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world wide wednesdays :: sex and violence

today is apparently the international day to eliminate violence against women, the beginning of sixteen days of activism against gender-based violence that ends on december 10, which is human rights day. given thst, i thought it would be a good day to explore the perils of being a woman in different parts of the world, as well as the progress that's been made. the fact that there is still plenty to do in order to achieve equality in the western world [and the fact that advances that have been made are always fragile, as is seen in the ongoing american debate over access to abortion], can cause us to lose focus on exactly how big the challenges are in other places. we hear about the brutal practice of female genital mutilation, but there are a lot of other dangers women continue to face, including both violence and structural impediments to independence and security.

before completely moving away from the first world, however, it's interesting to note that, while wealthy countries are generally safer, more secure and more equal for women, some of them have some pretty nasty secrets:

the nordic countries- denmark, finland, and sweden- have the highest rates of violence against women in all of europe. that's shocking, considering that these are the countries that routinely lead all structural categories in terms of gender equality [literacy and education, minimal to no wage gap, high rates of representation in the workforce and in the government]. my first inclination was to think that these countries had laws that defined a wider range of actions as violent and/ or illegal, but looking at the article, it seems that researchers asked about specific actions, so what is or isn't illegal in any particular country wouldn't matter.

canada, which has been rated the best country for women to live in the recent past, has been singled out for criticism by amnesty international for ignoring the much higher rates of violence towards aboriginal women. that actually means that things are even better for the rest of us than it appears, but hidden inside those numbers are some very harsh realities.

a family member feeds a banished menstruating woman in nepal
in carefree australia, nearly 40% of women reported experiencing some type of violence during their lifetime, and almost 20% said specifically that they had reported sexual violence. [data here, along with a lot of information on other countries. this was compiled by the united nations in 2012, however some of the most recent data is significantly older than that.]

so if things can get that bad in the countries that are good, how bad do they get in the rest of the world?

well, let's start off by talking about the worst of the worst. there are different ways of determining the absolute worst place for a woman, but it's best to look at a combination of factors: the chance of being subjected to physical and/ or sexual violence, the [in]ability to exercise control over one's own life, ability to work and live independently [determined by education level and the chances of finding employment in current economic conditions], longevity [which is a measure of general health and a measure of access to health care services] and political power [determined not just by voting rights, but by representation in parliament and in cabinet].

looking at all those factors, you'd be hard-pressed to find a place that's worse for women than afghanistan. life expectancy for a woman is only forty-five years. more than half of brides are younger than sixteen. 85% of women have experienced some form of domestic violence. a woman dies in childbirth every half hour. the taliban were bad enough for women's rights, but after a wave of reforms enacted by the post-taliban government, it seems that things are getting worse. laws passed to improve the position of women in afghanistan after the taliban were deposed have been overturned, hung up in parliamentary debate, or left largely unenforced.    

you could also look at syria, where women's participation in the workforce sits at a measly 14% [as opposed to 76% of men]. before its current civil strife, syria had a solid middle class [much like iraq, before the first american war there devastated its economy], but the position of women in government was pathetic: 12% of parliamentary seats and 9% of cabinet positions were held by women. the plight of women in syria has only gotten worse as the civil war there has progressed and as islamic state has taken control of large parts of the country. isis dictates that women be severely restricted in education [beginning no earlier than seven and ending no later than fifteen years of age] and that they can be married off to fighters from the age of nine. they are given no role in public life and are forced to remain completely covered at all times.

women in chad
the thing is, afghanistan and syria are war zones, which aren't the best place to evaluate quality of life. women in afghanistan may have a life expectancy of a meagre forty-five years, but men can only expect to live a year longer. women in syria have a life expectancy of sixty-five years, which is short in western terms but, since the onset of the civil war, is still ten years longer than a syrian man can expect to live.

so perhaps it's best to evaluate the position of women by looking at areas outside of war zones. [side note :: likewise, countries like honduras, venezuela and colombia, which have extremely high crime rates overall are exceptionally dangerous for women. women are often subject to kidnapping, sexual violence and murder, and crimes against them are treated less seriously than those against men. one has only to look at the horrific spate of murders in and around ciudad juarez for an example of this.]

