November 25th, designated by the UN General Assembly in 1999 as International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, is an important reminder that women suffer various forms of aggression and violence every day, everywhere.
Here are a few statistics which serve to remind us that violence against women and girls is pandemic: At least one out of every three women around the world has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime, usually by someone she knows. Millions of young girls in many countries have been subjected to the removal of all or part of their genitalia in the name of purity. Honor killings, dowry deaths, and sex selection continue to take place in various countries. An estimated four million women and girls are trafficked each year; at least a million of them are children. In the U.S., a woman is battered every 15 seconds, usually by an intimate partner, and more than half of all rapes occur before age 18 with 22 percent occurring before the age of 12. In 2000, nearly 88,000 children in the United States experienced sexual abuse .
But not all violence against women is documented. Much of it is unarticulated, subtle, subterranean, and culturally acceptable. Spending two weeks working on the maternity ward of a hospital in Hargeisa, Somaliland made this abundantly, sadly clear to me.
The Edna Adan Maternity and Teaching Hospital, situated in one of the busiest and poorest sections of Somaliland's capital city, was built between 1998 and 2002. Originally envisioned as a maternity hospital, it quickly expanded to include pediatrics and medical-surgical services. It includes a lab, a pharmacy, an out-patient department and training programs for nurses, midwives, lab technicians and pharmacists.
Its founder, Edna Adan Ishmail, is a force to be reckoned with. Seventy-four years old, she is an energetic major domo who directs her hospital with a firm but loving hand. Born and raised in Hargeisa, she was lucky enough to receive a good education in Djibouti before going on to study midwifery, on scholarship, in the UK. She returned home in 1961, her country's only qualified midwife. Eventually her career took her to Libya, Egypt, and elsewhere as a representative of the World Health Organization. When she retired from international service, she invested her personal funds to build the hospital in order to help Somaliland's women and children, who have one of the highest mortality rates in the world.
On any given day the hospital grounds buzz with workers, patients, and family members. The women wear hijab and many cover all but their eyes behind black chadors. Many avoid eye contact and refuse to smile. Perhaps this reflects the hardships of life in this dry, dusty, and painfully poor country, especially for its women.
Female genital cutting is virtually universal by the time a girl is about nine or 10 years old, sometimes younger. Women in Somaliland are usually married between age 15 to 25 to someone their father has selected for them. They can expect to have from five to 12 pregnancies. Sometimes things go terribly wrong with a pregnancy. Often these things -- pre-eclamsia, infection, hemorrhage - could be avoided, treated, or medically relieved, but a woman must have the written permission of her husband for a Caesarean section or an induced labor; for a hysterectomy her father's permission is required. In this deeply religious culture, "Inshallah" is often the rationale given for denying women the medical care they need, even as they beg for their lives. Babies die "Inshallah."
Women in Somaliland, by in large, are voiceless, disempowered, passive and exhausted. From an early age they learn obedience to a male figure. It is almost unbearable to listen to the laughter of joyful little girls, knowing that in a few short years their beautiful female voices will be silent, their eyes downcast, their personhood disappeared. Husbands will ignore them, continuing to demand their right to sexual relations every morning and every evening. As a wife, a woman may be beaten, burned, or worse for disobeying or for not meeting household demands in this land of ritual, tradition, and male supremacy. Fathers may chastise them. Male children may ignore them as they grow older. Hope and joy will fade; depression -- like hypertension, diabetes, or other chronic diseases long ignored - may become their silent killers. And all of this is violence against women -- quasi-invisible, completely accepted, mainly overlooked.
That matters. It matters that children are de-sexed, that women are nothing more than semen vessels whose lives can be lost with a simple "Inshallah," that men can have such destructive and complete control over another human being. It matters that America has yet to ratify the UN Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and that we do not yet have an Equal Rights Amendment to our Constitution.
Women's lives, and the quality of those lives, matter. They matter as women's rights and as human rights. It will take a lot more than a proclaimed day for the world to understand that, and sadly, a lot more than a few days to eliminate all the insidious forms of violence against women that constitute daily occurrences in countries like Somaliland.