International Womens’ Day – Have We Got It All Wrong?

We seem to be living in a world infested with perverted specs of male humanity bent on committing sexual and other types of violence against vulnerable women - from sexual trafficking to domestic abuse.

9 mins read
Akron, United States [Photo Credit: Sam Manns / Unslplash]

O, Woman! in our hours of ease,
Uncertain, coy, and hard to please,
And variable as the shade
By the light quivering aspen made;
When pain and anguish wring the brow,
A ministering angel thou!

Walter Scott

Some Depressing Facts

International Women’s Day falls every year on 8 March.  This year in particular, it happens to fall at a distressing and depressing time (from the women’s point of view, that is) and it seems we are missing a crucial point. 

I am a news and commentary junkie and I tenaciously “catch up” with the news on BBC, CNN and assiduously watch programmes such as “60 Minutes” on CBS and “Panorama” on BBC. 

The first bit of news I watched this week was on BBC which reported that “Wayne Couzens, the former London police officer who abducted, raped and murdered Sarah Everard in 2021, has been sentenced to 19 further months in prison for indecent exposure incidents that took place while he was serving in the force. Couzens, 50, was already serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole for the killing of 33-year-old Everard, which sparked outrage towards the Metropolitan Police and began a national debate about violence against women”. Sarah was a marketing executive who went missing on the evening of March 3 after leaving a friend’s house in Clapham, south London. Her remains were found days later in woodland near Ashford, Kent.

The second report came in the form of a commentary on BBC’s Panorama on the blatant sexual exploitation of women workers on a tea plantation working as tea pluckers by their supervisors who refused to give them work unless they slept with the supervisors.  Some women interviewed by Panorama admitted that they were forced to comply as their jobs were the only means of income that sustained their children. BBC has reported that, as a result of this exposure by Panorama “Kenya’s parliament has ordered an inquiry into allegations of sexual abuse on tea plantations revealed in a BBC report. Lawmaker Beatrice Kemei said she watched the report with “utter shock”. The BBC found more than 70 women had been abused by their managers at plantations operated, for years, by two British companies, Unilever and James Finlay. The companies say they are shocked by the allegations. Four managers have been suspended”.

The third commentary was on CBS’ 60 Minutes which interviewed three Ukrainian women who had been taken prisoner by Russian soldiers and tortured.  One of the women, a medic, said: “They were making our men scrape off their tattoos. They were beating them badly. They did the same to women – they would beat them, pour boiling water on them…the beating was brutal, abuse was very bad”.

These three deeply upsetting bits of media coverage came two days before March 8 along with another report from the United States where CBC reported that “A Los Angeles judge … sentenced Harvey Weinstein to 16 years in prison after a jury convicted the former movie producer of the 2013 rape and sexual assault of an Italian actor and model. The sentence comes on top of the more than 20 years the 70-year-old Weinstein has left to serve for a similar 2020 conviction in New York, furthering the fall of the former producer”.  So, it was happening from Hollywood to Kenya!!

Rahul Gandhi appeared on Chatham House on 6 March and he was asked by a member of the audience what he would do to change India if he were one day to become the Prime Minister of India.  He said that a young girl had come up to him and said that she had been raped, and Mr. Gandhi had asked her whether she had complained to the police.  The girl had said “ I did not go to the police because I did not want to be shamed”.  Mr. Gandhi said that this is one thing he would like to change in India where women would not be ashamed to complain that they had been subject to sexual abuse.

We seem to be living in a world infested with perverted specs of male humanity bent on committing sexual and other types of violence against vulnerable women – from sexual trafficking to domestic abuse.

After this barrage of information, I turned to the latest Open AI innovation ChatGPT to see what it would say about the special day allocated to the welfare of women.  It said inter alia: “International Women’s Day is celebrated in countries around the world and is recognized as an important opportunity to raise awareness about gender inequality and to promote women’s rights. It is a day to honor the achievements of women in various fields and to renew the commitment to gender equality and women’s empowerment”.  The question arises : “is it enough just to raise awareness of “gender equality” and promote women’s rights? Could there be some mechanism to stop this heinous abuse with concrete and global accord? Like addressing COVID or climate change, with targets and reporting by countries on progress made? Isn’t the worldwide abuse and exploitation of women as virulent a disease as COVID and as ethically and morally unacceptable as pollution of the atmosphere? Or even more unacceptable?

United Nations Involvement

This year, the United Nations has adopted the theme  “DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality… the United Nations Observance of International Women’s Day 2023 will highlight the need for inclusive and transformative technology and digital education”. How ironic is this? Shouldn’t women’s bodies be protected before their achievements are lauded and minds receive digital education? Has the United Nations initiated and introduced a global mechanism to put a stop to the abuse of women all over the world? Doesn’t the United Nations Charter guarantee  “fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion”? 

Of course there is a fancy term “ gender equality” that has been bandied around since almost the inception of the United Nations : A functional commission of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) called The Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) was  established as the first global intergovernmental body exclusively dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women. In 1948 The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted which talked of basic civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights that all human beings — men and women alike — should enjoy.  This does not seem to have done anything much – for women.

Of course, in theory, certain things have been done on a multilateral basis. The UN General Assembly adopted in 1979 the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) which some identified as the “Women’s Bill of Rights”. Correctly focused on the protection of human rights of women. It is definitive on what discrimination against women is and establishes legal obligations for countries that are parties to it (i.e. States Parties) to end such discrimination. But the word “ discrimination” is different from “sexual abuse and exploitation”. CEDAW only talks of States Parties eliminating discrimination against women in the public as well as the private sphere, including the family, and aims to achieve substantive equality between women and men — not just in laws, but also in reality on the ground.

