This month the 57th session of the Commission on the Status of Women meets at United Nations (UN) headquarters in New York City, its priority theme the “elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls.” Is the world finally ready to pay attention?
Recent highly publicized incidents have aroused worldwide outrage. I'm thinking particularly of the attempted assassination of Malala Yousafzai, a 15-year-old Pakistani girl who advocates girls' right to education; and of the gang rape of a young woman on a bus in Delhi, India, an assault so brutal she later died of her injuries. Such attacks are not new. The young woman in Delhi is one of hundreds raped with impunity every year in that city alone. Rape as a weapon of war has characterized the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo for over a decade, and now the International Rescue Committee is reporting extreme sexual violence used similarly against women in Syria.
Nor are women in the United States exempt. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's most recent National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey found that 36% of women have suffered rape, physical assault, or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime, with a third of these suffering multiple forms of these crimes. Sexual assaults against women inside the military are reportedly increasing, with offenders often receiving little or no punishment. Thousands of women are trafficked into and within this country annually, most of them forced into the sex industry. Yet Congress recently failed to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, apparently reacting to opposition to new protections included for victims who are Native American; lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender; or undocumented immigrants.
But there is reason for hope. The global outrage over the incidents in Pakistan and India suggests a shift, an awakening that transcends nationality and culture. Most encouraging are the strong responses by women, even those living in the most oppressive societies. With cell phones now available even in the poorest regions and the rise of social networking, there are few places left where women remain isolated. We are seeing a grassroots movement of courageous women and girls who are demanding justice and social change. In Pakistan, where for girls simply walking to school each morning requires nerve and grit, schoolgirls marched waving Malala's picture. And in India, women's groups and students defied a government ban to demonstrate against a society that often allows rape to go unpunished.
I've argued before that nurses have a responsibility to promote social justice (see Viewpoint, August 2011), that this is one of the core values of nursing. We care for populations as well as individuals, and patient advocacy must extend beyond the bedside. As nurses we have firsthand knowledge of the devastation wrought by gender-based violence upon women, families, and communities. In this, as in all other realms we work in, prevention is the goal. That is where our greatest efforts should lie. The upcoming UN Commission affords us a great opportunity. This year the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International (STTI), approved by the UN as an associated nongovernmental organization with observer status in 2009, has been granted special consultative status. This means STTI can actively participate in UN activities. We cannot let this opportunity go to waste.
Violence against women is a defining global health issue of our time. It affects all of us, regardless of sex or geography, undermining the health of our societies and debasing our humanity. We have seen examples of the resilience and strength of women before—for example, the women of Rwanda were instrumental in the healing of that country after the 1994 genocide. But now we are seeing something different: widespread outrage, with women everywhere gathering strength and finding their voices. This heralds an opportunity for real change.
Thanks to the efforts of STTI, nurses are positioned within the UN to help effect that change. We can use that position to stand with the women who have taken to the streets, to add our voices to theirs and say that we will no longer tolerate institutionalized violence against women. As nurses, we need to use our knowledge, skills, and resolve in joining them to ensure that one day, violence against women will be eradicated.