The Hidden Pandemic of Violence Against Women

Image by UN Women Gallery

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines a pandemic as “an epidemic occurring worldwide, or over a very wide area, crossing international boundaries and usually affecting a large number of people”. We know all too well the disease that has brought the world to a shocked standstill. But what we don’t see is the one that already exists, one that this pandemic is in fact already exacerbating. Not a zoonotic disease, accidentally sprung from natural evolution. But a disease written into the genetic signature of our society itself. A disease etched into the heart of our genomic architecture as a collective whole. A disease so insidious and so powerful that in 6,000 years of civilisation, we still have not managed to expunge it. 

Not Just A Second Wave 

What we’re referring to here is femicide, the gender-related murder of a woman by a partner, ex-partner or family member, and feminicidal violence. Rather than bats and pangolins the pathogenic microbial agents of this disease walk among us and are often people we know. As found by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s (UNODC) global study on homicide, a total of 87,000 women were intentionally killed in 2017. More than half of them (58 percent) – 50,000 – were killed by intimate partners or family members. And more than a third (30,000) of the women killed in 2017 were murdered by their current or former intimate partner – someone they would expect to trust. Every day, this killer takes an average of 137 lives a day around the world.

We fear, and expect, a second wave of coronavirus. Already, regional lockdowns in the UK are being reinstated, flights cancelled and to their dismay, previously exempt countries taking up their positions on quarantine lists. But women have never stopped bracing themselves; the waves of this pandemic aren’t secondary, or even tertiary; they are continuous.

This disease is not endemic. It doesn’t belong to one particular country. Right here in the UK, five women were murdered in Doncaster in seven weeks, and Karen Ingala Smith, who founded the pioneering project ‘Counting Dead Women’, found that femicide has tripled in lockdown, with at least 16 women murdered over a three week period compared to 5 in the same period last year. In Mexico, almost 1000 women have been killed since the start of the year, up 8 percent on the previous. National helpline calls have increased by a third in France. Spain has also seen a calamitous rise in domestic violence and implemented the Mascarilla-19’ campaign, encouraging victims to ask for the ‘Mask-19’ in pharmacies to signal for help. 

 “The deadliest pandemic for women in our country, more than the coronavirus, is feminicidal violence.” – Congresswoman Martha Tagle,  Citizens’ Movement party, Mexico

So it is not an epidemic, a disease affecting a large population in a particular region or population. It is a pandemic, and characteristically, some countries are affected worse than others. 

Turkey is one of those countries. Recently, a viral trend of women posting black and white selfies flooded Instagram accompanied by the hashtag #challengeaccepted, with 5 million+ tags and several celebrities on board in support. Looking at the monochrome collage on the home page, one would think it was simply a sweet expression of sisterhood and female empowerment. But in a social media manifestation of Chinese whispers, the original meaning of this iteration of the challenge (previously cancer support) became buried, subsumed beneath simplified labels. It started out as a women’s rights protest against the murder of 27-year old student and mother, Pinar Gutelkin, by her ex-partner Cemal Metin Avci. This was the last straw for Turkish women, with a horrific rise in femicides in the past three years. Pinar was the 146th victim in Turkey just in 2020, with 474 women killed in 2019, up by 200 percent compared to 2013, when 237 women were killed. 

Black and White Selfies: The Darker Meaning

It is all too easy to become desensitised to rolling statistics. But the idea behind the photos being black and white was much closer to home than faceless statistics. “Turkish people wake up every day to see another black and white photo of a woman who has been murdered on their Instagram feeds, in their newspapers, and on their TV screens”, as summarised by user @beelzeboobz, whose explanatory post was widely shared. The photo challenge functions as an act of solidarity with the women who have been killed: “To show that one day, it could be their picture that is plastered across news outlets with a black-and-white filter on top.” The ‘We Will Stop Femicides Platform’ (KCDP) in Turkey is leading the charge of raising awareness of this growing threat of violence towards women. The epicentre of their campaign is calling out the Turkish Government’s expressed intention to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention.

What is the Istanbul Convention? 

In 2005, a campaign to highlight domestic violence swept through Europe. It resulted in the establishment of the Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence – otherwise known as the Istanbul Convention. The United Nations defines it as “an international bill of rights for women and the only legally binding global treaty on non-discrimination of women on the basis of their gender”. It has since been signed by 46 member states of the Council of Europe, ratified by 33 and signed by the European Union. The Convention is particularly powerful because, just as intersectional feminism recognises the greater barriers women of colour face compared to white women, it actively recognises the structural and gendered nature of violence against women. The UN defines violence against women as a “manifestation of the historically unequal power relations between women and men”. By defining the root cause, it takes a much more constructive, holistic approach to tackling the problem. 

Turkey is not the only country to threaten withdrawal from the treaty. The Polish Government has also announced its intention to reject it, which was met with a huge backlash and widespread protests across the country. Withdrawal from the treaty seems to be an admission, either that misogyny exists and cannot be dealt with, or that it exists and the government actively endorses it. If a state withdraws from a bill of rights which fights discrimination against women, it isn’t much of an inferential leap to surmise that it might just have a problem with women themselves. Leaving the treaty dissolves international accountability for gender based killings, and will unleash a torrent of further pain, suffering and violence towards women.  

Removing The Tumour 

There is no cure-all vaccine to this pandemic. The infection isn’t localised, and we can’t simply surgically remove the tumour on the operating table of the world. Publicly dismissing misogyny and discarding the tools with which to fight it is the equivalent of the body having an autoimmune reaction; fighting itself and shooting its frontline workers. One of the first steps in tackling addiction is to admit one has a problem. We must actively recognise this systemic issue, implement early unconscious bias education, increase female representation, and take a holistic approach to improving routes of accountability for crimes against women. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but putting the issue front and centre of the agenda spotlight is a good place to start. The Istanbul Convention, as an embodiment of active recognition must be upheld, and we need to do more, not less, to close ranks against the common enemy that is violence against women.

Image courtesy of UN Women Gallery (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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About Cecilia Eve

Cecilia is a Regulatory Policy Manager, and a member of two Fabian committees, regularly organising and chairing panels with MPs, human rights activists and international NGO representatives. She was recently shortlisted for an award for her paper on algorithmic bias in artificial intelligence.

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