March 9, 2000
By BARBARA CROSSETTE
UNITED NATIONS, March 8 -- Unicef began a global campaign today against
homicidal violence against women in cultures where laws and society fail to
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against women are repealed, the culture that created them continues to exert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
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
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."
More information on UNICEF can be found on their web site at http://www.unicef.org/
Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company
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