Review

A new approach to violence against women

Overcoming Violence against Women and Girls: The International Campaign to Eradicate a Worldwide Problem
By Michael L. Penn and Rahel Nardos
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Lanham, Maryland, USA

Why is it that although women compose half the world's population and put in nearly two-thirds of the world's work hours, they receive just one-tenth of the world's income and own less than one-hundredth of the world's property?

It does not take much reflection to realize that part of the answer to this question boils down to the capacity and willingness of men, throughout history and into modern times, to use violence to enforce and uphold their superior position.

For if all men had somehow restrained themselves, if wife beating, rape, and other forms of violence against women had been inconceivable from the start, is it likely that half the human race would have for so long remained in an inferior position?

In this light, a new book by Michael L. Penn and Rahel Nardos arrives with special importance. Overcoming Violence against Women and Girls: The International Campaign to Eradicate a Worldwide Problem outlines the vast scope of this continuing problem -- and also offers a new and insightful interdisciplinary approach to remedying it.

Dr. Penn, a professor of psychology at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania, USA, and Dr. Nardos, a researcher and medical student at Yale University while writing the book, now graduated with an MD, spend the first half of the book documenting the breadth and extent of the problem as a global phenomenon.

Drawing extensively on United Nations documents -- such as the 1993 UNICEF study that produced the statistics in the opening paragraph -- and other recent studies, Drs. Penn and Nardos show that, despite the vast progress that has been made in advancing women's rights in recent decades, violence against women and girls persists in a wide range of forms, from domestic abuse to bride burning to female genital mutilation.

Citing figures on domestic abuse, they note that an estimated 1.8 million women in the United States are battered by their husbands each year -- and more than 2,000 deaths result. They cite data from Peru that indicates that some 70 percent of all reported crimes consist of women who have been battered by their partners. And in Papua New Guinea, one study indicated that 73 percent of all women murdered were killed by a male intimate.

They likewise find that culturally sanctioned forms of violence against women are widespread. In Africa, they note that female genital mutilation, a complex phenomenon viewed largely as a women-implemented coming-of-age ritual, stems in part from the desire of men to enforce sexual chastity. And in India, so-called "bride burning," in which wives are "accidentally" burned to death so that husbands and their families can keep expensive dowries, remains commonplace -- despite laws against it.

It is on this point -- the inability of legal sanctions alone to eradicate violence -- that the primary significance of Overcoming Violence against Women and Girls hinges. For one of the main purposes of the book is to put forward the outline for an "international campaign" to eradicate such violence. And, Drs. Penn and Nardos argue, for such campaign to be effective, it must deal not only with the outward, legalistic, elements of the problem, but also with the inward elements of violence against women -- elements that concern the cultural, moral, and religious spheres of life.

"As vital as legal and human rights measures are, they are, as an increasing number of individuals and organizations are beginning to recognize, insufficient to effect the magnitude of change necessary if gender-based violence and discrimination are to be eradicated," the authors write. "Inasmuch as violence against women and girls is sustained by long-standing, maladaptive patterns of thinking and relating, legal strategies, unaccompanied by efforts to address the intrapersonal dimensions of the problem, are likely to prove ineffective."

In considering how to change the mental and cultural structures that lie at the root of the problem, Drs. Penn and Nardos draw extensively on the Authenticity Project, a Bahá'í-inspired initiative to develop a new paradigm for moral education that stems from work done by philosopher William S. Hatcher.

Dr. Penn is, himself, a Bahá'í and a member of the Project, which draws on the latest scientific research in human psychology, as well as on the underlying morality of the world's major religious and philosophical systems, to create a new ethical framework that can be accepted on a global level.

The Project proposes that genuine human transformation can come about only as individuals strive to develop and sustain "authentic" relationships based on altruistic love, justice, and a new understanding of power.

"The trademark of relational authenticity is sincere, unselfish love," write the authors. "Whenever we give priority, however subtly, to our own (perceived) needs over the needs of the other in a relationship, this kind of relating is a manifestation of egotism and negates authenticity. In extreme forms it gives rise to manipulation, exploitation, competition, and the mutual search for dominance.

"In a nonauthentic relationship we each seek power -- the power to compel the other to satisfy our needs," the authors write. "Thus, authentic relationships are said to be based on love and nonauthentic relationships on power."

The work of the Authenticity Project also contravenes the notion that human nature is incorrigibly selfish and aggressive. This in itself opens the door to change.

On this basis, Drs. Penn and Nardos offer a series of points for moving beyond the cultural practices and faulty relationships that foster violence against women.

First, they suggest, men must shoulder a greater share of the burden in seeking to advance the rights of women on all fronts. They note that the civil rights movement in the United States gained steam in the mid-1960s when whites began to get involved -- and they suggest that the same process of invigoration can occur when men become more involved in the women's movement.

More specifically, they write, religious leaders, who are predominantly men, must take a stronger role in opposing those aspects of religious fundamentalism that have contributed to the subordination of women. And men must advocate for greater educational opportunities for women, they write, noting that education is one of the "most effective means for contributing to women's advancement."

The authors believe violence against women can be eradicated. They note that both slavery and racial discrimination have deep cultural roots, were once viewed as morally permissible, and have persisted for thousands of years. Yet, they offer, slavery has faded in the last hundred years or so, and much progress has been made to improve civil rights in many countries.

"As we embark on a new century, we can imagine few goals more deserving of the attention of the community of nations and of the peoples of the world than the eradication of gender-based violence," they write. "The goal of eradicating gender-based violence should be proclaimed on billboards, televisions, and radio stations around the world. It should be discussed in classrooms, churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques. It should invite the men of the world to play a vital role."

In its sweeping and challenging analysis -- and its bold prescription for an interdisciplinary, international remedy -- Overcoming Violence against Women and Girls offers hope that this age-old problem can be eradicated. It also suggests a new model for an crosscutting, spiritually based approach to societal problems in general, especially those based on entrenched cultural and social practices that persist despite their obvious obsolesence in an age of human maturity.

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