Health: Men join fight against domestic violence

NEW YORK — Thirty years after the first treaty on women’s rights was adopted by the United Nations, millions of cases involving beatings, marital rapes, honor killings and genital mutilation lead to deaths, medical injuries, failed pregnancies, abortions and psychological damage.

Not only do one in three women worldwide experience some form of physical violence, but one in three teenage girls has been sexually abused by a boyfriend. In 2008, 157 women were killed by their husbands or partners in France. That same year in Pakistan, out of 8,000 officially reported cases of violence against women, about 1,000 women ended up dead.

A significant development came in November when U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon launched his Network of Men Leaders to combat violence against women, which includes South African Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu and Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho. “Men must teach each other that real men do not violate or oppress women,” he said.

The campaign for men joining the fight against violence is growing. The last straw for Mohammad Khalil came in 2009 when the owner of a television company in Buffalo, N.Y., beheaded his wife, Aasiya Zubair Hassan, after she filed for divorce.

“I think it was a wake up call for the Muslim community,” said Khalil, a professor of religion at the University of Illinois who set up an organization called Muslim Men against Domestic Abuse.

Still in its initial stages, the Illinois-based group has prepared an anti-domestic violence packet for local imams to include in their sermons. “There is a stereotype that Muslim men are particularly abusive … more than any other,” Khalil said. “We wanted to address the problem in our community first.”

Confronted with mounting deaths and hefty monetary losses, governments worldwide are enacting new laws and more men are becoming part of the solution to end abuse against women. The antidote, however, remains short of funds.

In 2002, the World Health Organization found that in countries such as Australia, Canada, Israel, South Africa and the U.S., 40 to 70 percent of female murder victims were killed by their husbands or boyfriends. While most American women are killed by guns their counterparts in India are burned alive — murders that are passed off as ‘‘kitchen accidents.’’

Despite the massive scale of atrocities, governments hesitate to enter the homes of perpetrators since these crimes are committed within the sanctity of the private sphere.

"The reality for most victims, including victims of honor killings, is that state institutions fail them and that most perpetrators of domestic violence can rely on a culture of impunity,” said Navi Pillay, the U.N. human rights chief, on International Women’s Day in March.

In Afghanistan, for instance, violence is life-threatening but there is little the government officials can do about it, according to Col. Shafiqa Quraish, the director of gender issues in Afghanistan’s Ministry of Interior.

“In all traditional societies police are not allowed to go inside the houses. Those who are subjected to family violence do not go to the police to lodge a complaint,” she said, noting that a law preventing violence against women will be tabled in the Afghan parliament soon.

In 2008, Ban launched the "UNITE-to end violence against women" campaign that runs till 2015, which is also the world’s deadline to meet the Millennium Development Goals that includes gender equality and maternal health.

Countries have responded to this campaign by enacting several laws to beef up protection. Australia announced that all domestic violence-related deaths would be examined by an expert panel chaired by the State Coroner.

This summer, the French maybe the first to enact a law against “psychological violence” within marriage, which can get the husband or wife into jail even for repeatedly insulting each other. Despite much controversy, the U.K. is pushing ahead with a change in curriculum to teach primary school children about domestic violence from 2011 onwards.

The abuse is taking a heavy toll not only on the victims but also on the state coffers. The cost of domestic violence in Australia was estimated at $8.1 billion in 2002-03 and in the U.S. exceeds $5.8 billion per year.

At the same time, programs to combat the problem remain grossly under-funded. In 2009, the U.N. received grant requests totaling $857 million but could only provide 1.2 percent of the amount in the form of $10.5 million to fund 13 projects preventing violence — mostly in Africa.

Another Muslim who teaches political science at the Georgia Perimeter College, Shyam Sriram, is putting up a solo fight against domestic violence and paying for it himself. The recent convert from Hinduism, insists that the culture of violence among Muslim men has led to the misconception that Islam sanctions it.

“This is not religious,” said Sriram who travels around the country speaking out against domestic violence in universities and Muslim organizations. The activist believes that the message will hit home when delivered by another man. “Using gender to enhance the dialogue is not sexism,” he said. “Men have to hold other men accountable.”

But at the same time, for many Muslims, the lines between religion and culture are blurred by their religious leaders. Pundits on television channels in the Middle East openly preach that Islamic law allows wife beating but the beater still needs to follow some rules.

One cleric in Lebanon, for instance, notes that hitting a woman or an animal in the face is both wrong and instead recommends light beating.

Even in Afghanistan, more men have come forward to support women's rights in areas that have pushed past the Taliban rules, according to Shukira Asil, a political activist in Baghlan province. “It varies from place to place but there are some men who are aware of the situation and want to collaborate with us,” she said. 

In the past few years, anti-domestic violence groups serving the South Asian community in the U.S. have also recorded a relatively higher number of calls from brothers, parents and friends who call to seek help on behalf of the victim.

One father even traveled from India to protect his battered daughter and spoke out in public against the abuse, according to the Maneesha Kelkar, the head of Manavi, an anti-domestic violence group in New Jersey. “Men can be excellent partners,” she said. 

Betwa Sharma is the New York/United Nations correspondent for the Press Trust of India and is a freelance journalist.