International Domestic Violence Issues

Domestic violence can happen to anyone, takes many forms, and one in three women will experience some form of it in their lifetimes.

Here are a few forms of domestic violence that can be seen internationally – and that many of Sanctuary for Families’ clients have experienced.

Female Genital Mutilation

Female genital mutilation (FGM) includes procedures that intentionally alter or injure female genital organs for non-medical reasons.  FGM is a form of violence against women with severe physical and psychological consequences.  It is rooted in gender inequality and is practiced as a way to inhibit women’s full and equal enjoyment of their human rights.

Female genital mutilation procedures vary in severity, but it is recognized internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women.  It is nearly always practiced on minors and is therefore a violation of the right of children to not have their health, security and physical integrity compromised.  The procedures are painful and can cause bleeding, chronic pain, repeated infections, cysts, infertility, childbirth complications and newborn death.

Female genital mutilation is a cruel, inhuman and degrading procedure.  Girls are generally held down during the procedures and some have their legs bound together for several days or weeks following the procedure.  As of a result of the brutality of FGM, many victims suffer severe psychological consequences such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

Quick Facts on Female genital mutilation:  

  • An estimated 100 to 140 million girls and women worldwide are currently living with the consequences of FGM.
  • In Africa, about three million girls are at risk for FGM annually.
  • The procedure has no health benefits for girls and women.
  • Procedures can cause severe bleeding and problems urinating, and later, potential childbirth complications and newborn deaths.
  • FGM is mostly practiced on young girls between infancy and age 15.

Sex Trafficking

Each year an estimated 800,000 to 900,000 human beings are bought, sold, or forced across the world's borders [2003 U.S. State Department estimate].  Among them are hundreds of thousands of teenage girls, and others as young as 5, who fall victim to the sex trade.

Often an offender takes a woman or girl against her will and forces her to engage in prostitution, effectively stealing her freedom and her dignity.  Much occurs internationally, with victims being taken from places such as South and Southeast Asia, the former Soviet Union, Central and South America, and other less-developed areas to more developed places including Asia, the Middle East, Western Europe, and North America.

Sex trafficking is also prevalent in the United States.  A 2001 report by the University of Pennsylvania estimated that about 293,000 American youth are currently at risk of becoming victims of commercial sexual exploitation.   Most of these children are either runaways or have been abandoned by their families and live on the streets, however, the victims of sex trafficking are increasingly from what would be considered "good" families.  Experts say these children are lured or coerced by clever predators.  Predators find their victims at malls, ski slopes or beaches.  The FBI estimates that well over 100,000 children and young women are trafficked in America today. They range in age from 9 to 19, with the average age being 11. 

To learn more about the effects of sex trafficking, please click here.

Honor Killings

Across the globe, hundreds, if not thousands, of women are murdered by their families each year in the name of family "honor."  It is difficult to get precise numbers on the phenomenon of honor killing as the murders frequently go unreported, the perpetrators frequently go unpunished, and the concept of family honor justifies the act in the eyes of some societies.

Although honor killings are generally associated with countries located in the Middle East, reports submitted to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights show that honor killings have occurred in Bangladesh, Great Britain, Brazil, Ecuador, Egypt, India, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Pakistan, Morocco, Sweden, Turkey, and Uganda.  In countries not submitting reports to the UN, the practice was condoned under the rule of the fundamentalist Taliban government in Afghanistan.
Complicity by other women in the family and the community strengthens the concept of women as property and the perception that violence against family members is a family and not a judicial issue.

Tahira Shahid Khan, a professor specializing in women's issues at the Aga Khan University in Pakistan, wrote in Chained to Custom, a review of honor killings published in 1999:

Women are considered the property of the males in their family irrespective of their class, ethnic, or religious group. The owner of the property has the right to decide its fate. The concept of ownership has turned women into a commodity which can be exchanged, bought and sold.

Honor killings are perpetrated for a wide range of offenses. Marital infidelity, pre-marital sex, flirting, or even failing to serve a meal on time can all be perceived as impugning the family honor.  Amnesty International has reported one case in which a husband murdered his wife based on a dream that she had betrayed him. In Turkey, a young woman's throat was slit in the town square because a love ballad had been dedicated to her over the radio.

Even victims of rape are vulnerable. In a widely reported case in March of 1999, a 16-year-old mentally retarded girl who was raped in the Northwest Frontier province of Pakistan was turned over to her tribe's judicial council. Even though the crime was reported to the police and the perpetrator was arrested, the Pathan tribesmen decided that she had brought shame to her tribe and she was killed in front of a tribal gathering.

The teenage brothers of victims are frequently directed to commit the murder because, as minors, they would be subject to considerably lighter sentencing if there is legal action. Typically, they would serve only three months to a year. 

