Perspective

The eradication of violence against women and girls

By many measures, the status of women and girls has improved significantly over the last 50 years. They have achieved higher rates of literacy and education, increased their per capita income, and risen to prominent roles in professional and political spheres. Moreover, extensive local, national and global networks of women have succeeded in putting women’s concerns on the global agenda and catalyzed the creation of legal and institutional mechanisms to address these concerns.

Notwithstanding such positive developments, a relentless epidemic of violence against women and girls — perpetuated by social norms, religious fanaticism, and exploitative economic and political conditions — continues to wreak havoc in every corner of the world.

The challenge now before the international community is how to create the social, material and structural conditions in which women and girls can develop to their full potential. The creation of such conditions will involve not only deliberate attempts to change the legal, political and economic structures of society, but, equally importantly, will require the transformation of individuals — men and women, boys and girls — whose values, in different ways, sustain exploitative patterns of behavior.

From the Bahá’í perspective, the essence of any program of social change is the understanding that individuals have a spiritual or moral dimension. This shapes their understanding of their life’s purpose, their responsibilities towards the family, the community and the world. Alongside critical changes in the legal, political and economic architecture slowly taking shape, the development of individuals’ moral and spiritual capabilities is an essential element in the elusive quest to prevent the abuse of women and girls around the world.

Such capabilities must be anchored in the central social and spiritual principle of our time — the interdependence and interconnectedness of humanity as a whole. In this way, the goal of moral development is shifted from individualistic notions of ‘salvation’ to embrace the collective progress of the entire human race.

A number of Bahá’í schools and institutions of higher education have identified specific moral capabilities which help to equip children and youth to develop skills of moral reasoning and to assume the responsibility of contributing to the betterment of their communities. Among the moral capabilities identified by Bahá’í educational institutions are the ability to participate effectively in non-adversarial collective decision-making; to act with rectitude of conduct based on ethical and moral principles; to cultivate one’s sense of dignity and self-worth; to take initiative in a creative, disciplined form; to commit to empowering educational activities; to create a vision of a desired future based on shared values and principles; and to understand relationships based on dominance and to contribute towards their transformation into relationships based on reciprocity and service.

While such values can be taught in schools, it is the family environment in which children grow and form views about themselves, the world and the purpose of life. In the family, the child learns about the nature of power and its expression in interpersonal relationships; it is here that she first learns to accept or reject authoritarian rule and violence as a means of expression and conflict resolution.

The state of equality in the family and in the marriage requires an ever-increasing ability to integrate and unite rather than to separate and individualize. In a rapidly changing world, where families find themselves unbearably strained under the pressures of shifting environmental, economic and political upheavals, the ability to maintain the integrity of the family bond and to prepare children for citizenship in a complex and shrinking world takes on paramount importance. It is imperative, then, to help men as fathers understand their responsibilities in a family beyond economic well-being to include setting an example of healthy male-female relations, of self-discipline and equal respect for the male and female members of the family. This is a complementary role to that of the mother, who is the first educator of her children and whose happiness, sense of security and self-worth is essential to her capacity to parent effectively.

What children learn in the family is either confirmed or contradicted by the social interactions and values that shape their community life. All adults in the community — educators, health workers, entrepreneurs, political representatives, religious leaders, police officers, media professionals and the like — share a responsibility for the protection of children.

Across the world, religions have traditionally played a defining role in cultivating the values of a community. Yet today, many voices raised in the name of religion constitute the most formidable obstacle to eradicating violent and exploitative behaviors perpetrated against women and girls. Using religious appeals as a vehicle for their own power, proponents of extremist religious interpretations have sought to ’tame’ women and girls by limiting their mobility outside of the home, limiting their access to education, subjecting their bodies to harmful traditional practices, controlling attire and even killing to punish acts which were claimed to abase the family honor. It is religion itself that stands in desperate need of renewal. A core element of such renewal is the need for religious leaders to state unequivocally and become the standard bearers of the principle of the equality of men and women — a moral and practical principle urgently needed to realize progress in the social, political and economic spheres of society.

Many voices raised in the name of religion constitute the most formidable obstacle to eradicating violent and exploitative behaviors perpetrated against women and girls. Using religious appeals as a vehicle for their own power, proponents of extremist religious interpretations have sought to ’tame’ women and girls by limiting their mobility outside of the home, limiting their access to education, subjecting their bodies to harmful traditional practices, controlling attire and even killing to punish acts which were claimed to abase the family honor...the need [is] for religious leaders to state unequivocally and become the standard bearers of the principle of the equality of men and women.

Today, religious practices and doctrines in flagrant violation of international human rights standards must be subject to deeper examination and scrutiny, bearing in mind that all religions contain the voices of women, which have often been absent from the evolving definition of what religion is and what it requires.

The individual, her family and community environment are ultimately under the protection of the state; it is at this level that enlightened and responsible leadership is desperately required. Most governments, however, continue to abdicate their international obligations to punish and prevent the violence and exploitation of women and girls; many lack the political will; some fail to allocate adequate resources to implement the laws; in many countries specialized services addressing violence against women and girls do not exist; and work on prevention has in almost all contexts been limited to local short-term measures.

Many states continue to hide behind cultural and religious reservations to international treaties condemning this violence — further perpetuating a climate of legal and moral impunity rendering the violence and its victims largely invisible.

The era of developing legal frameworks must now be followed by an emphasis on implementation and prevention. The foundation of such measures is a strategy rooted in the education and training of children in a way that enables them to grow intellectually as well as morally, cultivating in them a sense of dignity as well as a responsibility for the well-being of their family, community and the world.

In order to deliver on its many commitments, the international community needs to dramatically increase the power, authority and resources dedicated to women’s rights, equality, and empowerment. The Bahá’í International Community is part of discussions that suggest creating an autonomous United Nations agency with a comprehensive mandate dedicated to the full range of women’s rights and concerns. To guarantee a voice for women at the highest levels of decision-making at the UN, such an agency should be led by a director with the status of Under Secretary-General.

Efforts to eradicate the epidemic of violence against women and girls must proceed from and be reinforced at every level of society — from the individual to the international community. However, they must not be limited to legal and institutional reforms, for these address only the manifest crime and are incapable of generating the deep-rooted changes needed to create a culture where justice and equality prevail over the impetuousness of authoritarian power and physical force.

It is this inner, ethical and moral dimension which now stands in need of transformation and, ultimately, provides the surest foundation for values and behavior which raise up women and girls and, in turn, promote the advancement of all of humankind.

[Editor’s note: The following is an edited version of a recent statement by the Bahá’í International Community, titled “Beyond Legal Reforms: Culture and Capacity in the Eradication of Violence Against Women and Girls.” The full statement can be read at http://www.bic.org]

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