Last month, on the 8th of March, the world celebrated the International Women’s Day (IWD). In early 20th century, the global women’s movement established this date as a day when women around the world would press for their demands to combat oppression and inequality. In the Kyrgyz Republic, where I live, as in many other countries of the former Soviet Union, the 8th of March is special and important. Introduced by the Soviet administration and maintained after the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the IWD has been marked as an official holiday typically rejoiced with various concerts and performances dedicated to all women. At home, lavish dinners are organised to commemorate femininity, while abundant flowers, cakes and gifts are given to mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, etc. Women are often praised for their tenderness, care, love, and support.
More recently, though, the IWD attracted increased criticism from local and international feminist groups. They argued that the original meaning of the International Women’s Day, the one of women’s emancipation, has been reduced to meaningless festivities and reinforced patriarchal views on women. The incongruence between hyperbolised celebrations and women’s everyday lives has become too sharp to ignore.
This year, the growing consciousness sparked an alternative way of marking the date in Bishkek – civil society organizations, activist groups and international women’s organisations held a peaceful rally to call for an end to violence and promote gender equality. They drew attention to the growing rates of various forms of domestic violence, forced marriages of teenage girls and child abuse. The rally participants also carried posters calling for equality, human rights, protection, safety, environmental justice, transparency and democracy, etc. These larger development demands appeared in a campaign against gender violence. The rally showed a commonly held understanding that violence towards women has remained a serious challenge to local and global development. What happened in Bishkek is a good starting point to reflect on where we are and what remains to be done to combat and eradicate this profound problem.
What has been done internationally?
It was not until the 90’s that violence against women became a legitimate subject of discussion in international agenda. The international Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1979 was a landmark for promoting women’s political, civil and economic rights. But it did not include the issue of violence against women (except for trafficking in women) until 1992 when it adopted General Recommendation 19 requiring member states to report on this specific topic.
In 1993, at the International Human Rights Conference in Vienna, women activists around the world mobilised to promote a systematic international response to violence and to recognise women’s rights. The conference produced the Programme for Action to strengthen the human rights work around the globe where violence against women was recognised as a human rights violation. That same year, the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (DEVAW) and the Human Rights Council adopted the Resolution on Integrating the Rights of Women into the Human Rights Mechanisms of the United Nations.
In 1994, the Economic and Social Council’s Human Rights Commission decided to appoint ‘a special rapporteur’, a title given to persons who work on behalf of the UN, to bear a specific mandate from the UN Commission on Human Rights – to investigate and report on all aspects of violence against women and make recommendations as to the “measures, ways and means, at the national, regional and international levels, to eliminate violence against women and its causes, and to remedy its consequences”.
Where we are now?
All these developments created a landscape for activism, partnership and intervention. Yet, the issue cannot and should not be treated as a mission accomplished. Global information on the rates of gender violence vividly supports this view. For example, World Health Organization (WHO) data on violence against women from 2018 indicate that 1/3 of women, 35.6% (more than 800 million women) around the world have experienced violence. The figures also demonstrate that about 40% of women murdered around the world are killed by their partners. According to WHO, evidence on the best way to address gender violence is recognised as insufficient. At the same time, developments in the global politics, contemporary wars and conflicts, both international and local, continuously bring new challenges to those concerned with protecting populations from gender violence.
In these circumstances, any discussion around innovation and global growth needs to intelligently address the fact that about half of the population is seriously barred from full participation and contribution to solutions. New initiatives must recognise gender violence not as a ‘women issue’ but as having negative effects on all members of communities where it happens. Gender violence strengthens and supports social systems where any inequality is normalised and perpetuated. If fighting inequality is an issue, so is combatting gender violence.
Head and Associate Professor, Social Sciences Division. American University of Central Asia AUCA / Academic Coordinator for the Executive Master in Development Policies and Practices