27/04/2017 13:31 BST | Updated 28/04/2017 04:32 BST

Stop The Silence Around Violence Against Women

We need to do something about it and we need to do something about it today. In no single person's moral universe, whether guided by religion or any other cultural value, should the violation and degradation of another's physical body or integrity be allowed.

Meriel Jane Waissman


That's what I hear on this topic of violence and discrimination against women.

The voices speaking out are few, they're there, but they're not enough to highlight just how large and just how endemic this problem is. I have spent over 15 years travelling through many parts of the world, in part alongside my women's rights organisation Project Monma. There has not been a single part of the world that I have been to, where violence and discrimination against women and girls is not a serious problem.

It's a topic that's wrapped up in shame and punishment. Victims don't speak out for fear of being criticised, for fear of being told it's their fault and in some cases, for fear of the violent consequences that may come with speaking out. Like death.

I've met women in Northern Iraq who have faced this very threat. One very brave women's rights activist, who I met on my first trip to Northern Iraq, fled to Norway after trying to speak up for women's rights. She was threatened by some of the religious leaders in the country who didn't want women speaking about rights.

They want women to stay silent.

Much was the same in the Maldives. I went to interview women on their perspectives of the changing political situation in the country. Almost all of the women who I spoke to asked me to not use their name. Speaking up about the human rights situation came with consequences, they informed me, as did speaking up about violence against women. The violence, they said, was being fuelled, by the growing presence of Islamic extremists in the country who were advocating increased restrictions on women's rights, such as expecting women to cover up more and not be able to leave the home without permission from a male member of the family. Speaking out against these norms, could be met with punishment.

So they preferred to stay silent.

Poverty keeps women and girls in silence. For the women and girls living in the world's slums and poverty stricken parts of the world, with little education and no one to listen, there is little opportunity to speak out. While in Mozambique conducting a project on the sexual harassment of school girls by male teachers, it became clear that the schools where teachers were harassing girls, were rural and poverty stricken. For a little girl living in poverty, where should she go to report sexual harassment from her teacher?

The girls said they just stayed silent.

Concepts of honor and shame are perhaps one of the greatest barriers stopping women from speaking out about the violence perpetrated against them. Throughout the world I have met women who have explained how cultural values that blame women and girls for being sexually assaulted, instead of the perpetrator, make them afraid to speak out. With Project Monma, we conducted a survey looking at women's experiences of sexual harassment in India. It was incredibly difficult to get women to fill out the survey. One Indian woman told me that I would never get anyone to fill out the survey, they would be too afraid of the shame.

The women would choose to stay silent.

The failure of the police and the judicial system throughout the world to adequately punish abusers has led many women and girls to believe there is no point in speaking out. Virtually every place I have travelled, women have expressed dissatisfaction that the police would protect them from violence. In the Republic of Congo for example, I was told by everyone that I interviewed that there are cases of police raping young girls working as prostitutes. How should a young girl feel confident going to the police for protection when it is widely known that the police are perpetrators of sexual violence?

So they just stay silent.

In Mauritania, a country where women can barely be seen on the street and slavery was legal until 2007, there is almost no point in speaking out, because cultural values that deem the woman's voice unimportant, means that even if they did speak out, no one would listen. I met with two women who explained to me that in Mauritania, women were seen with the same value as furniture, as the property of men. 'No one listens to us,' she said when I asked if they fought against these attitudes.

'I'm listening,' I told her.

We all need to listen.

There is a global endemic of violence against women. It is hidden under wraths of culture and shame, but it's there, and is being allowed to continue as one of the greatest violations of human rights occurring on this earth at this time.

And it's occurring in silence.

We need to do something about it and we need to do something about it today. In no single person's moral universe, whether guided by religion or any other cultural value, should the violation and degradation of another's physical body or integrity be allowed. Under no circumstance should one feel entitled to abuse another on the claim that a book told them they could or that they're culture allows it. Violence and harassment are always wrong. Forcing victims of violence to stay silent is even more wrong. Let's speak up today, let's talk about it with our friends and family, lets demand that the police do more, lets demand that our governments make stricter punishments for perpetrators and most importantly, let's get rid of these abhorrent cultural values and concepts of shame that render victims silent. Let's do that today.