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Violence against women
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 14 - 12 - 2006

Poor record in addressing the gender-specific nature of violence against women, writes Fatma Khafagy*
In 2001, UNICEF estimated that globally up to half of all women and girls in some countries have experienced physical violence at the hands of an intimate partner or family member. Statistics based on research data from around the world show that violence against women generally occurs within the family.
At any given time, approximately 20 million of the 230 million women living within the European Union (EU) are facing situations of violence. On average, two women per week are killed in England and Wales by their partners/ex-partners. In Portugal a 1997 survey showed that 43 per cent of acts of violence were committed within the family. A Belgian study in 1998 indicated that 68 per cent of women had been victims of physical or sexual violence. At present there is more data available on gender- based violence in Europe. Such data is scarce in the majority of South Mediterranean countries.
Gender-based violence takes many forms in South Mediterranean countries. Within domestic the domain of violence, which takes place in the context of a close relationship, there are three main types. First, there is physical violence such as battering, hitting, burning, slapping, murder, honour killing and crimes of passion. The second type is sexual abuse, such as female genital mutilation, incest, enforced prostitution and forced sex. The third type is psychological abuse, such as criticism, humiliation, threats and verbal abuse, the destruction of personal belongings and accusations of mental illness.
Sexual harassment in the workplace is also a violation of the right of a woman to work in a safe and healthy environment. Equality in employment can be seriously impaired when women are subjected to gender-specific violence, such as sexual harassment at the workplace. Sexual harassment is also a tool to discourage women who may be seen to be competing for power at work.
Domestic violence is usually regarded in many parts of the South Mediterranean region as a private family affair. Sexual harassment is sometimes justified as being a form of flirting that women like.
Across the majority of the South Mediterranean countries there are three kinds of obstacles that make addressing domestic and sexual violence difficult: lack of reliable statistics and data; lack of effective legislation; and lack of sufficient good quality services for victims and survivors of violence.
Statistics on gender-based violence
Compiling reliable statistics on gender-based violence is often difficult. It is frequently regarded as a "private" affair. Data and information, however, should be complete, accurate and current on the prevalence and incidence of violence and its various manifestations. Without data effective and comprehensive strategy to combat violence against women can be developed or implemented. Considering data on gender-based violence in Egypt, for example, we find that we have information only on battering and on female genital mutilation. The Egypt Demographic and Health Survey for 1995 reveals:
ï One out of three ever-married women has been beaten at least once since marriage.
ï Almost all women who say they have been beaten, irrespective of background characteristics, report being beaten exclusively by their husband.
ï Eighty-six per cent of women agree that husbands are justified in beating their wives under at least one of the scenarios presented in the survey.
ï Ninety-seven per cent of ever-married women (15-49) were circumcised.
ï Eighty per cent of women support the continuation of circumcision
In 2005, 10 years later, the situation has not improved. The Egypt Demographic and Health Survey for 2005 indicates that 95.8 per cent of ever-married women were circumcised and that 47.4 per cent of women above 15 years have experienced physical violence.
Police data on the different types of violence perpetrated against women in Egypt in the years 2002 and 2003 are considered woeful underestimates. The total number of cases of violence against women that were reported in 2002 and 2003 were 292 and 235, respectively.
Laws are crucial to ensure that perpetrators of acts of gender violence are punished. Women should be able to access the justice system.
Law has the potential to play a leading role in combating violence against women. It can set standards of right and wrong, as well as wielding the deterrent of incarceration or other remedies. Resources should be allocated to make the legal system a crucial site for initiatives to improve a country's response to violence against women.
Besides being able to contribute to specific deterrence measures, legal practices should contribute to public awareness of -- and public responsibility for -- violence against women. The legal system should empower individual women who are victims of violence. Domestic violence, rape and sexual assault, sexual harassment and other forms of violence often deprive women of their sense of control, autonomy, self-respect and personal privacy. The legal system should restore and reinforce those qualities, while avoiding measures that "re-victimise" the victim. The legal response to violence against women should strengthen women's place in society by enhancing women's overall equality.
Many sexually harassed individuals put up with the damaging physical and psychological effects of the harassment because taking action can be daunting, especially in environments that do not provide moral and practical support. Most often victims are ashamed and embarrassed and worry that they will be labelled as "loose women" and thus prefer to keep quiet. Specific laws that deal with both domestic violence and sexual harassment at the workplace are necessary so that women do not continue to suffer in silence.
