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From Violence against Women to Respectful Gender Equality

By Guenther Baechler, Ambassador of Switzerland to Georgia
Wednesday, November 26
Whereas most of the armed conflicts are regional or local by nature the only truly global war is the use of violence against women. Violence against women is a major crisis of mankind with the peaceful gender relations fundamentally at stake. Violence against women in all forms is a crime and therefore punishable by law. On one hand violence is an individual act. On the other hand the phenomenon is systemic and engraved in the structures of all societies around the globe.

Today, the 25th of November, marks the first day of the worldwide campaign: “16 days against violence against women”. Against this I do not want to highlight all the cruel methods of violence men use against women; readers do know well that there are plenty of them. Rather, I would like to answer the question: what is to be done to stop men`s war against women and to overcome societal structures that indirectly tolerate or directly promote violent gender relations? Although scientific research does not provide simple causal relations there are interesting findings about societal and political factors against violence that is so ugly determining the global gender relations. Let me highlight three major factors or processes:

First: democratic societies that experience long-lasting peace unlearn violent behavior.

From the in-depth analysis of the Balkan wars we know that domestic violence against women both before and during the war increased significantly and almost systemically. The picture of the wars in Liberia, in Afghanistan, in… is disturbingly similar. At the same time we do know that for a given society it makes a big difference whether or not large parts of its (young) members experienced war, violence, and humanitarian disasters such as flight or forced displacement.

Steven Pinker, one of the most influential intellectual of our time argues in his book: “The Better Angels of Our Nature” (2011) that violence has decreased over time – including tribal warfare, homicide, cruel punishment, child abuse, animal cruelty, domestic violence, lynching, pogroms, and international and civil wars. It is not because human nature has changed over the ages – and violence is still a problem in many regions of the world – IS only being the most cruel and atavist bellicose movement at present. The reason is (a) the general and fundamental pacification process through the rise of organized systems of government; it is (b) because of the civilizing process and the consolidation of states and the democratically controlled monopoly of power – a process so well described by Norbert Elias in his major oeuvre: the Process of Civilization; it is (c) the humanitarian revolution and the abandonment of institutionalized and oppressive violence by the state; and it is (d) the long peace where developed democracies and it’s people have stopped fighting against each other. These factors together marked a massive decline of war deaths over time as well as a seminal loss of the individual experience of armed and physical violence in our societies. If this holds true: what about violence in the private sphere, in family relations, against women?

Second: democratic societies promote equality among women and men.

In many existing democracies gender-based violence is quite common across all social strata. From criminal records we learn that both highly decorated professors, doctors beat or rape women the same way as workers or unemployed men do as well. Most of the women that have been raped or physically attacked do in fact know their perpetrators.

Equality seems to be a remedy in order to overcome violence in human relations – be it among nations, societal groups, or individuals. There are societies with a low degree and societies with a high degree of equality in social as well as in gender relations. Some recent research on “equal societies” reveals interesting correlations between equality and violence. The Global Gender Gap Report, introduced by the World Economic Forum in 2006, provides a framework for capturing the magnitude and scope of gender-based disparities around the world. The index benchmarks national gender gaps on economic, political, education- and health-based criteria and provides country rankings that allow for effective comparison across regions and income groups and over time. The rankings are designed to create greater awareness among a global audience of the challenges posed by gender gaps and the opportunities created by reducing them. The methodology and the quantitative analysis behind the rankings both are intended to serve as a basis for designing effective measures for reducing gender gaps. In the 2014 index five Nordic countries are among the first (Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark; Switzerland is on rank 11). Most interestingly particularly in Scandinavian countries where equality ranks highest of all countries people are more happy with their lives, are more satisfied with their general political and social environment, and experience significantly less violence in the domestic sphere. In those societies both women and men are equally successful; they both benefit and learn from each other; they both validate a healthy, respectful, and non-discriminatory competition; and they do adhere not only to tolerance but to a respectful gender relation. It seems that equality is one of the most important benchmark for a peaceful and healthy society.

Third, in democratic societies equality is factor of poverty alleviation and access to resources.

In many societies so-called traditional social, cultural, and religious norms on the status of women are trapping entire countries – except tiny elites – in deep poverty. Quite often women are perceived as the incorporation of sin, of dirt, of the evil and of sexual temptations - that’s why they are sometimes forced to cover the whole body including their faces.

Physical integrity, human dignity, human rights, and mutual respect are crucial values to promote equality against widespread radical and fundamentalist views that women are subordinate and passive subjects of men. At the same time equality is not just a moral question but one of political rights and of equal access to economic resources as well. In developing countries women are not only the main breadwinners and therefore a tremendous source of national income. Beyond, the success with which developing countries integrated female workers into its labor force determines very much the level of competitiveness of those countries in the global economy.

The promotion of gender equality and empowerment of women is among the eight Millennium Development Goals and in future it will be part of the Post-2015 AGENDA as well. Against this the OECD recently elaborated a Gender, Institutions, and Development Data Base. The idea of this data base is to grasp intra-household behavior, social norms, cultural and traditional practices, as well as the level of discrimination against women in all spheres. It is not only economic equality – and competition – that will drive out discriminatory practices that are against poor growth but also the transformation of enduring patriarchal and pseudo-religious institutions. Pro poor growth means equal access for women to formal labor markets, to land, as well as equal opportunities to qualify for higher employment, for administrative or managerial positions, and for political participation at all levels of the state.

Equality of women and men shall be a priority in the international relations, too. In particular the post-2015 Agenda for sustainable development of the UN shall promote equal rights and the participation of women in the political process and institutions. Women shall take place at the negotiation tables of the world in order to engender the peace processes, to protect women against atrocities, and to transform destructive violence into productive resources.

Conclusions and Summary:

If the constitutional provisions of democratic states would be fully realized, the law respected, the rules implemented and violations properly sanctioned then, democratic societies would become truly violence free zones indeed.

Long periods of peace as well as gender equality are fundamental historic and societal achievements to overcome violence in all its forms. We do know from societies with a high degree of general as well as with gender equality that such societies are not only more healthy and more satisfied than other societies; they are also more developed, more innovative, and more affluent than other ones.

In democratic societies with a high degree of equality men do not use violent means. Men do acknowledge: equality, women’s rights and empowerment of women is crucially important for the social and economic development as well as the deepening of democracy at all levels of a society.

Equality, justice, and tolerant as well as respectful relations among human beings may not only enrich societies as a whole; men may of course also benefit from sound institutions, civilized behavior, long peace, and democratic competition.

If “tradition is a guide and not a jailer” as famous author W. Somerset Maugham requested long time ago then, gender relations have to be freed from torturous methods invented by all kinds of so-called leaders and their blind followers in order to transform family houses and settlements into veritable prisons for women.

From today onwards in equal gender relations the rule of violence shall be replaced by the power of law and by respectful togetherness!

Guenther Baechler, Ambassador of Switzerland in Tbilisi, holds a PhD in political science and is a visiting professor at the Institute for European Studies at the University of Basel.