Special Reports



Peter Crisell


The scale of the problem
Meena Hasina, an Indian Muslim, was for years a prostitute in a brothel run by the Nutt, a low-caste tribe that controls the local sex trade. “I was eight or nine years old when I was kidnapped and trafficked”, she says. She was sold by her poor family and was taken to a house where prepubescent girls were kept until they were old enough to attract customers. When she was twelve, she was taken to the brothel. Any show of resistance to practising her new trade resulted in savage beatings. Meena and the other girls were never allowed out of the brothel and were not paid. They worked seven days a week and had ten or more customers a day. If they fell asleep or complained of a stomach ache, more savage beatings followed, usually in front of the other girls.

This account, quoted by Nicholas D Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn in their book ‘Half the Sky’, is an appalling trauma for its victims and horrific to those who read about it.  But why should we concern ourselves about these ‘ancient’ problems Tales of enforced prostitution are surely best confined to the ‘women’s’ issues’ pages of newspapers and magazines. Or perhaps that is just the perspective of the mostly middle aged men who control the world’s media and set the news agenda?

Women constitute approximately half the human race. The varieties of ways in which they can be abused and exploited are many. The violence may be domestic or it may take the form of forced prostitution and sex trafficking, genital mutilation, ‘honour killings’, and mass rape. In some cultures where women’s inequality is entrenched, there is selective abortion of female foetuses, female infanticide and deliberate neglect of health provision for women and girls. While acknowledging the human tragedies involved in these types of cruelty, we may be tempted to believe that it is relatively small scale in relation to the wider population. But if we look in detail at the scale and variety of the abuse, a different picture emerges.

Violence in the home
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) violence against women is prevalent in communities where there is a lack of access to education and opportunity, and low social status. The perpetrators are most likely to be their intimate partners, although other family members may be involved. Many women don’t seek help or report such violence. A wide range of physical, mental, sexual, reproductive and maternal health problems result.

In a 10-country study on women's health and domestic violence, the WHO found that between 15% and 71% of women reported physical or sexual violence by a husband or partner. Furthermore many women said that their first sexual experience was not consensual (24% in rural Peru, 28% in Tanzania, 30% in rural Bangladesh, and 40% in South Africa). Between 4% and 12% of women reported being physically abused during pregnancy.

Forced prostitution and trafficking
The United Nations defines violence against women as any act of gender-based violence resulting in physical, sexual or mental harm or suffering to women. The definition also includes threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether in public or in private life. Forced prostitution and sex trafficking fall within the definition. Women can turn to prostitution opportunistically, out of economic desperation or even for self-enrichment, but women and girls can be forced into prostitution in their own countries – as our Indian example showed. According to the UN: “Many women are forced into prostitution either by their parents, husbands or boyfriends -- or as a result of the difficult economic and social conditions in which they find themselves”. However, they can also be trafficked overseas: “They are also trapped into prostitution, sometimes by "mail-order bride" agencies that promise to find them a husband or a job in a foreign country. As a result, they very often find themselves illegally confined in brothels in slavery-like conditions where they are physically abused and their passports withheld”.
Thus trafficked women and girls are taken across borders by force or deception and have little idea what awaits them. The economic ‘benefits’ are meagre. They receive little of what the customer pays to the pimp or the brothel owner and once caught in the system, there is practically no way out. Since prostitution is illegal in many countries, prostitutes cannot come forward and ask for protection if, for example, they become victims of rape or want to escape from the brothels. “In Thailand”, says the UN, “prostitutes who complain to the police are often arrested and sent back to the brothels upon payment of a fine”.


In London recently, a rare case came to court. An Iranian gang who tried to sell young female virgins to wealthy Arabs charging up to £150,000 a girl, were jailed for sex trafficking and prostitution. The gang claimed to have 12 girls in the UK, available for sex in London hotels, including one aged 14 whom they regarded as "bait". They plotted to rake in huge sums through a party where young women could accept cash to sleep with wealthy Middle Eastern businessmen. The judge declared that the gang was motivated by greed, running a "money-making operation based on the exploitation and corruption of vulnerable young women".


Precisely how many women are caught up in this shadowy world is impossible to say accurately. The UN International Labour Organisation compiled a statistics report in 2007 from available evidence. According to the ILO, 2.5 million people are in forced labour around the world. Of these 43% (1,075,000) are used for commercial sex exploitation purposes and 98% (1,053,000) are women. 32% of the 2.5 million are economically exploited for commercial purposes (800,000), of whom 56% are women and children (448,000).


Forced marriages
Forced or child marriages are another form of violence against women. The practice of girls marrying at a young age is common in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. In the Middle East, North Africa and other parts of Asia, marriage at or soon after puberty is common among some groups, although in parts of West and East Africa and South Asia marriages much earlier than puberty are not unusual. The exact number of child marriages is unknown because so many are unregistered and unofficial. UNICEF estimates, based on survey data, shows that in developing countries, more than 60 million women aged 20-24 were married before the age of 18. Over half live in South Asia. In countries like Bangladesh, Central African Republic, Chad, Guinea, Mali, and Niger more than 60% of women entered into marriage or into a union before their eighteenth birthdays. Girls living in the poorest 20% of households are more likely to get married at an early age than those living in the wealthiest 20%. Women with primary education are less likely to be married as children than those who had no education.

