Men are beating their wives. All over the world. In rich countries and poor ones. In democracies and dictatorships.
You’d have to be astonishingly clueless to think that this is an entirely new phenomenon. For years we’ve been hearing about the individual tragedies, the studies, the surveys. Yet something does seem to be changing. Domestic violence is now working its way into the global headlines in ways that seem entirely unprecedented — if not always for the reasons one would hope.
In India, a women’s advocacy group reports that calls to its abuse hotline soared in the wake of a chaotic government currency reform last fall. Why? The measure forced wives to reveal their hidden stashes of household cash, enraging their spouses.
The mayor of the Russian city of Yekaterinburg says that cases of spousal violence have soared there since lawmakers passed a bill that partially decriminalized domestic violence. President Vladimir Putin, who is a man, approved the move last week. One of the bill’s supporters (another man) wrote that wives who are hit by their husbands “should be proud of their bruises,” since getting slapped around meant that they’d probably give birth to boys.
In the United Kingdom, a Conservative member of parliament (also a man) has stirred up a fuss by opposing a new domestic violence bill “because it relates only to female victims.” (While men do sometimes end up on the receiving end of household abuse, statistics in the United States show that 85 percent of the victims are women.)
These stories underline two important points. First, domestic violence has finally become a topic of global debate — even in countries where it has long been subject to a code of silence. Russia’s defiant move to defend what some refer to as “traditional family values” may be popular among Putin’s die-hard fans, but it has also triggered an outpouring of indignation around the world.
Second, we’re still a long way from finding an effective way to deal with the problem. As Post correspondent Emily Rauhala recently showed in a powerful article from China: Beijing — in stark contrast to Moscow — has officially recognized that violence against women in the home requires a tough response, and has passed a correspondingly rigorous set of laws. But society — meaning above all the male half of society — isn’t keeping up. While in Tunisia, the success of the country’s Arab Spring revolution has brought a host of new freedoms, including constitutionally enshrined gender equality. Yet many women are still too frightened to take advantage of the protections afforded them by law.
Despite these horror stories, the fact that the subject is now coming out into the open on such a broad scale does offer some grounds for hope. It’s time for the world to stop dismissing violence in the home as a “private matter” and to recognize it for what it is: low-intensity warfare. A Russian news agency reported in 2013 that roughly 12,000 women die as a result of domestic abuse in the country each year. The Chinese government estimates that 1 in 4 women have been beaten; “Tens of millions are at risk,” as Rauhala noted in another of her articles.
Needless to say, the West is hardly exempt. Between 2001 and 2012, 11,766 American women died from violence at the hands of their current or former male partners — more than twice as many as U.S. troops who died in Afghanistan and Iraq in the same period.
As people in the development community never tire of repeating, domestic violence is a major obstacle to human development. It has huge economic costs and helps to entrench poverty.
But it is time we began to see it as something even bigger — as a vital issue of governance, and even as betrayal of true democratic norms. One-half of the world’s people can hardly be expected to exercise their fundamental rights if they have to live on a daily basis with the threat of violence. We need to find new ways not just to protect those under threat, and to guarantee them justice after the fact, but also to empower them, to allow them to participate in civic life without fear of retribution. That should be in the interest of everyone. Women are the most directly affected, but it is society as a whole that bears the costs.
We can no longer claim that we didn’t notice. The stories are out there. Now it’s time for us to act on them.
Christian Caryl is the editor of DemocracyPost.