Egypt, like the majority of South Mediterranean countries, has not yet brought forward specific legislation that addresses domestic violence or sexual harassment in the workplace. Neither form of violence is addressed in current laws. In fact, domestic violence in Egypt is dealt with in the same manner as any other form of violence, namely through Articles 240-243 of the Penal Code. Likewise, sexual harassment in the workplace is dealt with in the same manner as any kind of sexual harassment committed in the street.
Further, Article 17 of the Egyptian Penal Code gives judges the authority to reduce punishment sentences if they decide that the condition of the accused requires so, and without needing to provide justification. Article 17 is used often in cases of rape and honour killing to reduce the sentences of perpetrators.
Services for victims and survivors
Services should aim at assisting women to overcome multiple consequences of violence in a way that empowers them to rebuild their lives and relationships.
Unfortunately such services in Egypt, as well as in many South Mediterranean countries, are minimal. There are only four shelters in Egypt and they are in dire need of capacity building, including the development of quality standards, the training of staff in counselling, and the provision of psychological services. Many South Mediterranean countries do not have any of such shelters. There is also a need for legal aid in support of victims and survivors of violence. There is no 24-hour helpline for women suffering from violence in many South Mediterranean countries. While there are a number of NGOs in some of South Mediterranean countries that provide legal aid for women, including victims and survivors of violence, the capacity of these services is far below what is required.
Honour killing
Honour crimes constitute a major violation of women's human rights. It is the most extreme form of domestic violence. Murder to cleanse family honour is a type of crime committed against women, with impunity, in many parts of the world.
Honour crimes refer to the murder of a woman by her male family member(s) for a perceived violation of the social norms of sexuality, or a suspicion of women having transgressed limits of social behaviour imposed by traditions. This includes seeing or meeting a man, even if this is only suspicion or gossip. A family's honour is seen as being dependent on the sexual conformity of its female family members -- the virginity of its unmarried female members and the chastity of its married ones.
Honour crimes include also a husband killing a wife whom he or other family members suspect of adultery. Such crimes take place in several South Mediterranean countries such as Egypt, Jordan and Palestine. It is difficult to estimate the overall number of honour killings that take place yearly in Egypt. However, an Egyptian report in 1995 counted 52 honour killings out of 819 murders reported. In Jordan, in 2003, 17 women were reportedly killed in the name of "family honour".
Modern laws in many South Mediterranean countries have not appropriately penalised this crime due to the strong influence of the tribal system and popular beliefs about women's sexuality. Modern penal codes and practices reinforce the notion that men have a "right" to punish women for improper sexual behaviour.
As mentioned, Article 17 of the Egyptian Penal Code allows judges to decrease sentences passed according to their discretion. Murder can result in a sentence of as little as six months, which likely would be spent by the end of the trial.
In Jordan, honour killing rarely carries a sentence of more than one year of imprisonment. This sentence can be reduced to six months if the victim's family pardons the perpetrator. Although such provisions are often gender- neutral in language, in application they only benefit men.
In the Egyptian Penal Code, a married man is adulterous only if the sexual act is committed in the marital home (Article 277) while a woman is adulterous wherever the act is. She does not need to be found compromised in the marital home for the husband to claim the defence of inflamed emotions. Activists in Egypt have challenged the constitutionality of this law.
In both Jordan and Egypt, there are four main sources of discrimination against women: dependency; male control of sexuality; conservative interpretations of Islam; and certain provisions of secular law that reinforce women's low status and gender inequality.
Such low status is evident in most of the personal status codes in South Mediterranean countries and it puts women at risk of domestic violence. For example, family law in Egypt permits not only male polygamy but also the right of the husband to divorce his wife without reason and the expulsion of a divorced woman from the marital residence if she has no children or her children are beyond custody age.
What to do?
Governments must seriously address and break the cycle of violence against women They should take effective measures to prevent violence in the home and in the workplace, and also in the public places such as streets and on public transportation. They have also to redress family laws that are gender discriminatory.
Governments should take effective steps to bring laws, practices, policies and procedures into full conformity with international human rights instruments. They should ensure that laws against abuse, including beating, rape, sexual assault, and other gender based violence, provide adequate protection to all women and respect their integrity and dignity.
The police should be trained to prevent and investigate domestic violence including honour crimes. The responsiveness of the judiciary to the problem of honour killing should be increased.
Both governments and NGOs should collect and analyze regularly data on gender-based violence. They should also provide good quality services for victims of violence such as help-lines, shelters, housing, medical treatment and jobs.
* The writer is policy/legal expert, European Commission- funded project "The Economic Role of Women in the Mediterranean Region".

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