Last night’s presentation by Joan Chittister provided a painful but important “connecting of the dots.” As the featured speaker at a symposium called “Stop Violence Against Women,” Chittister’s dry wit elicited laughter at points but her stark testimony just as often produced “OHHs” of dismay from the packed crowd of several hundred, nearly all women. I was previously aware of the issues she discussed, but hearing them presented all together under a single theme, especially in the wake of the Stuebenville rape case that so sharply illustrated rape culture in the “civilized” United States, was at least sobering and even frightening.
As co-chair of The Global Peace Initiative of Women, a partner organization of the UN, Chittister has traveled the world, listening to women in cities, deserts, mountains and refugee camps, many of which also are war zones. In Congo, more than 400,000 women and girls have suffered not only the brutality of rape by marauding soldiers, but are now homeless, cast out by their families due to the shame that rape brings to the family. Such numbers are hard to grasp, but the account of a particular woman, who offered herself to soldiers who were beating, torturing and stabbing her husband, and then afterward thrown out by her husband, along with their daughters who also were gang raped, breaks your heart. In Mexico, impoverished women in desperate circumstances offer themselves to men in exchange for a few pesos, while in Morocco, rapists can avoid prosecution and prison by marrying their victims, a path forced upon many young women to preserve family honor. In many countries, women do the majority of agricultural work but laws that forbid them from inheriting property impede their economic advancement. Such gender bias is an overlooked factor in malnourishment. Women and girls carry heavy loads of water long distances every single day in areas where there are no pipes to transport it to villages. Other harsh statistics on women’s status include:
- Young girls and women comprise 80% of the estimated 800,000 people trafficked annually, most for sexual exploitation.
- More than 100 million girls and women around the world have experienced female genital mutilation, including in the United States.
- Almost two-thirds of the world’s illiterate adults are women. More than 60 million girls worldwide are married before the age of 18.
- In the United States, one-third of women murdered each year are killed by intimate partners.
Chittister emphasized the attitudes that underlie these realities: Women are less than human. Women are uncontrollably sexual. Women ask for it. Women’s purpose is to serve men’s needs. The public arena is men’s domain; women are caretakers. God wants it that way. As I have written here before, such views disturbingly echo the mindset of the 15th and 16th century European witch trials, which are a cautionary tale for the 21st century. I witness some of these attitudes first-hand in my own village, where the lone woman on the seven-person council is openly disrespected or subtly undermined on a regular basis, though her positive contributions to the village are obvious to any observer.
Lest those of us present at last night’s talk be tempted to rationalize away the horrors, in closing Chittister called for action: “Privileged women have the responsibility to change things for other women. Go ahead and soar to the stars, but do not fail to take other women with you. Do not fail to listen to their needs. Do not fail to understand that their needs are your needs.”