The world must unite to fight women rights abuses

Navi Pillay

A girl befriends boys. What could be more normal and ordinary? Yet for doing just that a Turkish teenager was reportedly buried alive by her father and grandfather. This recent piece of news has been met with shock and outrage worldwide. Crimes such as this, however, are in no way exceptional. Indeed, a court in Arizona is hearing the case of a man accused of killing his daughter whom he allegedly considered too westernised. The UN estimates that 5,000 women are murdered by family members each year in so-called honour killings around the world.

When women are seen as the carriers of a family’s honour they become vulnerable to attacks involving physical violence, mutilation and even murder, usually at the hand of an offended male relative.

Honour assaults are carried out to repair and cleanse a breach of family or community norms, particularly when sexual conduct is involved.

But triggers could also be a woman’s desire to marry or live with a person of her own choice, to divorce, or to claim an inheritance. Women are condemned to violent sentences without benefit of a hearing of their side of the story and without possibility of appeal.

This twisted logic and the violence it unleashes are pursued even when women have been the targets of unwanted male attention or have been the victims of rape, including incestuous violence. As a result, they are victimised twice while their aggressors’ behaviour is condoned. Often, perpetrators can count on full or partial exoneration of penalty due to laws that are lenient or that are patchily applied. At times, the assailants may even end up basking in the admiration of their community for having stopped the errant behaviour of a disobedient woman and erased its stain with blood.

But violent honour attacks are crimes that violate the right to life, liberty, bodily integrity, the prohibition against torture or cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment, prohibition on slavery, right to freedom from gender-based discrimination and sexual abuse or exploitation, right to privacy, obligation to renounce discriminatory laws and harmful practices against women.

It is both simplistic and misleading to think that these practices belong to retrograde cultures which disdain civilised conduct. The fact is that in all countries of the world, women endure violence in spheres that are familiar to them and in which they should expect safety rather than assault. Honour attacks are steeped in the same attitude and stem from the same mind-set that also produces domestic violence. These attacks are rooted in the desire to control women and suppress their aspirations and voice.

Domestic sphere

Women are entrapped within their home walls by the isolation and powerlessness that violence builds around them. As a result, many assaults against women perpetrated in the domestic sphere remain shrouded in silence and shame rather than being denounced for what they are, that is, egregious human rights abuses.

Although women’s economic self-reliance may offer pathways out of societal constraints, domestic abuse and subjugation, violence against women has been on the increase even in countries where women have achieved financial independence and high social status. That forces some successful entrepreneurs, as well as respected parliamentarians, brilliant scholars and professional women to lead double lives. In public they are regarded as role models among the top echelons of society. In private they are humiliated and attacked.

There is a clear state responsibility to protect women, punish their attackers and make perpetrators shoulder the cost and consequences of their self-righteousness and brutality. At the same time, everyone must be educated about women’s human rights and the responsibility to respect the rights of others. This should include recognition of women’s right to control their bodies and their sexuality, as well as having equal access to property.

Women are fighting back to ensure that change in attitudes occurs and is consolidated. They increasingly challenge their assailants to explain in court what exactly is honourable about their actions. Women increasingly demand that their tormentors too face the consequences of violence. We must support these courageous women. We must help others to come forward and shred the veil of silence and societal connivance that has allowed cultures of violence to take root.

The writer is United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.