It’s easy to be appalled by things that happen elsewhere: the brutal, horrifying rape of the 23 year-old Indian student, so violent that she died of her injuries. Malala Yousufzai, the 15 year-old Pakistani schoolgirl/activist who was shot in the head by the Taliban. It’s easy to feel a sort of removed pity in the face of such tragedies. But what we should feel is urgency, and responsibility.
And not just because gender violence happens here, too. In Steubenville, Ohio, an equally despicable incident happened last August, when an unconscious 16 year-old girl was carried from party to party, and raped over and over again.
It would be hard to carry out such acts on someone you saw as human, equal and valuable. It would be hard to carry out such acts if such acts were (loudly) understood to be completely unacceptable.
Reading Sunday’s New York Times, I was struck by two pieces: Nicholas D. Kristof’s excellent “Is Delhi So Different From Steubenville?,” and Maureen Dowd’s article about the lack of women appointed to top spots by President Obama so far. When it comes to policy and representation, is the U.S. doing as well as it could? Hardly.
As Kristof writes,
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has done a superb job trying to put these issues on the global agenda, and I hope President Obama and Senator John Kerry will continue her efforts. But Congress has been pathetic. Not only did it fail to renew the Violence Against Women Act, but it has also stalled on the global version, the International Violence Against Women Act, which would name and shame foreign countries that tolerate gender violence.
Congress even failed to renew the landmark legislation against human trafficking, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. The obstacles were different in each case, but involved political polarization and paralysis. Can members of Congress not muster a stand on modern slavery?
(Hmm. I now understand better the results of a new survey from Public Policy Polling showing that Congress, with 9 percent approval, is less popular than cockroaches, traffic jams, lice or Genghis Khan.)
We can’t let Congress off the hook when it comes to these policies. According to Politifact, “On Dec. 11, 2012, U.S. Representative Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) and 119 other members of Congress signed a letter calling on House leaders to hold a vote on re-authorizing the Violence Against Women Act.” That vote never happened.
But there’s more than policy to consider. As Dowd writes, citing New York Magazine, apparently Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah has a better record of appointing top women than Obama. Here’s a bit more from her:
‘We don’t have to order up some binders to find qualified, talented, driven young women’ to excel in all fields, the president said on the trail, vowing to unfurl the future for ‘our daughters.’
It may be because the president knows what a matriarchal world he himself lives in that he assumes we understand that the most trusted people in his life have been female–his wife, his daughters, his mother, his grandmother, his mother-in-law, his closest aide, Valerie.
But this isn’t about how he feels, or what his comfort zone is, or who’s in his line of sight. It’s about what he projects to the world–not to mention to his own daughters.
What’s the connection, though, between getting women into top spots, and gender violence throughout the world?
It’s not just that women in such positions are more likely to give voice to the global issues often sidelined as “women’s issues.” It’s not just the inherent value in diversity, in having a broad range of voices and perspectives involved in the decision-making process. It not just “the optics”–the fact that seeing women standing next to the President might inspire a young girl to aim high, or subtly nudge the consciousness of those who see her there in the direction of expecting to see women in top spots. It’s all of it, and more. Consider this, from Kristof’s piece:
Skeptics fret that sexual violence is ingrained into us, making the problem hopeless. But just look at modern American history, for the rising status of women has led to substantial drops in rates of reported rape and domestic violence. Few people realize it, but Justice Department statistics suggest that the incidence of rape has fallen by three-quarters over the last four decades.
Likewise, the rate at which American women are assaulted by their domestic partners has fallen by more than half in the last two decades. That reflects a revolution in attitudes. Steven Pinker, in his book ‘The Better Angels of our Nature,’ notes that only half of Americans polled in 1987 said that it was always wrong for a man to beat his wife with a belt or a stick; a decade later, 86 percent said it was always wrong.
Will having more women in high-level positions eliminate all gender violence? No. But the correlation between the “rising status of women” and drops in rates of rape and domestic violence is not coincidence. There’s a link to seeing women in power–and empowered–and seeing them as equals. And when we see others as equals, we tend to treat them that way. Will policies like the Violence Against Women Act and the Trafficking Victims Protection Act eliminate all gender violence? No. But it will make crimes more easily prosecutable. All of it matters; every bit counts. It’s tragic that here, and all over the world, there are those who see women as targets. We should be doing all we can to change that.