According to UNICEF there are many reasons why parents choose to marry off their daughters early. Poor families may regard a young girl as an economic burden and her marriage as a necessary survival strategy for her family. They may also think that marriage provides protection from sexual assault, or more generally, offers the care of a male guardian. Child marriage may also be seen as a means of preventing a girl’s pregnancy outside marriage. Girls may also be married young to ensure obedience and subservience within their husband’s household and to maximise their childbearing.

Honour killing and genital mutilation
Women who refuse to submit to forced marriages may become victims of ‘honour-based’ violence. ‘Honour killing’ involves the murder of a person accused of "bringing shame" upon their family. Victims have also been killed for committing adultery or for being in a relationship that displeased relatives or for behaving immodestly. The crimes are often committed by family members against a female relative. In some parts of the world, women who have been raped have also been murdered for the 'dishonour' of being a victim and the 'disgrace' it brings to their family. Estimates of the number of killings worldwide vary between 5000 and 6000 a year.

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is another example of the degradation and abuse of women. The WHO estimates that 100 to 140 million women and girls worldwide are living with the consequences, although such a practice is internationally recognised as a violation of their human rights. FGM includes procedures that intentionally alter or injure female genital organs for non-medical reasons. The procedure can cause severe bleeding and problems urinating, and later, potential childbirth complications and newborn deaths. It is mostly carried out on young girls between infancy and the age of 15 years. The practice is mostly carried out by traditional circumcisers but in recent years it is being performed by health care providers. FGM is surely an extreme form of discrimination that flourishes only where there is deep-rooted inequality between the sexes. FGM is most common in the western, eastern, and north-eastern regions of Africa, in some countries in Asia and the Middle East, and among certain immigrant communities in North America and Europe.

The reasons for FGM are many. In many communities it is a traditional method of bringing up girls and preparing them for adulthood and marriage. Cultural ideals of femininity and modesty link in with beliefs in premarital virginity and marital fidelity. It is sometimes believed to reduce a woman's libido and to help her resist illicit sexual activity.

In 1997, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a joint statement with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) against the practice of FGM. A new statement, with wider United Nations support, was then issued in February 2008 in which it declared support for increased advocacy for the abandonment of FGM. Since 1997, great efforts have been made to counteract FGM. In 2008, the World Health Assembly passed a resolution (WHA61.16) on the elimination of FGM, emphasizing the need for concerted action in all sectors - health, education, finance, justice and women's affairs. In some communities, campaigns against the practice have been successful and FGM eradicated. However, the WHO is particularly concerned about the increasing trend for medically trained personnel to perform FGM and has strongly urged health professionals not to perform such procedures.

Mass rape
Systematic sexual abuse in conflict situations is yet another form of violence against women. Examples abound in ethnic conflicts around the world where mass rape is used as a weapon of war. As Nicholas D Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn describe it:

“In recent genocides, rape has been used systematically to terrorise certain ethnic groups. Mass rape is as effective as slaughtering people, yet it doesn’t leave corpses that lead to human rights prosecutions. And rape tends to undermine victim groups’ tribal structures, because leaders lose authority when they can’t protect the women. In short, rape becomes a tool of war in conservative societies precisely because female sexuality is so sacred”.

Recent cases of mass rape have occurred in Darfur by the Sudanese-sponsored Janjaweed militia, in Sierra Leone, in the genocide in Rwanda and, most notoriously, in DR Congo which has been described by a senior UN official as “the rape capital of the world”. The UN estimates that in 2006, there were 27,000 sexual assaults in South Kivu province alone.

Sex-selective abortions, infanticide and gender discrimination in health care
Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize winning economist, wrote an essay in The New York Review of Books called ‘More Than One Hundred Million Women Are Missing’. He asserts that at birth, boys outnumber girls everywhere in the world, by much the same proportion—there are around 105 or 106 male children for every 100 female children. Why? After conception biology favours women. Research shows that if men and women receive similar nutritional and medical attention and general health care, women tend to live noticeably longer than men. They are more resistant to disease and in general hardier than men. This is also true during the first few months of life, and even in the womb. When given the same care as males, females tend to have better survival rates. Because they live longer, there are more females than males in the world. In Europe and North America, there 105 or 106 women for every 100 men. In South Asia, West Asia, and China, the ratio of women to men can be as low as 94 to every 100 men, or even lower, and it varies widely elsewhere in Asia, in Africa, and in Latin America. Sen calculates that 107 million females are missing from the world. (Other researchers maintain, on their calculations that the number is between 60 and 101 million.) The reason for the missing females is gender discrimination.


