public consciousness and there was a sense of horror about it," Ms. Germain said. "This year's topic seems to be honor crimes, and the tendency to blame them on a particular religion, namely Islam. This is not a religious phenomenon. It has to do with male dominance, patriarchy and power."
Pinar Ilkkaracan, the founder of the Turkish organization Women for Women's Rights, said in an interview here that the West was sometimes simplistic in holding religion responsible for women's problems in Islamic countries.
Ms. Ilkkaracan said she had to tone down her work recently because it was being portrayed by outsiders as an Islamic issue. She argues that culturally sanctioned violence against women is a Mediterranean phenomenon and that even in Spain and Portugal it was unofficially condoned until those two countries joined the European Union. The machismo of Latin America, she contends, has its roots in Iberia.
In New York, Equality Now, which aids women's groups around the world, is involved in a drive to lobby governments to rewrite or repeal laws that discriminate against women. The United States, where citizenship laws can discriminate, is not exempt from scrutiny.
Monique Widyono, co-director of the group, says that women are increasingly focusing on the international agreements that governments have signed and then ignored. "We are calling for accountability." She said. "The message now is: sign a document and be accountable."