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Everything we think about worldwide violence against women is wrong

Let’s take a moment in honor of International Women’s Day 2014 to name and debunk some of the most widespread myths about violence against women.
A woman covers her head with a shawl.
A woman covers her head with a shawl in Kibera, Kenya, July 6, 2011.

“That’s the way men are over there. They are not like us.” “Violence against women is personal, so there’s nothing we or our government can do.”

I have heard all these excuses, and more, for why the United States is not more involved in fighting the global epidemic of violence against women that continues unabated. An estimated one out of every three women worldwide will be beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused during her lifetime—with rates reaching 70% in some countries. Rape continues to be used as a weapon of war, and in many places, the first sexual experience for up to 30% of women will be forced.

These are chilling numbers, so let’s take a moment in honor of International Women’s Day 2014 to name and debunk some of the most widespread myths about violence against women, so as not to allow them to block progress.

Myth 1: Violence against women primarily occurs in non-Western countries and can be blamed on regressive cultural beliefs about gender.

Tragically, violence against women occurs in epidemic proportions throughout the world, including in the United States. It is estimated that more than 42 million women in the United States will experience physical violence, rape, and/or stalking by an intimate partner during their lifetimes.

This violence occurs not just in cultures or contexts where women are universally oppressed. It happens in every part of the world and in every society.

Of course, countries and regions differ, and cultural, political and economic differences and the impact of disasters can have a significant effect on how violence against women unfolds.

For instance, the widespread destruction and chaos in the wake of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti created the conditions for an enormous increase in violence against women and girls, which continues today.

With hundreds of thousands of people displaced from their homes and living in camps with little security, few economic resources, limited access to the justice system, rape and sexual assault continue to occur with impunity.

By way of another example, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has come to be known as the “rape capital of the world” because of the protracted military and political conflict and the use of rape as a weapon of war, which has been documented for centuries across continents.

Myth 2: Sexual violence is a “women’s issue.”

First of all, sexual violence does not only happen to women. While it is overwhelmingly men who perpetrate sexual violence against women, survivors of sexual violence often include men and boys. In fact, international studies show that up to 10% of men report experiencing childhood sexual abuse, and some evidence suggests that the rates of sexual violence may be even higher for gay, bisexual and transgender men.

Secondly, men have the power to stop violence and rape, and in order to successfully end violence against women and girls, we must involve men.

More broadly, men are crucial allies in the fight to end violence against women. In addition to providing support and services to survivors of sexual violence, organizations looking to stop violence are increasingly mobilizing men to create safer communities by changing expectations and norms for men.

Myth 3: The U.S. can’t do anything about violence against women in other countries; this is an internal problem for any nation to address and isn’t our business anyway.

Actually, the U.S. already plays a significant role in combating violence against women globally, and it is in our best interest to do more. The U.S. State Department recognizes that, “gender-based violence undermines … the public health, economic stability, and security of nations.”

Studies in countries as diverse as Tanzania, Brazil and Bangladesh demonstrate that violence against women has enormous economic costs, often rivaling the amount many governments spend on primary education or public health. At the same time, boosting economic and educational opportunities for women and girls dramatically lessens violence. 

The U.S. is the world’s largest government aid donor. Where and how we support programs to boost education, healthcare, and legal protections for women and girls can make a critical difference.  That is why a bipartisan group of lawmakers has introduced the International Violence Against Women Act in the U.S. House of Representatives.

This bill would ensure that combating violence against women is a top diplomatic priority, that U.S. foreign aid programs to end violence against women are as efficient and effective as possible, and that women organizing to stop violence in their own communities would have the support they need to make change.

Ruth Messinger is President of American Jewish World Service.