On 25 November, we mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. It is deeply saddening, though perhaps not shocking, to learn that around 70 percent of all women experience physical or sexual abuse during their lifetime. Despite the progress we have made, this world remains a cruel and arbitrary one for too many women and girls.
Do not be fooled, however: this is not some so-called “women’s issue”. After all, we know that more often than not, the violence suffered by women is inflicted by the men they share their lives with – their fathers, husbands, intimate partners. If the majority of women in this world have suffered at the hands of their men, how many millions of men must have hurt and abused women? How many millions of men have stood by and let it happen?
If men overwhelmingly brutalise women, then men are overwhelmingly brutal.
This is something I cannot accept. This is why I call on men and boys everywhere to take a stand against the mistreatment of girls and women. It is by standing up for the rights of girls and women that we truly measure up as men .
An unspoken kind of violence
I am an Elder now, and have witnessed many forms of brutality. There is the direct, physical violence often committed in anger or in war. But there are other forms of violence, too – more complex, more insidious, more unspoken – that we must not overlook.
In Ethiopia, last year, my fellow Elders and I met a woman called Himanot who was forced to get married when she was 13 years old. She was not physically forced or dragged to her wedding in chains – in fact, she wanted to run away. But her mother told her that she would kill herself if Himanot ran away. So what choice did the child have?
Inflicting this kind of emotional pressure is a form of violence against women. Taking away a girl’s education, a girl’s right to develop in her own time, to fulfill her potential: yes, this is violence. Yet, I do not judge Himanot’s mother too harshly. Most parents who marry off their daughters young have their best interests at heart – not many of them would willingly have their child face the shame and stigma of defying “tradition”.
So if this is violence, who is the perpetrator? If not the family, is it the community? Where does the responsibility end? The statistics tell us that 70 percent of women suffer violence at some point in their lives. But I suspect this figure would be higher if we included all the emotional, structural violence that for many girls and women forms the warp and weft of everyday life.
Desmond Tutu and fellow Elders Mary Robinson and Gro Harlem Brundtland,
speaking with Himanot Yehewala who was married as a child, in Ethiopia
Child marriage is violence against women
When it comes to violence against women, there are few practices as harmful, or as widespread, as early marriage. It is not just the intense emotional and social pressure that the young bride is put under. Fundamentally, it violates a girl’s right to determine her own future – how can a child give her “consent” to marry when she is just 10 or 12 years old?
In such an unequal union, we know that girls are far more vulnerable to physical violence, especially when they are married to older men. It is hard to insist on practising safe sex, leaving them more likely to contract HIV or become pregnant before they are ready. And early childbearing itself can be devastating to a girl’s body – across the entire developing world, childbirth is the number one cause of death for girls aged 15-19.
And despite all this, the practice is defended in the name of “tradition”. This is why my fellow Elder Ela Bhatt says, “Child marriage is violence that is happening with the consent of society.”
Of course, not all of society consents. There are a few courageous voices, growing louder and stronger every day , who are challenging the status quo. I have been privileged to meet some of those who are showing their true mettle, defying tradition to protect the rights of girls and women in their communities.
Teenage boys challenging tradition in India
The state of Bihar has one of the highest rates of child marriage in India – 69 percent of girls are married before the age of 18. It is actually illegal in India to marry before the age of 18, for girls, or 21, for boys. But for most young people there, the weight of family and community tradition overrides this relatively recent law.
When I travelled to Bihar with my fellow Elders earlier this year , a boy called Premnath told me how his father is pressuring him to find a wife who can help with the housework after his mother passed away last year. But Prem – just 18 years old – is resisting. He has pledged to delay marriage, and proudly showed us a book of similar pledges from other young people and their families.
Desmond Tutu and Ela Bhatt with young people participating in the Jagriti campaign
to stop child marriage in Bihar, India
Together with his peers in the “Jagriti” movement, both girls and boys, he is now mobilising young people all over Bihar to make the same commitment. They already had more than 21,000 signatures when we visited last year – a staggering achievement. It seems, in fact, that he and his peers are defying their own Elders! This takes some guts, and I have to salute them for it.
Men and boys: take a stand
I want to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women by recognising the work of young men like Premnath. It is one thing to stop an individual act of violence, or perhaps a violent individual. But to take on a whole community, a whole tradition, and try to challenge something that has been harming girls for generations – that is courage.
Men have a lot to answer for, I cannot deny it. We have built institutions that oppress and harm women, and we justify our practices as “the way things are” or “the way things have always been”. Yet, as I always say, I am a prisoner of hope. I do believe that we men can help put a stop to these traditions. We can refuse to participate in them, and we can refuse to condone them. We can go further, and campaign against them.
It is not an easy task. But if an 18-year old boy in a patriarchal, traditional community like Prem’s can do it, I have faith that others can do it, too.