Placing women’s progress at the heart of public planning and budgeting, by ensuring their rights and family-friendly policies, can have immense knock-on effects for a country’s socio-economic development, noted a landmark UN report on women’s rights and status at home.
Released Tuesday by the United Nations, the report titled Progress of the World’s Women is the first comprehensive study to confirm that the home is one of the most dangerous places for women.
Nearly one in five women aged 15 to 49, globally, experienced physical, sexual, or emotional abuse from a former or current partner or spouse in the previous year, UN Women said in its flagship annual report.
The report not only recognises how family structures can have enormous impact of our perception of gender roles, but also dispels conservative myths about the ‘natural family’, showing instead that families are becoming more diverse around the world.
“When families are places of equality and justice, economies and societies thrive and unlock the full potential of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs),” UN Women which sponsored the study said in a press note. “The report shows that achieving the SDGs depends on promoting gender equality within families,” it added about the study, which also outlines a slew of affordable policies for governments to adopt across the world.
“We have seen great progress on eliminating discrimination against women in laws, however, it is no accident that family laws have been the slowest to change,” Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of UN Women, said in the study’s foreword.
The report notes the shocking pervasiveness of intimate partner violence; in 2017, nearly 60% of female victims of intentional homicide were killed by a family member, a rate of 137 women killed each day, the report said.
Research showed only four in 10 countries criminalise marital rape, while a dozen of them allow rapists to avoid prosecution by marrying their victims.
Following in the footsteps of Tunisia, Jordan, and Lebanon, several others from Iraq to Malaysia are, nonetheless, pushing for legal reform to abolish marry-your-rapist laws.
Confirms past estimates
Last year, another UN study also concluded that home is “the most dangerous place for a woman.” The report by United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) cited 58% or 50,000 of the 87,000 female homicide cases studied as being committed by the victims’ intimate partners or family members.
The UNODC study states that African and American (both North and South) women were in greater danger of being killed by intimate partners or family members. The lowest rates were found in Asia and Europe, with 0.9% and 0.7% victims per 100,000 female population, respectively.
Yet another well-known report by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention pegged the rate of domestic violence-related female homicides at 55% in 2017, while 93% of those victims were found to have been killed by their boyfriends, husbands, and lovers.
Missing: A home of one’s own
This latest report confirms similar global figures describing domestic violence against women “serious and ubiquitious”. It also found that nearly one in five women aged between 15 and 49 experienced physical or sexual abuse from a former or current partner or spouse in 2018.
In more than 50 countries, including the US, Nepal, Britain, and South Africa, it is a crime for a husband to rape his wife. But a woman being forced to have sex within marriage is not a criminal offence in 58% of countries, said Shahrashoub Razavi, the lead author of the report.
Asian and predominantly-Muslim nations are among those most deficient in recognising marital rape as a cognisable offence; these are also the regions that don’t collect data, and where social pressures and taboo make it very difficult to report or discuss the matter, socially and publicly.
At the launch of the report at UN headquarters, Marwa Sharafeldin, an Egyptian women’s rights activist who works with a global Muslim family law project in the MENA region said, “It is seen as part of the marriage contract, that sexual access,” corroborating how the woman’s place in the domestic sphere is determined by historical, cultural, economic and social mores.
Why this matters
Even in India it is a particularly sensitive family law issue, with lawmakers themselves questioning the adverse impact of such a law on the sanctity of of marriage.
Last July, non-profits RIT Foundation and the All India Democratic Women’s Association challenged the constitutionality of Section 375 on the grounds that it failed to adequately protect married women from being sexually assaulted by their partners.
In a historic statement, the Delhi High Court clarified that marriage does not entail a natural lease of life-long consent to have sex or demand it from your partner. The court ruled that in a relationship like marriage, both men and women have a right to say ‘no’ to physical relations, further stressing that being married does not mean the wife is always ready for sex.
Despite Indian courts coming out in defence of a wife’s right to refuse sex, there are many who claim that criminalising non-consensual sex with a spouse would destabilise the institution.
Another raging discourse in the nation concerns triple talaq and the bill to criminalise the oral practice among Muslim couples.
“Women and men and children are suffering because of these baseless laws, and society is being held back,” said UN’s Sharafeldin. “So it’s not just women.”
What’s really behind this?
All these reports present staggering numbers and yet the system of due process continues to fail women who are, moreover, expected to don their gender roles and keep the family together despite their best interests.
Even though women formed only 20% of the world’s homicide victims, the fact that the most of them suffer brutal crimes in the so-called safe space, suggests a gross imbalance in power dynamics in the domestic sphere. And unlike the dangers at the workplace or in the streets, this is more invisible and largely unaddressed.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that political and policy considerations have always been skewed towards a male-centric model of development. This is what activists mean when they demand greater representation of women in legislatures, courts, law enforcement, and other decision-making positions.
Financial exclusion and dependence is another probable factor. Studies say that women’s access to micro-finance options see them invest with altruism and foresight, spend and save prudently, and stimulate economic and entrepreneurial activity—significantly improving the socioeconomic indicators of their families and communities. But without robust social and legal protection, their role is undermined by abusive power dynamics at home.
What can help? Laws, policies, public action
Practitioners of family law are trying to reform the mentality that normalises such acts as marital rape and further makes it difficult to seek legal redress or even recognise signs of it.
Increasing awareness is helping women realise the importance of consent, understand the legal age for marriage, their legal and financial options in case of divorce and improve women’s access to family resources.
The UN study calls for greater coordination among various stakeholders like the law enforcement, judiciary, and health and social services. It also stressed the importance of involving men in the resolution process.
For instance, Swayam, a Kolkata-based non-profit dedicated to ending violence against women, works closely with male relatives (especially in suburban and rural areas) as part of a campaign to address and diffuse tension arising out of differences in biological sex and gender roles.
Making a case for effective crime prevention, safety, and empowerment of potential victims, besides the need for immediate legal redressal to hold the accused accountable, the UN report is hoped to propel a breakthrough to make homes safe again.
Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius