Time to break the silence on injustices against women

By Giselle Portenier
February 24, 2010

gisellportenier- Giselle Portenier is an  award-winning documentary filmmaker who focuses on human rights abuses around the world and a member of the Toronto Human Rights Watch Film Festival committee. The opinions expressed are her own. Reuters will host a “follow-the-sun” live blog on Monday, March 8, 2010, International Women’s Day. Please tune in.-

Soon it will be that famous Ladies’ Day again, International Women’s Day, when the Western press packs their pages with stories—and it’s already started– either celebrating all we have achieved, or lamenting all that still eludes us—equal pay for work of equal value, glass ceilings, balancing work and family life, domestic violence, and so on.

And while these stories are worthwhile, as we head into the hundredth year celebrating International Women’s Day, the time has come to slow down this navel-gazing, change this narrow focus, and come to the aid of millions of women worldwide.

The time has come to break the silence, in a big, real, systematic and very public way, on all the human rights abuses endured by girls and women in the developing world in the name of culture and religion.

It’s tough to get attention for these issues, and they have been tremendously under-reported; I know, because I tried for five years before I finally succeeded in getting a documentary  titled “Murder in Purdah” commissioned about honor killings in Pakistan.

A film about the murder of baby girls and the abortion of the female fetus in India titled “Let Her Die”  was marginally easier. Both these documentaries had tremendous impact—each resulted in changes in the law.

In Pakistan, the first law against honor killings was introduced; in India, the government banned sex determination tests.

In both countries, local high profile activists had been working tirelessly to get something done about these human rights abuses, but it was only when a high profile television network—the BBC—shone a light on these issues, that their governments, shamed by the attention, took note.

In England, both the documentaries were criticized for daring to challenge other nations’ cultural traditions; the message was clear- shut up or risk being called a racist.

There are many reasons why women’s human rights in the developing world are largely ignored by the Western world — control of the media by men is a significant one; apathy, sexism and real, unspoken racism (ie., who cares what a bunch of colored people do in a far away land) are some of the others.  But it’s a totally misguided sense of political correctness that is the biggest culprit.

Speaking up about the abuses of the human rights of women  (not women’s rights) is controversial, because the abuses are often vigorously defended by not only those committing them, but by their governments as well.

The result has been a deafening silence among many human rights defenders on abuses that affect millions of girls and women. We have been cowed into accepting, publicly at least, that human values, far from being universal, can vary according to different cultural and religious perspectives.

It’s called cultural relativism, and most of the time, the customs and abuses that are defended are those that directly affect the human rights of women; many of these are forms of sexual control–forced marriages, honor killings, breast ironing.  Yes, breast ironing–in Mauritania, heated stones are used to stunt the growth of breast tissue; the purpose is to make a teenage girl less attractive to men and hence preserve her virginity.  Unthinkable, but happening today.

Of course, the most prevalent violent human rights abuse endured by girls and women today, is still female genital mutilation (FGM.)

It’s estimated that 135 million girls and women have been the victims of this procedure, and while grassroots movements have made an impact in many countries, 6,000 girls are at risk of FGM, each and every day, including today.  This is a barbaric practice, and we should all be saying so, loud and clear, and without apology.  It must be stopped.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees, to each and every human being, including women, the right to life, liberty, and security of person; a life free from torture.

Forced marriage, honor killings, female genital mutilation, sexual slavery, each and every one, is a violation of the rights enshrined in the U.N. declaration, rights that all human beings should fight to uphold.  Committing any of these abuses is plain wrong, religious edicts and cultural traditions not withstanding.

And these abuses are not just happening in far away lands any more.  In the last twenty or thirty years, with increased immigration, many of these practices have seeped into the West.

Young women born to immigrant parents in the West are taken back to India and Pakistan and forced to marry their cousins; women and girls are forced to live a life of virtual slavery in their own homes, and forced to cover up when they venture out; female fetuses are aborted to such a large extent in some Western communities (and I’m familiar with this in Canada) that the ratio of newborn girls to boys is as skewed in Brampton, Ontario, Canada, as it is in parts of India. Honor killings are happening in all countries where conservative  Muslims have settled.

A few years ago, a husband who murdered his wife in Vancouver, British Columbia, tried a defense of ‘cultural provocation.’ Thankfully, common sense prevailed.

Even FGM is a problem in the West.  It’s suspected that it’s happening in Britain, and that girls are taken from all over Europe back to their home countries to have it done.

I personally know one young woman who came to Canada as a toddler, and faced three women with a razor blade in a mud hut when she went back on holiday to Africa.  She has been tormented ever since, and continues to suffer, in silence, knowing she is different, unable to enjoy the kind of fulfilling relationship we each have a right to enjoy.

It’s not popular to speak frankly and openly about these human rights issues and to cast aside their cultural and religious defense; the risk is to be attacked as racist and culturally insensitive and perhaps worse, to be accused of cultural imperialism.

But it’s time to break the silence; to be clear that these abuses are intolerable, and indefensible, and to speak out about them with strong voices.  The time has come to defend the human rights of women everywhere.

The rights to life, freedom and physical integrity are universal, and sitting silently by while millions of women are being tortured, murdered, and enslaved, diminishes each and every one of us.

In a global world, we all have an obligation to inform ourselves about these issues, and then speak out loudly and clearly on behalf of those who have no voice; we must also support local activists who are fighting to change the wrongs in their societies.   Women especially bear the burden of giving a voice, and lending support, to other women, because we enjoy rights and freedoms that for millions of women remain a very distant dream.

Two upcoming films in Canada  shine a light on some of the abuses of the human rights of women— “Backyard“, about the brutal murder of women in Juarez, Mexico, and “The Greatest Silence“, about the mass rape of women in Congo.  They will be featured at the Toronto Human Rights Watch Film Festival in March.

But more, much more, must be done to publicize and tackle the huge, systematic, and indefensible injustices committed against women worldwide.

We have kept quiet about this for far, far too long.


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