Today's date:
Spring 2006

Time to Stop Gendercide

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born Dutch legislator, lives under 24-hour protection because of death threats against her by Islamic radicals since the murder of Theo van Gogh, with whom she made the film Submission about women and Islam.

Amsterdam—As I was preparing for this article, I called a very good friend who is Jewish and asked him if it was appropriate for me to use the term “holocaust” to portray the worldwide violence against women.

He was startled. But when I read him the figures in a policy paper published by the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF) in March 2004, he said yes, without hesitation.

Between 113 million and 200 million women around the world are demographically “missing.” Every year, between 1.5 and 3 million women and girls lose their lives as a result of gender-based violence or neglect. As The Economist, which reported on the DCAF paper, put it last November, “Every two to four years the world looks away from a victim count on the scale of Hitler’s Holocaust.”

How could this possibly be true? This is a list of some of the factors:

  • In countries where the birth of a boy is considered a gift and the birth of a girl a curse from the gods, selective abortion and infanticide eliminate female babies.
  • Young girls die disproportionately from neglect, because food and medical attention is given first to brothers, fathers, husbands and sons.
  • In countries where women are considered the property of men, their fathers, brothers and husbands murder them for choosing their own sexual partners. These are called “honor” killings, though honor has nothing to do with it. Young brides are killed if their fathers do not pay sufficient money to the men who have married them. These are called “dowry deaths,” although they are not just deaths—they are murders.
  • The brutal international sex trade in young girls kills uncounted numbers of women.
  • Domestic violence is a major killer of women in every country on the globe. Women between the ages of 15 and 44 are more likely to be killed or maimed by their male relatives than as a result of cancer, malaria, traffic accidents or war—or all of them put together.
  • So little value is placed on women’s health that every year roughly 600,000 women die giving birth. As The Economist pointed out, this is equivalent to the genocide in Rwanda happening every 12 months.
  • Six thousand small girls undergo genital mutilation every day, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Many of them die. Others live the rest of their lives in crippling pain.
  • According to the WHO, one woman out of every five is likely to be a victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime.

Genocide is about the deliberate extermination of large numbers of people. What is happening to women and girls in many places across the globe is genocide. These killings are not silent—all the victims scream their suffering. It is not so much that the world doesn’t hear them; it is that we fellow human beings choose not to pay attention.

It is much more comfortable for us to ignore these issues, especially when the problems are so widespread and—for many newspaper readers—so far away. And by “us,” I include women, for we often betray our fellows. Too often, we are the first to look away. We may even participate, by favoring our sons and neglecting the care of our daughters. We look askance at other women who are brave enough to try to denounce the harsh reality that women face around the globe.

Take another look at the list of factors above. All the figures are estimates. There are almost never precise numbers in this field; registering violence against women is not a priority in most countries. How many tribunals have been set up to put the perpetrators of these crimes on trial? How many Truth and Reconciliation Commissions have been established? How many memorials around the world remind us to mourn these victims? Are women disposable goods, somehow less than fully human?

I can hear the usual excuses to taking action. “We don’t really know whether it’s a systematic annihilation.” “It’s their religion, and many women don’t seem to mind belonging to that religion.” “You can’t attack people’s culture.” “It’s unfortunate for the victims, but in times of war and poverty, people die.”

But, as The Economist reports, between 1992 and 2003, the worst conflicts—those that claim more than 1,000 lives—decreased by 80 percent. Between 1991 and 2004, 28 armed conflicts were ignited (or reignited), but 43 other ones were contained or doused.

And poverty, too, has little to do with it. Rich countries persecute women, too. In Saudi Arabia, women may not vote; they may not leave their neighborhoods or their country without the permission of fathers or husbands; they may not work, or choose their spouses, unless their guardians permit it. Women in Saudi Arabia are never adults. They are at best household pets, at worst domestic slaves—but they are never equals. And yet nobody could call Saudi Arabia poor—except in cultural terms.

Going forward there are three great challenges:

First, we women are not organized or united in any way. We women in rich countries, who have attained equality under the law, owe it to ourselves to mobilize to assist our fellows. Only our outrage and our political pressure can lead to change.

Next, there are the forces of obscurantism that want to close the world off instead of open it up. The Islamists are engaged in reviving and spreading a brutal and retrograde body of laws. Wherever the Islamists implement the Koranic sharia laws, women are hounded from the public arena, denied education and forced into a life of domestic slavery. The struggle to combat Islamism is a struggle to save women’s bodies and minds.

Third, cultural and moral relativists sap our sense of moral outrage by defending the position that human rights are a Western invention. Men who abuse women rarely fail to use the vocabulary the relativists have kindly provided them. They claim the right to adhere to an alternative set of values—an “Asian,” “African” or “Islamic” approach to human rights. According to this point of view, when husbands, fathers and brothers seek to own us as their property, this is an expression of culture or religion and should be respected.

This mindset needs to be broken. A culture that carves the genitals of young girls, hobbles their minds and justifies their physical oppression is not equal to a culture that believes women have the same rights as men.

Even when they genuinely seek peace and prosperity, the men who are our leaders —for they are, overwhelmingly, men—seldom realize that as long as there is war against women, mankind will never know peace. If we are denied education, we pass our ignorance onto our sons as well as our daughters. Neglecting women stunts the entire society.

When we are raped, we conceive in humiliation, and we pass our rage onto our sons. If we are not loved, we cannot love back; and if we are not nurtured, we neglect. Women who are treated with cruelty breed mercenaries and oppressors. If we are destroyed, we destroy, too.

I feel just as powerless as you do in the face of this horror, but I know that we will need much more energy and focus if we are to put an end to it now. Three initial steps could be taken by world leaders to make a start at eradicating the mass murder of women.

A tribunal like the court of justice in The Hague should look for the 113 million to 200 million women and girls who are missing. Turning numbers into faces and names will contribute greatly to the eradication of violence.

A serious international effort must urgently be made to precisely register violence against girls and women, country by country, and expose the reality of their intolerable suffering.

In the past two centuries, those in the West have gradually changed the way they treat women. As a result, the West enjoys greater peace and progress. It is my hope that the Third World will embark on this effort in the century that lies before us. Just as we put an end to slavery, we must end the gendercide.

Finally, we need a worldwide campaign to reform cultures that permit this kind of crime—cultures that endorse the physical elimination of female babies, that do not feed and care for them, and that deny women their rights over their own bodies and fail to protect them. They are not respectable members of the community of nations. Let’s start to name them and shame them.