Today is International Human Rights Day. As Hillary Clinton said back in 1995: “If there is one message that echoes forth (…) let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights once and for all.” Heart-breakingly, this is a message as pressing now as it was then. We are a long way away from taking women’s human rights seriously, from equating human rights as readily with women as we do with men. In far too many instances, women’s rights continue to be seen as ‘niche’ or negotiable or altogether forgettable. The global inequality of women is as dire as it has ever been.
Sexual violence and sexual terrorism are just one manifestation of women’s inequality. While men, too, are victims of violence, including sexual violence, women are overwhelmingly more at risk of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment. They are also more at risk of domestic violence and much more likely to be victimised by a family member or intimate. Women continue to be unsafe both in public and in their own homes all over the world. This violence is not rare, nor is it inevitable. One in three women globally, and this estimate is conservative, will be a victim of violence in their lifetime. This is completely unacceptable and puts the lie to our claims of being an enlightened, progressive society. These statistics should make each and every one of us not only outraged, but ashamed. How have we enabled such an atrocity to continue for so long unabated? Why are we not dealing with this appalling state of affairs and ending it?
There is a way to change things. We cannot change a situation we will not acknowledge. We cannot create a supportive, safe culture for all people while we continue to support, abet and excuse perpetrators of violence. Not seeing what they do, assists perpetrators to continue. Not speaking up when we witness violence, not condemning violence when we hear of it, not questioning people, and holding them accountable, when they commit, suggest or excuse violence – these are all common attitudes to both violence against women and sexual violence and all they achieve is to endorse and allow for unacceptable behaviour and attitudes to continue. If we are to really address the appalling fact that we live in a society that tolerates and permits rampant abuse of women and constant violence then we must start talking about it.
This change is up to each one of us. We can make the difference. Advocacy is a relatively simple, albeit often challenging, role we can take on. You don’t need any special powers, no special authority, not even a special hat. You can start any time you choose. You don’t even need any special knowledge. Speaking out against violence, speaking up for equality and safety, for all people, is eminently achievable for every single one of us. We all know what violence and abuse look and feel like. We know, we sense, when something isn’t right, when it feels exploitative or harmful. If we are worried, we can ask questions, we can check in with people – inquire if they’re ok. If we have concerns, we can ask questions, request that people explain their behaviour or attitudes.
To choose to be conscious that violence against women, that sexual violence, are both rampant and inexcusable, and to act accordingly to express that, both publicly and privately, is a profound contribution we can all make to creating a truly safe and egalitarian community that we can all enjoy. It is up to each one of us. Do we really want to be a part of a society that enables rape and violence? Are we really OK with contributing to a world like that? Is that how we see ourselves? Do we not expect more from ourselves, and for ourselves, as well as from and for each other? An anti-violence advocate, a pro-safety advocate, a voice for freedom, equality and well-being for all – wouldn’t that be preferable? Are we prepared to make that choice, to take that step, to speak out?