Annan's Shot at U.N. Legacy Misfires

Published November 28, 2006

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In October, the United Nations released its much-anticipated Secretary-General's Study on Violence Against Women (SVAW), a global overview and update on the issue.

The SVAW is a lumbering 139-page behemoth of a document that is embarrassingly inaccurate, ideological and biased against men.

Before critiquing the study, however, it is useful to sketch its message.

The study's Executive Summary states, "[V]iolence against women is not the result of random, individual acts of misconduct, but rather is deeply rooted in structural relationships of inequality between women and men...in historically unequal power relations between men and women and pervasive discrimination against women in both the public and private spheres."

Thus, the definition of violence against women is extremely broad and "includes acts that inflict physical, mental or sexual harm or suffering, threats of such acts, coercion and other deprivations of liberty."

It includes economic and psychological violence, such as "humiliating or embarrassing [a woman]."(p.38)

The solution offered? Use global government to eliminate "patriarchal power disparities" and to restructure cultural and economic norms.

How?

First, identify obstacles.

One 'obstacle' is the drifting of nations toward "deregulation of economies and privatization of the public sector [which] have tended to reinforce women's economic and social inequality." (p.32) In short, the "free market" is seen as promoting violence against women.

Another identified obstacle is "privacy rights," that is, "legal doctrines protecting the privacy of the home and family" (e.g. Fourth Amendment guarantees in the U.S. Constitution, and similar protections in other Democratic nations.) Such doctrines are accused of "justify[ing] the failure of the State and society to intervene when violence is committed against women in the family." (p.33)

Next, the report advises that "obstacles" should be overcome by instituting new policies at "federal, state, provincial and local levels, as well as...the judiciary, legislature and executive." (p.72)

A specific example of a recommended policy change: when prosecuting cases of violence against women "rules of evidence and procedure, should be conducted in a gender-sensitive manner to ensure that women are not 're-victimized'."

This means criminal trials should provide "in-camera proceedings where appropriate." (p. 76) Specifically, courtroom procedures should "protect the privacy of victims" by "allowing evidence to be given by video link or restricting [public] access to courtrooms."

While such a policy shift may have merit in societies where women can face brutal punishment for coming forward to accuse an attacker or abuser, applying these recommendations to an American courtroom and Western jurisprudence exposes the flaws of the SVAW—that a problem as culturally sensitive as the plight of women around the world can be addressed with one global solution.

For example, the SVAW offers a false view of the status of women around the world by ascribing all violence against women everywhere to "patriarchal power dynamics." It makes no distinction between the anti-woman policies of the Taliban and the pro-woman policies of the United States.

The SVAW views women behind a veil and women who win million dollar sexual harassment lawsuits as fundamentally the same: oppressed. Thus, the same remedies are recommended for women in Afghanistan and America.

Some of the SVAW's insights into the misuse of privacy rights may have application to areas like Africa, for example, where women often have no legal protection against rape by their own husbands. This is not only an outrage, but is a proven conduit of the AIDS epidemic ravaging that continent.

However, by forcing that same insight onto western cultures, SVAW obscures, rather than clarifies, the status of women worldwide.

Why does the report make such a fundamental mistake? Because it wishes to make basic and universal statements about the status of women that can apply to as much to a corporate lawyer in Manhattan as they can to an African mother starving in a hut.

SVAW presents women as the class of human beings most at risk of violence. To support this claim, SVAW draws heavily upon data from the World Health Organization (WHO). But according to WHO's World Report on Violence and Health (Geneva, Switzerland, 2002), 14 percent of men die of violence-related causes, compared to 7 percent of women.

SVAW stresses that psychological neglect or abuse and lack of medical care are forms of violence against women. But, worldwide, men are 3.5 times as likely to commit suicide and their life expectancy is lower than women's. In general, men seem to be at as much or greater risk of being victims of violence than women—though in many cases, the 'attacker' of both men and women may be male.

Moreover, it is far from clear that attackers are always male.

SVAW's Executive Summary states, "The most common form of violence experienced by women globally is intimate partner violence, sometimes leading to death."

In a 2006 study entitled "Dominance and symmetry in partner violence," Murray A. Straus of the University of New Hampshire analyzed data from 13,601 students in 32 countries for rates of gender violence in dating relationships. Straus found that 54.9 percent of violence was mutual, 15.7 percent was male-only, 29.4 percent was female-only. The U.S. Bureau of Justice placed the rate at which men were victimized by intimate partner violence between 1998 and 2002 at 27 percent of the total.

Despite jumbles of data and methodological problems —e.g., the difficulty of comparing studies that focus on different populations— one point is clear: Men are victimized by intimate partner violence at higher rates than previously assumed.

Despite these considerable flaws in the SVAW, the study is likely to stir activity within the UN. The reason is simple.

On Dec. 31, Kofi Annan steps down from being Secretary-General of the UN. He leaves behind high-profile disgraces that include the Oil-for-Food fiasco, his son's misuse of funds, and the devastation of Sudan. It is no co-incidence that the document is titled "Secretary-General's Study on Violence Against Women."

Annan's shot at legacy misfires.

Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, "Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century" (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.

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