International agencies annually report statistics highlighting the continued struggle of women around the world. For example, the International Center for Research on Women reports 51 million girls under the age of 18 are married, while an additional 10 million are married underage — making that one girl every three seconds. Another ICWR publication surveyed six countries: Brazil, Chile, Croatia, India, Mexico, Rwanda. The results indicate that between 20-40% of men admitted to having perpetrated violence against a female partner. In these same countries, approximately 30-40% of women reported that they have been physically abused by an intimate male partner. UNICEF reports that 125 million girls and women throughout Africa and the Middle East have been victims of female genital mutilation and/or cutting. The World Health Organization has indicated that 150 million girls under the age of 18 have been forced into sexual intercourse. Additionally, 79% of the worldwide problem of human trafficking is focused on sex trafficking, of which women and young girls are the primary victims.
These statistics provide the world with the data, the factual proof that violence against women is a grave problem. What more is needed? If human beings were purely rational, perhaps this would be enough. However, the reality is that to get the world to pay attention, we need a news hook — a riveting story of a survivor who faced unimaginable horrors and triumphed — or a shock, something jarring that pulls at our innermost heartstrings.
Take, for instance, the case of Anene Booysen, a 17-year-old girl who was brutally raped and murdered. She was dumped by a construction site, her body bloodied with her internal organs spilling out of her body. The lack of legal justice in the ensuing case brought an onslaught of media coverage and even prompted remarks from South African president Jacob Zuma.
There is also the famous story of Malala Yousafzi, the then 15-year-old girl who the Taliban nearly fatally shot in the head and neck for her decision to pursue an education. Once her story reached the news, her courage and cause garnered international acclaim, including a UN petition held in her name by Gordon Brown.
Finally, there is the tale of Generose Namburho, a Congolese mother whose husband was murdered by Hutu militants, while she was punished for screaming by having her leg cut off, chopped to pieces, and cooked in a fire to be force fed to her children. Her story appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show and prompted the founding of A Thousand Sisters, an advocacy organization aimed at ending violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
One striking commonality in these stories is that each woman’s story had an enormous ripple effect. Their experiences turned heads, both locally and internationally. At the very least, these tales initiated a worldwide dialogue — for a certain time. However, in the age of minute-by-minute news coverage, the latest headlines drown out yesterday’s news, and the international fervor these brave women generate also subsides until the next big story.
And yet, the statistics are available, indicating that these kinds of stories abound. Women are survivors each and every day. There are 120 million women and girls who have a story to tell about their most private body parts being mutilated. There are still an abundance of women in Brazil, Chile, Croatia, India, and Rwanda who have lived through physical abuse from someone they had grown to trust and grow intimate with. These women are very real, and their stories exist whether we hear about them or not. For them, these statistics are their reality. For at least one young girl, 10 million is not just a number because she might very well be the 10,999th underage girl who was unwillingly forced into marriage.
Violence against women is not just a statistic. Accordingly, while some brave and terrifying stories surface in the media and evoke international communities and organizations into action, the world’s response cannot be intermittent. The fight for women’s rights should not be just another item on a national leader’s agenda because the numbers mean something. Each number means one more human life, one more mother, one more sister, one more daughter, one more brilliant, irreplaceable asset to society being violated simply because she was born a woman.