Violence against girls and women should be added to the list of evils - guns, terrorism, discrimination and torture - that curtail freedom across the world, Amnesty International suggested yesterday.
Launching one of its most ambitious campaigns, the human rights group said one in three women in the world has been beaten or coerced into sex in her lifetime and that, in Britain, one in four women experiences violence at the hands of her male partner.
Three days before International Women's Day, the organisation, which is based in Britain, has drawn together all forms of abuse for the first time - from the British woman beaten by her partner to the Sierra Leonean child abducted by rebels to become a sex slave.
Speaking in London, Amnesty International's secretary general, Irene Khan, said: "Violence against women is a human rights atrocity. From the battlefield to the bedroom, women are at risk. Governments are failing to address the real 'terror' of our world that millions of women face every day.'' She said violence against women was a "cancer" eating away at the core of every society. But Amnesty's 122-page report,It's In Our Hands - stop violence against women, says domestic violence in Europe claims more lives and causes more ill-health than cigarettes or road accidents.
The report says 70 per cent of the world's female murder victims are killed by their partners and two million girls under 15 are introduced into the sex market every year. Amnesty says domestic violence, rape as a strategy of war, female genital mutilation, dowry killings, "honour crimes" and infanticide continue to exist on a huge scale, and in all cases governments and justice systems trivialise their importance and impact.
Ms Khan said Amnesty would begin its work among its own 1.5 million supporters. Footnotes in the report suggest the organisation has decided to canvass the views of its members with a view to adopting a policy on the circumstances in which it should consider abortion to be acceptable.
The report describes a wide range of sexual abuses such as the experience of a Zimbabwean lesbian whose family allegedly locked her in a room and brought an older man to her every day to "correct" her sexual orientation. "They did this to me every day until I was pregnant so I would be forced to marry him," said the woman.
Amnesty criticises a US policy, in force since 2001, which restricts aid to countries with family planning programmes and legalised abortion. In at least four countries - Ethiopia, Kenya, Zambia and Romania - the policy has reportedly led to healthcare cuts and has restricted efforts to inform people about HIV.
The International Committee of the Red Cross says hundreds of thousands of women were systematically raped during the 1994 Rwandan genocide and many contracted HIV. In many countries where rape is or has been used as a weapon of war - in Africa, Afghanistan or Bosnia-Herzegovina - girls who have been raped are shunned by their families and condemned to poverty because they are deemed unworthy of marriage.
When wars are over, violence continues; a US army study shows the incidence of "severe aggression" against spouses is three times as high in army families as in civilian ones.
In South Africa, which has high rates of HIV and where many girls' first experience of sex is by force, 54,000 cases of rape and attempted rape were reported in 2002. The scale of the problem becomes clearer when you consider that in a country like Britain - where talking about rape is less of a stigma than in most African cultures - it is estimated that only one in five cases is reported.
Amnesty is critical of aid workers - including United Nations workers who abuse their authority in refugee camps - and says the human rights movement itself, including Amnesty, has been "slow to come to the defence of women [because] it has taken a long time to overcome the false division between violations in the public and private sphere".
The report describes UN peace-keepers in Kosovo who frequent prostitutes, and criticises disarmament and demobilisation programmes for failing to address the damage suffered by girls and women.
Amnesty says women made great progress in the fight for equality and freedom from violence in the 1970s but that, since 1980, "cultural, religious and ethnic movements in many parts of the world have made organised efforts to reverse this progress and to reassert apparently traditional roles". On 11 March 2002, 15 girls in Mecca were burnt to death at their school after religious police prevented them from leaving a burning building because they were not wearing headscarves.
Despite recording a regression in sex equality, the human rights group praises several initiatives around the world that have put women at the centre of efforts to improve societies. Amnesty quotes an initiative in Sri Lanka in which a female sub-committee was created early last year to ensure gender issues were not ignored in the country's peace talks. In Cambodia and India women have created local mediation bodies that help settle domestic disputes. In Brazil, special "women's desks" have been set up in police stations.
The African Union adopted a treaty on the human rights of women last year and the international war crimes courts for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda have convicted perpetrators of rape and those who forced women into sexual slavery. Several countries, including Canada and the US, have granted asylum to women who had been sexually harassed or discriminated against.
Celebrities have also joined the battle by speaking out. Charlize Theron, who won the best actress Oscar last Sunday for her role in Monster, grew up in rural South Africa watching her alcoholic father beat her mother. In 1991 Charlize's mother, Gerda, killed her father, Charles, with a shotgun. A court found that Mrs Theron had acted in self-defence. In 2001, when Theron's Hollywood career was beginning to take off, she told her story in a three-minute television clip which she offered to South African television for broadcast, and in which she urged women to come forward and report crimes of assault and rape.
Violence against women
United States A woman is raped every 90 seconds; four women die each day as a result of violence in the family
Chile: Only 3 per cent of raped women report the attack
Mexico: Around Juarez at least 370 women have been murdered in the past 10 years
Russia: 14,000 domestic violence deaths per year
Britain: Two women are killed a week in family violence; a call to emergency services every minute. 14,000 recorded rapes in 2003 (up 8 per cent)
Egypt: 97 per cent of married women aged 15 to 49 had female genital mutilation
India: Approximately 15,000 dowry deaths a year
Pakistan: At least a thousand women a year die in "honour" killings
China: Ratio of newborn girls to boys 100:119; biological norm is 100:103
Sierra Leone: More than half of all women suffered sexual violence during the 1999 conflict
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