Despite the gains women have made in education, health and even political power in the course of a generation, violence against women and girls worldwide “persists at alarmingly high levels,” according to a United Nations analysis that Secretary General Ban Ki-moon presented to the General Assembly on Monday.
About 35 percent of women worldwide — more than one in three — said they had experienced physical violence in their lifetime, the report finds. One in 10 girls under the age of 18 was forced to have sex, it says.
The subject is under sharp focus as delegates from around the world gather here starting on Monday to assess how well governments have done since they promised to ensure women’s equality at a landmark conference in Beijing 20 years ago — and what to do next.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, who attended the Beijing conference in 1995, is scheduled to speak on Tuesday.
Since the Beijing conference, there has been measurable, though mixed, progress on many fronts, according to the United Nations analysis.
As many girls as boys are now enrolled in primary school, a sharp advance since 1995. Maternal mortality rates have fallen by half. And women are more likely to be in the labor force, though the pay gap is closing so slowly that it will take another 75 years before women and men are paid equally for equal work.
The share of women serving in legislatures has nearly doubled, too, though women still account for only one in five legislators. All but 32 countries have adopted laws that guarantee gender equality in their constitutions.
But violence against women — including rape, murder and sexual harassment — remains stubbornly high in countries rich and poor, at war and at peace. The United Nations’ main health agency, the World Health Organization, found that 38 percent of women who are murdered are killed by their partners.
Little was even known 20 years ago about the extent of such violence, a measure of the lack of focus on the issue.
“At the time of the Beijing conference there was a desperate call for more information,” said Mary Ellsberg, director of the Global Women’s Institute at George Washington University. Now, she said: “We have data from most of the countries in the world. That, in and of itself, is a huge accomplishment. The issue is, it’s very hard to collect this data.”
Even as women’s groups continue to push for laws that criminalize violence — marital rape is still permitted in many countries — new types of attacks have emerged, some of them online, including rape threats on Twitter.
Where there are laws on the books — 125 countries criminalize domestic violence today, up from 89 in 2006, according to Equality Now, which tracks laws that affect women’s rights — they are not reliably enforced.
The economic impact is huge. One recent study found that domestic violence against women and children alone costs the global economy $4 trillion.
“Overall, as you look at the world, there have been no large victories in eradicating violence against women,” said Valerie M. Hudson, a professor of international affairs at Texas A & M University who has developed world maps that chart the status of women.
In some cases, the laws on the books are the problem, women’s rights advocates say. In some countries, like Nigeria, the law permits a man to beat his wife under certain circumstances. But even when laws are technically adequate, victims often do not feel comfortable going to law enforcement, or they are unable to pay the bribes required to file a police report.
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the executive director of the United Nations agency for gender equity and women’s empowerment — known as UN Women — said that for the laws to mean anything, governments around the world have to persuade their police officers, judges and medical personnel to take violence against women seriously.
“I am disappointed, I have to be honest,” she said about the stubborn hold of violence against women. “More than asking for more laws to be passed, I’m asking for implementation.”
Yasmeen Hassan, the executive director of Equality Now, said governments needed to be reminded that they committed to making their laws fair for women. Cultural differences cannot be an excuse, she said. “It’s always a cop-out for governments to not do what they signed up to do,” she said.
The new round of global development targets that governments around the world will have to agree to later this year, known as Sustainable Development Goals, includes a separate requirement for women’s equal rights, including how they protect their female citizens from violence.
The latest United Nations report draws attention to the rise of “extremism and conservatism,” and without naming any countries or groups, it argues that what they share is a “resistance to women’s human rights.” The assaults and abductions by the Islamic State have brought new urgency to the issue.
Dr. Hudson, the academic, said the persistence of violence in so many forms is in part because it can establish domination against women of all kinds, for a broad range of personal and political purposes. A husband can just as easily beat his wife if she is a high school dropout or a college graduate. An entire territory can be claimed if fighters rape the local women — or take them as sex slaves, as is the case of the Islamic State.
“I think violence against women is so darn useful,” she said. “That’s why it’ll be so hard to eradicate.”
Violence can start before birth. Sex-selective abortions have been reduced in some countries, as in South Korea, but are higher than ever in other places, like India, and are going up sharply in places like Armenia.
Harassment is commonplace. In the United States, 83 percent of girls aged 12 to 16 said they had experienced some form of harassment in public schools. In New Delhi, a 2010 study found that two out of three women said they were harassed more than twice in the last year alone.
Violence against women is often unreported. For instance, a study conducted in the 28 countries of the European Union found that only 14 percent of women reported their most serious episode of domestic violence to the police.
“Violence against women has epidemic proportions, and is present in every single country around the world,” said Lydia Alpizar, executive director of the Association for Women’s Rights in Development, a global feminist group. “Yet it is still not a real priority for most governments.”
At Monday’s gathering, member governments adopted a nonbinding declaration vowing to abide by the promises made at the 1995 Beijing conference, which included language on reproductive rights, and pledged to work for women’s equal rights by 2030. Women’s groups called it “bland” and said much more needed to be done.
Perhaps the biggest change in 20 years, say those who attended the Beijing conference, is that the subject is now front and center in public discussion.
“There is actually a great deal more attention being paid today to violence against women,” said Charlotte Bunch, a feminist scholar who attended the Beijing conference. “The truth is, it’s a complex issue that isn’t solved easily.”
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