A day to be thankful for

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

Last week, I wrote about silly ways to celebrate days on the November calendar. This week, I write about a serious day to acknowledge: November 25. It is International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. As with Veterans Day on the 11th, this day is worthy of honoring.

Elimination of Violence against Women Day is not well-known. For example, it is not marked on my calendar, although Guy Fawkes Day, 445 years old, is. In 1570, Fawkes and companions, tired of being persecuted for being Catholics, plotted against the English king, James I, who was against religious tolerance. Fawkes was caught before he could carry out the plot to take the king’s life and sent to hang. The British Empire eventually quit persecuting Catholics, but it took several hundred years.

The persecution of women has been going on for millennia, and there’s no end in sight.

The worldwide persecution of women continues unabated. It’s been going on through all the centuries of recorded history, not just the last several hundred years — and no doubt before the Bronze Age and the first written chronicles. It seems it will never end. But there are movements against it. However slowly change comes – and treating women well seems to be difficult to grasp – there is hope.

On Nov. 25, 1960, three young sisters fighting, like guy Fawkes, against a cruel regime (in this case the Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo), were clubbed to death by Trujillo’s order (like Fawkes being sent to the hangman). Twenty years later, in 1981, activists for the safety of women marked that date to raise awareness of violence against women. And nearly 40 years later, in December of 1999, the United Nations made it the official day marked around the globe to fight against the many ways females are purposefully hurt. The list is sickening:

  • Acid throwing
  • Breast ironing
  • Bride burning
  • Dating abuse
  • Date rape, prison rape, college rape, marital rape, genocidal rape, military rape
  • Domestic violence
  • Dowry death
  • Female genital mutilation
  • Female infanticide
  • Femicide
  • Forced abortion, marriage, pregnancy, prostitution
  • Honor killing
  • Human trafficking
  • Murder of pregnant women
  • Sati (widows throwing themselves on the funeral pyre)
  • Sexual slavery
  • Sexual violence
  • Violence against prostitutes

Across the world’s populations, 35 percent of women and girls suffer physical and or sexual attack in their lifetime.

And America is no safe haven. In the U.S., a female is assaulted or beaten every nine seconds.

The too-common acceptance of abuse of women dumbfounds me even as I see hints of it everywhere in little ways — men who talk over women, men who tell sexual innuendo jokes around women, men who say they wouldn’t vote for a woman, men who by example teach their sons that women are less than men. These behaviors don’t necessarily lead to physical abuse but are dismissive and demeaning to the other half of the race that is necessary to carry on the species.

A poet who writes about the abuse of women is 27-year-old Warsan Shire. She was born in Kenya to Somali parents and emigrated to England at age 1 to grow up and become the first Young Poet Laureate of London. In one of her poems about mothers caught in Somalia’s conflicts, she wrote “To my daughter I will say / ‘when the men come, set yourself on fire.’ ”

 That’s quite the chilling line, isn’t it?

And to describe the terror of women across the world, she wrote this poem:

     later that night/ i held an atlas in my lap/ ran my fingers across the whole world/ and whispered/  where does it hurt?

    it answered/ everywhere/ everywhere/ everywhere

In 1995, 50,000 women and men from 189 governments came together in Beijing for the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women. They adopted a platform of strategies to end violence against women, empower women and achieve gender equality. This is where Hillary Clinton, then First Lady, said in a speech the words “women’s rights are human rights.”

Still today, one in four women in the U.S. will become a victim of grave physical violence by an intimate partner in her lifetime. Beyond the hurt and terror of this is the financial cost – the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figure the bill for domestic violence is about $9 billion a year in this country alone. It also says that investing early in education and intervention to avoid the inclination toward bad behavior is 60 times more cost effective than putting battered women back together.

This year, the day before Thanksgiving is a good time to look up the Platform for Action written at the Fourth World Conference on Women. It includes the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief. These are basics we take for granted in this country but which are not part of all American women’s lives. It includes the idea that women’s access to power and decision making is fundamental to women’s equality . . . as well as to achieving peace in the world.

Now, that’s something to think about in these not so peaceful days.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving.

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