Violence against women is on the rise – but so is the push-back
Austria’s Secretary of State Karoline Edtstadler pulled few punches during her press conference earlier this month, standing alongside the Federal Minister of Women Juliane Bogner-Strauß and Minister of Integration Karin Kneissl as the three women announced new measures to ensure women’s security in the country. “We’re dealing with an unprecedented series of women’s murders,” Edtstadler declared, “we must not close our eyes to it.”
Austria has been rocked by a series of high-profile murders this year already, with the ministers pointing to the recent rise in immigration flows as the root of the problem and suggesting that the importation of denigratory attitudes to women has played a pivotal role in this latest spate of attacks. Three attacks in as many weeks have been attributed to men from Syria, Turkey and Africa. “The migration flows in recent years,” argued Edtstadler, “have also imported values such as anti-Semitism, radical Islamism and, associated with this, a female image that we clearly reject, that has nothing to do with our values.”
Indeed, violence against women typically only grabs headlines in the context of brutal conflicts in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and the Balkans. But that the bloodshed seems to be on the rise closer to home is disturbing in the least. At the same time, it is encouraging to see that national governments and civil society organisations seem, at last, in sync in their determination to push back against the tide of increasing gender-based violence and the performance of harmful practices such as female genital mutilation.
The press conference, then, was as powerful a declaration against more gender-based violence as Austrian authorities may have ever mustered to date—a response to the record-breaking succession of murders in recent years. Nor was the event pure bluster: the Ministry of Women’s Budget for Violence Protection is set to increase by €500,000, with tangible initiatives in the works to cast a wider social safety net for women nationwide.
Austria’s emerging social crisis is a devastating symptom of hardening patriarchal structures around the globe. Last year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) stated that violence against women had reached a scale representing a “global health problem of epidemic proportions.” With one in three women across the world having experiencing violence at the hands of another person, that is not an exaggeration. These acts of aggression carry with them grim health effects: women who have experienced violence are 16 percent more likely to give birth to an underweight child and are more than twice as likely to terminate a pregnancy or suffer depression.
Even so, these structures are still manifesting themselves in their most brutal forms through sexual violence in conflicts. Besides the ongoing plight of the Rohingya in Bangladesh’s Rakhine state, another recent and well-publicised outbreak of gender-based violence recorded in international headlines was that perpetrated against Yazidi women held captive by the Islamic State (IS).
In 2014, ISIS fighters dispersed more than 6,000 Yazidis across prisons, military training camps, and the homes of fighters from eastern Syria to western Iraq. Most of their captives were women and children, the men having already been massacred, and they were rapidly treated as chattel for large-scale institutionalized rape. Unmarried women, and girls older than eight years old, were deemed fair game, giving rise to horrifying stories of inhumanity – and survival.
Now, a growing body of survivor-activists, including Nobel Prize winner Nadia Murad, are dedicating their lives to ensuring the world cannot ignore the atrocities still underway in their homeland. Murad is also making her voice heard for the crimes committed in past conflicts in different regions around the world. Most recently, she spoke out against the rape of Vietnamese women perpetrated by South Korean soldiers in Vietnam at an event in London alongside former British foreign secretaries Jack Straw and William Hague, demanding that perpetrators be brought to justice everywhere.
Consequently, the consciousness of gender-based violence in past conflicts, like the Vietnam War, is growing. For example, Justice for Lai Dai Han (JLDH), the campaign group which organised the recent London event, is finding new traction in its fight for recognition of the tens of thousands of mixed-ancestry Vietnamese-Korean children conceived from rape during Vietnam’s bloody war. Their mothers, 800 of whom are still alive today, have never received acknowledgement from the South Korean government for the past sins of Korean troops. 2019 may be the year this is finally rectified.
Austria’s stance against violence perpetrated against women, as well as the tireless work of organisations such as Justice for Lai Dai Han, are critical to raising awareness of the epidemic of violence against women worldwide. Surely, it is only through public recognition of this scourge that an adequate— and sustained— pushback will be made possible.