Violence against women persists, U.N. says

Thursday, September 21st 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

By Gregory Katz / The Dallas Morning News

LONDON – Violence against women is still widespread throughout the world despite progress in some areas in the last five years, said a United Nations report released Wednesday.

The report found that deeply rooted prejudices against women persist in many cultures, even with efforts to put women on equal footing with men.

The special U.N. Population Fund inquiry found that women lag far behind men in access to education, health care and contraception and are routinely denied legal rights in numerous countries.

Harsh practices such as female genital mutilation and "honor killings" of women continue in many parts of the world, and about 2 million girls younger than 15 are forced into prostitution each year, the report stated.

"This report has a very simple message," said Dr. Nafis Sadik, executive director of the U.N. Population Fund. "The price of inequality is too high to pay. The report puts together evidence from a wide variety of sources and shows that in countries all over the world, inequality, discrimination and violence are holding back women and societies and nations."

She said that women are much more vulnerable to becoming infected with HIV, which causes AIDS, because they are not treated as equals who have a say in decisions about sex and reproduction. There are 2 million more women than men infected with HIV in Africa, she said.

The report showed few areas of improvement in the seven years since The Dallas Morning News published a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into violence against women throughout the world.

Legal progress

The abuses detailed in that report continue, but in some cases there is less tolerance today of those practices, Dr. Sadik said. She said, for example, that many countries in Africa have taken action to reduce the number of young women and girls who suffer genital mutilation, which often leaves them unable to have children.

"There is a great deal of progress in this area," Dr. Sadik said. "Genital mutilation is widely practiced in 28 countries, and in the last two years, 16 of those countries have passed laws banning the practice and others are trying to eliminate it. It has declined dramatically in some parts of Africa, but it's not eliminated."

And she said a large number of countries had passed new legislation changing laws that discriminated against women in various ways concerning the disposition of property, the distribution of income, the definition of rape and other legal matters.

"Our survey found that in every country in Latin America, laws had been changed or strengthened, and we found there were efforts to apply them more stringently," she said. "We found African countries examining their laws as well."

Women beaten, abused

But these positive developments were overshadowed by the harsh realities facing millions of women throughout the world. The study found that at least one in three women worldwide is beaten, coerced into sex or physically abused, most often by someone she knows.

Physical abuse during pregnancy was also found to be common, with one in four women reporting that they had been beaten while pregnant.

The study also found an increase in the number of "honor killings" in which women are killed by members of their extended families because they have done something to dishonor the family name.

It is estimated that about 5,000 girls and young women were put to death this way last year, many for the "crime" of having been raped.

In family planning, the report found that there were 80 million unplanned pregnancies each year because women are not given access to contraception and information about their use. Researchers also concluded that there were 78,000 deaths from an estimated 20 million abortions conducted in unsafe conditions.

The researchers also found that women were five times more likely to suffer from sexually transmitted diseases than were men.

Dr. Henry Foster, senior adviser to President Clinton on reproductive health issues, said the investigation had revealed an extremely high incidence of women dying during childbirth because of poor medical care or a lack of access to physicians.

"We see an unacceptably high worldwide mothers' mortality rate," he said. "Last year there were 585,000 maternal deaths, almost all of them in developing countries. This is about 700 deaths per 100,000 live births, while in our own country there were seven deaths per 100,000 births. One of the first things you learn in medical school is that every one of these deaths is avoidable."

He said literacy programs and increased education are the first things needed to reduce this needless loss of human life.

"Women have to control their own fertility, and for this we need them to have political strength, and literacy is the key," Dr. Foster said. "Literacy has a cascading effect. They have to become their own advocates and take power because it is true that no one gives up power voluntarily."

Peru reduces family size

Nonetheless, he said, there are success stories. Peru, for example, has cut the size of each family nearly in half, easing population pressures there, he said.

Amy Cohen, president of Population Action International, said these unequal conditions must be changed quickly if the rapid growth of world population is to be controlled. She also said the spread of HIV infection will continue unchecked unless women are allowed to take control of their reproductive health.

"This is fundamentally about inequality between men and women," she said. "How can a woman negotiate sexual intercourse and the use of a condom if she is an unequal partner? How can she protect herself against sexually transmitted diseases? How can she ensure an adequate investment in her family's future if she has no resources of her own?"