One reason for the missing millions is sex-selective abortion which is widespread in countries like China, India and Korea where male children are culturally valued over female children. Before the late 20th century infanticide was used to alter the gender ratio of families because of the difficulty of determining the sex of the foetus before birth. Ultrasound has made such selection easier. Where female children are born, they can be victims of gender discrimination in health care. Kristof and Wudunn cite examples in India where girls may not be vaccinated or taken for medical treatment when boys would be. They quote the chilling statistic that more girls have been killed in the last fifty years- because they were girls - than men killed in all the battles of the twentieth century.

What is to be done?
When considered as a whole, the catalogue of violence meted out to women worldwide invites horror and disgust. The scale and variety of methods employed seem daunting to anyone seeking to oppose it. Some forms of enslavement, such as trafficking and forced prostitution, do attract condemnation when exposed to the public gaze. However, much of this multimillion dollar industry is conducted clandestinely and thousands of its victims suffer unaided. Other violations of women’s rights, such as the mis-named ‘honour killings’ and FGM are morally offensive to many but are often defended in the communities where they are prevalent on the grounds that they are part of the culture, religion or tradition. A further complication is that some women – brothel madams and genital ‘cutters’ for example – are active participants in the oppression of women. It is perhaps no surprise that they internalise the culture and values of the country in which they live and where such practices are considered normal.

What these various forms of female enslavement have in common is that victims are not regarded and treated as human beings. For slavery to succeed it is necessary for the oppressors to believe the slave is sub-human and undeserving of respect, dignity or rights. In the nineteenth century the central moral challenge was the abolition of slavery. In the twentieth century it was the battle against totalitarianism. This prompts Kristof and Wudunn in their admirable book ‘Half the Sky’ to argue that the struggle for women’s equality should be at the top of the twenty-first century agenda. As UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon put it, “Violence against women and girls will not be eradicated until all of us – men and boys – refuse to tolerate it”.

Fundamental to the struggle for empowerment and equality is the ability of women to control their own fertility. As the United Nations Population Fund states: “The ability of women to control their own fertility is absolutely fundamental to women’s empowerment and equality. When a woman can plan her family, she can plan the rest of her life. When she is healthy, she can be more productive. And when her reproductive rights—including the right to decide the number, timing and spacing of her children, and to make decisions regarding reproduction free of discrimination, coercion and violence—are promoted and protected, she has freedom to participate more fully and equally in society.”


Women worldwide are more likely than men to live in poverty. They are paid less and work longer hours. Much of the unpaid work within families and communities falls on them. In subsistence economies, women perform tasks to maintain the household, such as carrying water and collecting wood for fuel. In some countries women are also responsible for agricultural production and selling, and take on paid work as well. These differences in the work patterns of men and women, and the fact that unpaid work is invisible in the national accounts, disadvantages women.

About two thirds of the illiterate adults in the world are female. Education is hugely important for girls and women. It paves the way for greater opportunities in life but also has ripple effects within the family and across generations. Investing in girls' education is one of the most effective ways to reduce poverty. Furthermore, girls who have been educated are likely to marry later and to have smaller and healthier families. Educated women are better able to recognize the importance of health care and how to obtain it for themselves and their children. Educated girls and women know their rights and have the confidence to claim them. The benefits to the local and national economy are also enormous.

Nearly everywhere women’s equality is held back by their historical exclusion from political decision-making and the power that goes with it. In many countries women cannot own land and inherit property or obtain access to credit. In the labour market, they are subject to discrimination in pay and job opportunities. Women are still widely under-represented in decision-making at all levels, whether in the household or in the public arena.

Addressing these inequities through laws and public policy is a way of formalizing the goal of gender equality. Legal changes, which most countries have now implemented, are often a necessary step to institute gender equality, but not necessarily sufficient to create lasting changes. Narrowing the gap between what the law proscribes and what actually occurs often requires concerted political campaigning.

What is being done?
The widespread violation of women’s human rights may induce a feeling of hopelessness. The scale of the problem and the deeply entrenched attitudes that stand in the way of change can easily paralyse us into inaction. But a glance at Kristof and Wudunn’s book reveals that an astonishing amount is already being done by individuals and organisations around the world. The book details what individuals can do to help and lists the many organisations around the world which specialise in supporting women in developing countries. These include groups operating schools in Afghanistan and border areas of Pakistan, a group that battles sex slavery in India, another supporting schools for girls in Africa, and an organisation focusing on reproductive health care worldwide. There are other groups that campaign against sex trafficking and sex slavery and that sponsor women’s leadership and empowerment in the developing world. There are also organisations supporting women through microfinance and business training. All these specialist groups exist alongside international aid groups such as UNICEF and Save the Children which have a more generalised focus.

There must have been moments when past campaigners for women’s suffrage, for the abolition of slavery or for civil rights in America, had feelings of despair and futility in the face of hostility and obstruction. But in the end progress was made and lives improved. This must surely inspire the struggle for equality for women and their daughters around the globe in the twenty first century.