Women are not only generally less physically aggressive than men but are also physically weaker in combat terms. Women and girls have, therefore, always been more at risk of physical and sexual assault. Most agrarian and pastoral cultures, based on a strict gender separation of roles, developed cultural norms that codified this physical imbalance into rules and laws that created an even greater legal imbalance. These laws were often justified on the grounds that they were protecting the “weaker” sex. The majority of current world religions have their genesis during the early development of these agrarian and pastoral peoples and reflect the same basic dominant male bias. They add an additional moral justification for inequality and frequently an unequal level of causation of gender violence. In this world view, gender violence results from the temptation that women pose and it is men who must be protected from these temptations. Thus, the emphasis in many religions for women to cover their hair (or shave it off), dress chastely and even cover their entire bodies.

Modern societies are more intellectually and less physically driven, and are gradually moving away from these traditional gender roles. However, even in the most advanced societies not only do the old stereotypes remain, but many of the old safeguards are gone. A few examples suffice to demonstrate how women all around the world are being subjected to increasing levels of sexual and other forms of violence.

A 15-year-old Pakistani girl, Malala Yousafzai, was recently shot in the head because she campaigned for the rights of girls to have an education and this is explicitly forbidden by the Taliban leaders in the area she lived in. A 23-year-old woman in New Delhi died of her injuries a week after she was viciously gang raped, beaten and thrown out of the bus that she and her male companion had boarded thinking that it was public transport. In South Africa, a 23-year-old woman died after being gang raped, brutally cut open and then dumped by the roadside. She died in hospital a few hours later but not before she identified one of her attackers. Medical personnel had to receive counselling because they were so traumatised by the brutal nature of her injuries.

These are but a few of the incidents that happen every hour of every day without notice to women all over the world. The encouraging thing about these examples is that they have created a huge wave of revulsion and protest by a broad cross section of their societies. Even though they are scared, young women in Pakistan are more determined than ever to pursue their education and many of their families are also coming out in their support. The wave of protest in India forced the police to follow through on the case leading the arrest and trial of 5 men on charges of rape and murder. This is earth-shattering in a country where rape is not usually taken seriously by the authorities and the victims are often blamed. South Africa, which has the dubious distinction of having one of the highest rates of rape in the world, is finally facing the problem seriously.

Unfortunately, the official indifference and lack of concern over rape remains unchanged in many other countries. Recently, after a woman in Somalia reported to authorities that she had been raped by security forces, she was arrested and charged with making a false report. She and a journalist who interviewed her were each sentenced to one year in gaol. Neither was allowed to present a defence. Her husband was also taken into custody and questioned but was freed without charge. The alleged perpetrators of the rape were never even questioned. The outrage voiced internationally has failed to spark similar revulsion within Somalia.

These high profile cases represent only a small fraction of the rapes occurring in every country but they have served to galvanise public opinion beyond traditional women’s groups. It remains to be seen whether the momentum will continue to build and create a real change in attitudes and policies. As the public service announcement on local television points out, “No woman asks for or wants to be raped.” It is bad enough that rape and the fear of rape place serious restrictions on women but it is made much worse by the minefield that many women,s must traverse when they report the attack. Time for all of us to take this issue seriously.

The Guardian