The United Nations admits that “one in three women worldwide experience physical or sexual violence, mostly by an intimate partner. Violence against women and girls is a human rights violation, and the immediate and long-term physical, sexual, and mental consequences for women and girls can be devastating, including death”. A proactive Organization – UN Women – a global champion for gender equality – “works to develop and uphold standards and create an environment in which every woman and girl can exercise her human rights and live up to her full potential”. As part of its prevention strategy, UN Women focuses on early education, respectful relationships, and working with men and boys, especially through, and in, the media, sports industries, and the world of work. “UN Women helps conduct research on attitudes, perceptions, and behaviors of men and boys, as well as young people, related to various forms of violence, and supports advocacy, awareness-raising, community mobilization, and educational programmes, as well as legal and policy reforms”.

The Historical Perspective

The issue is whether this is enough to combat the heinous and egregious sexual abuse blatantly carried out against women around the world.   An overview paper of the Government of Canada says: “ Any woman—regardless of her age, race, ethnicity, education, cultural identity, socioeconomic status, occupation, religion, sexual orientation, physical or mental abilities, or personality—may experience abuse. A woman may be at risk of abuse at virtually any point in her life—from childhood to old age”. The paper also addresses issues such as wife abusewife assaultwife batteringspouse abuse, and partner abuse. Recently, activists within the shelter movement have begun to use the more inclusive term woman abuse or woman battering.

Before we concentrate on equality of women in the workplace or any other nuance of a social construct, there should arguably be on the table the bestial superiority (mostly physical) exercised by the male on the vulnerable female which goes back to early ages. Looking back at early human society, historian Yuval Noah Harari in his celebrated book Sapiens refers to various theories of male domination over women citing social rules that varied widely across societies and time periods, where “nearly all human societies since the Agricultural Revolution have been patriarchal—they tend to place men at the top of their social hierarchies”.  Harari refers to “many theories suggesting that men are biologically superior to women” among which is one theory which suggests that men are physically stronger, and they used their physical power to suppress women. The innate tendency of men to be more violent and aggressive has also been a theory that has percolated from early periods of human history. “Yet another theory suggests that biological differences (such as childbearing) made women evolve to be dependent on men to survive”.  Needless to say, Harari disagrees with all these trends.

Simone de Beauvoir, in her book The Second Sex,  posits the fact that “men fundamentally oppress women by characterizing them, on every level, as the Other, defined exclusively in opposition to men. Man occupies the role of the self, or subject; woman is the object, the other. He is essential, absolute, and transcendent. She is inessential, incomplete, and mutilated. He extends out into the world to impose his will on it, whereas woman is doomed to immanence, or inwardness. He creates, acts, invents; she waits for him to save her”. This distinction is the foundation of the overall thesis of de Beauvoir of exploitation of women.

After explaining how male superiority in society developed from ancient times – from nomadic hunter-gatherers through the French Revolution and contemporary times, where female subservience and inferiority were forced on the women through the exploitation of their physical frailty and vulnerability  de Beauvoir credibly explains how myths have been concocted along the lines of male superiority, effectively depriving women of opportunity and relegating them to the background of ignominy.

My Take

At least, there is good start to internationally criminalize any form of abuse against women in  work initiated by UN Women which says: “ For more than 10 years, UN Women’s global initiative, Safe Cities and Safe Public Places, has worked to prevent and respond to sexual harassment against women and girls in public spaces, and since 2017 we have also been a key member of the EUR 500 million Spotlight Initiative that deploys targeted, large-scale investments in ending violence in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America, and the Pacific”.

I believe this initiative as well as other similar proactive measures,  should be accompanied by an enforceable international instrument with obligations of State accountability that criminalize abuse of women.Admittedly, there have been some United Nations Resolutions: e.g. Resolution 1325 (2000) which inter alia emphasizes the responsibility of all States to put an end to impunity and to prosecute those responsible for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes including those relating to sexual and other violence against women and girls, and in this regard stresses the need to exclude these crimes, where feasible from amnesty provisions; Resolution 1820 (2008) which urges appropriate regional and sub-regional bodies in particular to consider developing and implementing policies, activities, and advocacy for the benefit of women and girls affected by sexual violence in armed conflict.

Another is Resolution 1960 (2010) which requests  the Secretary-General to continue and strengthen efforts to implement the policy of zero tolerance on sexual exploitation and abuse by United Nations peacekeeping and humanitarian personnel, and further requests the Secretary-General to continue to provide and deploy guidance on addressing sexual violence for predeployment and inductive training of military and police personnel, and to assist missions in developing situation-specific procedures to address sexual violence at the field level and to ensure that technical support is provided to troop and police contributing countries in order to include guidance for military and police personnel on addressing sexual violence in predeployment and induction training.

Resolution 2106 (2013) focuses on accountability for perpetrators of sexual violence in conflict; stressed women’s political and economic empowerment; Resolution 2122 (2013) addresses persistent gaps in the implementation of the women, peace and security agenda; identifies UN Women as the key UN entity providing information and advice on participation of women in peace and security governance; 2242 (2015) focuses on women’s roles in countering violent extremism and terrorism; improved Security Council working methods on women, peace and security. 

Regrettably, these are all the outcomes of political compromises which are optional and do not carry the obligation of monitoring and accountability of States to address this worldwide issue.  They just wouldn’t do as an effective global solution.

Ruwantissa Abeyratne

Dr. Abeyratne teaches aerospace law at McGill University. Among the numerous books he has published are Air Navigation Law (2012) and Aviation Safety Law and Regulation (to be published in 2023). He is a former Senior Legal Counsel at the International Civil Aviation Organization.

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