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December 14, 2011

A Better World for Women and Girls

by Joe DeCapua

A British Medical Journal editorial calls for a moral and political movement to end violence and oppression against women and girls. It says about one billion women worldwide have been beaten, coerced into having sex or otherwise abused.

The BMJ editorial describes oppression against women and girls as a great injustice that is insidious, systematic and widespread.

“We’ve been documenting the problem of violence against women and other abuse and neglect of women in the context of childbirth, etc. There are many programs, campaigns, policies, laws, conventions, treaties that have been devised to eliminate them. There’s been progress in that regard and yet it’s still a global pandemic – the oppression of women and girls,” said coauthor Janice Du Mont.

Du Mont is a scientist at the Women’s College Research Institute in Toronto and an associate professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto. She co-wrote the editorial with Associate Professor of Sociology Deborah White of Trent University in Peterborough, Canada.

Basic rights

The editorial says gendered violence, avoidable complications of pregnancy and childbirth are infringements of basic human rights and freedoms.

“When you think about violence against women, for example, and girls, I mean it’s an issue that touches everyone’s lives. You have sisters, mothers, friends, etcetera that have experienced abuse or will experience abuse in the future. So it is a problem relevant to everyone in all countries. This cuts right across boundaries like geography, wealth, culture,” Du mont said.

The British Medical Journal approached the two women to write the editorial as a follow-up to a 2009 book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. It was co-written by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Sheryl WuDunn.

Professor Du Mont says women around the world face many risks.

“The number one consequence of abuse and neglect is just death, period. And I know from surveys worldwide that it’s estimated, for example, that approximately 40 to 70 percent of homicides of women are committed by intimate partners. These are in the context of abusive relationships. So one type of violence against women. Also, both abuse and neglect and pregnancy, etcetera, not having access to proper services, obviously leads to injury and permanent disability,” she said.

She said there are also risks of depression, suicide and chronic diseases. Du Mont says in 2008 there were nearly 360,000 maternal deaths reported worldwide – almost all in developing countries. And then there’s human trafficking, with the vast majority of the 800,000 people trafficked annually being women and girls.

Everyone’s responsibility

I think it really is the courage of women and women activists that first brought this to light – violence against women and girls – as a really shameful human rights violation and really even as a pernicious and pervasive public health problem. But it should not be up to women to end violence against women. And they can’t always be agents of change responsible for their own emancipation. There’s a lot of risk involved in that. As neighborhoods, communities, countries, societies in general we have to care about our women and girls. And it has to be on all of our agendas,” she said.

Gender inequality, she said, is a driving force behind abuse. She says those who harm women must be held accountable, adding men and boys must be fully engaged in promoting equality and preventing violence.

Du Mont said change requires political will based on a collective resolve across the globe.