Other forms of Violence Against Women

Here are some forms of violence against women that are particularly common in certain areas of the world. While they are not unique to just that country or area, they can be seen at a particularly high rate there.

India: More than 5,000 brides die annually because their dowries are considered insufficient, according to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). Crimes of passion, which are treated extremely leniently in Latin America, are honor killings with a different name, some rights advocates say. "In countries where Islam is practiced, they're called honor killings, but dowry deaths and so-called crimes of passion have a similar dynamic in that the women are killed by male family members and the crimes are perceived as excusable or understandable," said Widney Brown, advocacy director for Human Rights Watch.  The practice, she said, "goes across cultures and across religions."3

Turkey: Violence and pregnancy - A study was conducted on violence committed against pregnant women in Turkey in 2005.  According to the study, one-third of pregnant women in Malatya, Turkey are exposed to some form of violence, indicating that violence is common.  Emotional violence was the most frequent form of violence in pregnancy, followed by sexual and physical violence.  Urban residence, smoking, unwanted pregnancy, unemployed and/or low educated husbands and low family income were the main risk factors for violence against pregnant women.

Some studies have reported that violence appears or escalates during pregnancy.  According to the 2005 study, there was a significant decrease in physical violence during pregnancy, whereas emotional and sexual violence increased.  In the 2005 study, 4% of the women interviewed experienced violence for the first time at pregnancy.  The reason behind escalating domestic violence during pregnancy is unclear.  Pregnancy is accepted as a respectful period and caring for pregnant women is a cultural value in Turkey.

Sudan, Congo and Rwanda: Conflict and rape – During conflict, children and women face the constant threat of rape, sexual exploitation, trafficking, and forced pregnancy, as well as the violence and instability that affect their entire community.  During the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, rape was specifically used as a weapon of war.  As Jody Williams, a Nobel Peace Prize winner stated: “Rape is a major tactic in the war in Darfur.  It is intended to destroy not only the women, but also their families and communities.” Post-conflict periods are also characterized by rapid increases in prostitution and a rise in domestic violence due to the chaos and poverty that results in communities that have been ravaged by war.

Iran: legislative gender discrimination – In Iran, there are many laws which discriminate against women.  Women do not have equal rights to divorce, child custody or equal pay for equal work.  Women’s rights activists are generally arrested in Iran under charges of “endangering national security" as "agents of Western powers”.  For example, Esha Momeni, an Iranian-American student at California State University/Northridge was arrested by the Iranian Ministry of Information on October 15, 2008 when she went to Iran to create a documentary about women's-rights activists.  To this day, she is trapped in Iran by officials who won't let her leave, along with many other activists who were arrested for being involved in grassroots social movements, such as the One Million Signature Campaign, whose goal was merely to change the Iranian laws that discriminate against women.

Peru: Intimate Partner Violence - A new study found that nearly 70 percent of women killed in Peru died at the hands of their husbands, partners or boyfriends at home or in a place that was frequented by the couple.  Amnesty International-Peru and the Flora Tristán Center for Peruvian Women reported that femicide takes the shape of domestic violence, and the media too often sensationalizes it as “crimes of passion,” reports Inter Press Service.  Headlines such as “Yungay Man Strangles Tart, Throttles Child, Breaks Granny’s Neck” and “Wife Stabbed 14 Times – She Asked for Divorce” are common in Peru’s newspapers.  The study used newspaper accounts of crimes to measure domestic violence homicides because the government does not monitor killings of women.

Mexico: Femicide - Mexico has received an excess of unwanted international attention for violence against women due to the ghastly events which occurred in Ciudad Juarez, a city on the Mexico-US border.  In the past decade, hundreds of women have been killed there and in surrounding areas, their bodies often recovered from remote desert graves.  Government officials initially suspected individual or group serial killers, though many now believe a large proportion of the deaths were the result of domestic violence.  There was a systemic failure by the Mexican prosecutor’s office to prevent and punish many of the crimes against women in Ciudad Juárez over the years. 

Despite continuing high rates of violence against women and impunity in Ciudad Juárez, the government continues to downplay the scale of the crimes committed against women suggesting that a "perception different from reality" has been created about the crimes by those seeking to highlight the crimes and impunity.  This statement was based on a review of crime statistics that only classify crimes involving sexual violence -- approximately 20% of the 379 murders documented – as domestic violence.  Many of the murders were classified as resulting from social violence, a concept which appears to necessarily exclude, without explanation, the gender of the victim as a factor in the murder.

Domestic violence is so common in Mexico that it is estimated that between 1999 and 2005 more than 6,000 women and girls were murdered.  That is an average of 1,000 women murdered every year.  The overwhelming majority of the deaths are the result of violence in the household.  It happens in cities and the countryside, and across every socio-economic divide.