for instance, in iran, only 17% of women participate in the workforce. that's the worst in the world outside of active war zones and, because that isn't depressing enough, they make only 17% of what men make. there's clearly a prejudice at work here, because, while there is a gender gap in terms of literacy, 79% of women still qualify as literate [compared to 89% of men]. religious leaders [who are also state leaders in the theocracy] have put additional pressure on women to stay at home and raise children rather than enter the workforce. women's participation in government is already low and in the last federal elections, all female candidates were disqualified.

in nepal, normally thought of as a peaceful country nestled in the heart of the himalayas, women's rights are more of a rumour than anything else. 1 in 24 women dies in childbirth, largely due to hindu and buddhist religious beliefs that prevent them from having their babies in hospitals. after childbirth, women are often forced to stay in remote, unhygienic locations, away from their homes, for up to two weeks. child marriage and human trafficking of young orphaned or unmarried women is still widely practiced. women who are married, but outlive their husbands are often stigmatized [and persecuted] as witches.

an afghani child bride who escaped her abusive husband
large swathes of africa remain incredibly dangerous and difficult for women. mali and chad are especially bad. the labour force disparity is not as bad in either country as it is in other places, but that is largely the result of an economy based on subsistence agriculture in both places. in both countries, only about a quarter of women are literate [chad fairing slightly better at 28% to mali's 25%] and female enrollment in even primary school is below 65% in both countries. the participation of women in government in both countries is among the lowest in the world- 10% in mali and 15% in chad- meaning that there are few people to advocate for women's rights on a federal level. women in mali have a life expectancy of forty-eight years, which is among the lowest in the world [and just slightly lower than afghanistan which, as we mentioned earlier, is a war zone]. in mali, 71% of women are married before the age of eighteen, many of those before the age of fifteen. additionally, mali still practices widespread female genital mutilation, with over 90% of women having undergone some form of the procedure. what's worse is that that number is unchanged in the last twenty years, so there has been no improvement whatsoever.

in 2014, both the world economic forum and the social institutions gender index selected yemen as the worst place for women. women there are entirely under the control of their husbands, fathers or brothers, unable to travel or even leave the house without their express consent. half of women are married before they turn eighteen and almost fifteen percent before they turn fifteen. while the literacy rate for men is relatively high [83%], only about half of women are literate. 26% of women are employed, compared to 74% of men, but the vast majority of women work as agricultural labourers, where their employment is determined on a day-to-day basis and where they have no form of job security or recourse against unfair employers. nor do women have any voice in government: only one out of 301 members of parliament is a woman.

common types of female genital mutilation
among g-20 countries, the one that fares the worst when it comes to women's rights is india. this is a somewhat contentious evaluation, because india is an extremely diverse country by any standard and it's therefore difficult to generalize about the nation as a whole. in 2012, nearly a quarter of a million crimes against women were reported, which is high even given the large population. the capital of delhi is viewed as especially dangerous. the government's own numbers report a rape rate of more than 25%, which has caused numerous countries to issue warnings to women not to travel alone there. in fact, india topped a list by a women's travel site of the worst places for women to travel alone. that said, india still fares well better in terms of women's rights than the neighbouring countries of nepal, afghanistan and pakistan. while it might seem horrifically depressing that one in four women report being raped and nearly 70% report being victims of domestic violence, it's worth noting that india has made greater efforts in the last ten to fifteen years to address gender violence. before 2005, it was difficult for a woman to even file charges of domestic abuse, so the increasing rate there is likely more indicative that women are reporting incidents more often.

in a previous world wide wednesdays, we talked about the horrific gender violence in papua new guinea, which makes it surprising that the nation doesn't fare worse in evaluations of women's rights and opportunities.

in order to write this up, i used a few different sources, including some different lists, with different criteria, for evaluating the places where women are at the greatest risk. there's a more subjective one here [the only one to even mention papua new guinea and that only in passing]. a widely cited one using information from the world economic forum is here. this one draws information from a number of sources to come up with its list. other sources have already been linked within the post.

you'll note that a couple of those links also lead to lists of where women have it the best: belgium, france, spain and slovenia all rank very highly.

as you can see, there is much work to do and there is work to do even in those places where things are going well. the important thing is always to keep an eye on what needs to happen and where the need is most urgent. 

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