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Women Bridging Borders to Beat Violence

Haider Rizvi

NEW YORK - Women's rights advocates in the United States have launched a novel global initiative aiming to help millions of women across the world who face violence at the hands of men.0507 05 1

"Women know that if there is to be peace in the world we need to connect directly with women from other cultures," said Alda Kauffeld, manager of the Women's Global Roundtable, in a statement.

The Roundtable is the brainchild of the U.S.-based women's organization Peace X Peace and the United Nations Fund for Women (UNIFEM). Its main purpose is to connect U.S. women to their counterparts abroad who are leading the fight against gender violence.

The campaign involves a series of live weekly Web casts and telephone conversations with women activists who have benefited from the UN Trust Fund. Grants from the Trust, established in 1996 by the UN General Assembly, are used to support local initiatives against gender violence.

UNIFEM says it has about $15 million to support local and regional initiatives on women's empowerment. Though Trust Fund resources are rising, the amount available still falls far short of the demand, which annually surpasses $100 million.

"We are determined to vastly increase the resources of the Fund because we have seen the positive impact from these strategic investments in Argentina, in Rwanda, in Nepal," said Joanne Sandler, UNIFEM's deputy executive director, last week.

In Argentina, for example, campaigners used Trust grants to promote safer streets and media coverage of women's issues in the town of Rosario. Women are now able to walk through the streets and parks without fear because the the authorities have improved signage, constructed bus shelters, and improved visibility.

Kauffeld hopes the Women's Global Roundtable campaign will help spread the word and inspire new initiatives in other countries. "[This] is a unique opportunity to hear firsthand how small grants can counter violence and promote peace," she said. "[Participants] will learn about [women's] personal narratives, challenges, and triumphs."

Kauffeld said the Roundtable will take place every Tuesday at 8 PM (Eastern Time) and that it will continue until the end of this year. It is open to the public. Future speakers include a Ukrainian policy maker addressing children's rights and human trafficking (May 13) and a Nigerian lawyer pushing good governance and gender equity (May 20).

Today's speaker will discuss her work to help women in the Amazon tell their stories of overcoming gender violence to others in the region via local radio programs.

Last November, women's groups across the world demonstrated for over two weeks, calling for an end to gender violence. The 16-day campaign was fully backed by various UN agencies, including the UN Population Fund (UNFPA).

During that campaign many UN officials and activists observed that a large part of the global media was failing to pay due attention to the problem of violence against women.

"Underreported" stories include rampant domestic violence in Russia, sex slavery in India, self-immolation in Central Asia, gender-based violence and HIV, and "compensation" marriages in several parts of the world, according to the UNFPA.


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UNFPA says that in Russia, at least 14,000 women are killed by their husbands or boyfriends every year. In India, demand is growing for young women trafficked from lower castes and abroad, who are then forced into veritable household sexual slavery.

Every year, the proportion of women infected with HIV continues to overtake that of men. While women are two to five times more biologically susceptible to contracting HIV from a male partner, another factor also comes into play: gender-based violence.

This includes sexual coercion, rape in wartime, the practice of "widow cleansing," domestic violence, and female genital cutting, according to UNFPA. Some studies show that women who suffer violence at home are 10 times more likely to acquire HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

The UN agency says in northern Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan many women burn themselves alive as a way to escape domestic violence and abuse. Researchers say exact numbers are hard to pin down, but anecdotal evidence indicates that such cases are on the rise.

UNFPA also cites the phenomenon of "compensation marriages" prevalent in northwestern Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Middle East, and sub-Saharan Africa. This refers to the practice of forcing minor girls into marriages as compensation to offset debts or other disputes.

"The right to live free of violence and discrimination is the right of every human being," said UNFPA's executive director Thoraya Ahmed Obaid. "Yet this right is being violated on a massive and systematic scale."

In 2006, a 113-page UN study criticized countries that have failed to adopt laws criminalizing violence against women. It was drafted by an advisory committee of 10 high-level internationally recognized experts on gender violence.

The report showed that at least 102 of the 192 UN member states had no specific legal provisions on domestic violence, and marital rape was not a prosecutable offense in as many as 53 countries.

UN researchers say violence against women exists in every country, including those having enacted strict legislation, as a pervasive violation of human rights that continues to hinder efforts for gender equality.

A recent study by the Alabama-based Coalition Against Domestic Violence shows that at least 40 percent of teenage girls in the United States face beatings at the hands of their boyfriends.

Nicole Kidman, the award-winning Hollywood actress and UN Goodwill ambassador, calls violence against women "an appalling human rights violation."

But to Kidman, who fully supports the Global Women's Roundtable initiative, "it's not inevitable." In her words, "We can put a stop to this."

© 2008 One World

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