November 21st, 2012
03:29 PM ET

Time for men to challenge status quo treatment of women

By Desmond Tutu, The Elders

Editor’s note: Archbishop Desmond Tutu is Chair of The Elders. In 2011 The Elders founded Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage. This article was also published by the Skoll World Forum here. The views expressed are the author’s own.

On November 25, we mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. It is deeply saddening, though perhaps not shocking, to learn that around 70 percent of all women experience physical or sexual abuse during their lifetime. Despite the progress we have made, this world remains a cruel and arbitrary one for too many women and girls.

Do not be fooled, however: this is not some so-called “women’s issue.” After all, we know that more often than not, the violence suffered by women is inflicted by the men they share their lives with – their fathers, husbands, intimate partners. If the majority of women in this world have suffered at the hands of their men, how many millions of men must have hurt and abused women? How many millions of men have stood by and let it happen?

If men overwhelmingly brutalize women, then men are overwhelmingly brutal.

This is something I cannot accept. This is why I call on men and boys everywhere to take a stand against the mistreatment of girls and women. It is by standing up for the rights of girls and women that we truly measure up as men.

An unspoken kind of violence

I am an Elder now, and have witnessed many forms of brutality. There is the direct, physical violence often committed in anger or in war. But there are other forms of violence, too – more complex, more insidious, more unspoken – that we must not overlook.

In Ethiopia last year, my fellow Elders and I met a woman called Himanot who was forced to get married when she was 13 years-old. She was not physically forced or dragged to her wedding in chains – in fact, she wanted to run away. But her mother told her that she would kill herself if Himanot ran away. So what choice did the child have?

Inflicting this kind of emotional pressure is a form of violence against women. Taking away a girl’s education, a girl’s right to develop in her own time, to fulfill her potential: yes, this is violence. Yet, I do not judge Himanot’s mother too harshly. Most parents who marry off their daughters young have their best interests at heart – not many of them would willingly have their child face the shame and stigma of defying “tradition”.

So if this is violence, who is the perpetrator? If not the family, is it the community? Where does the responsibility end? The statistics tell us that 70 percent of women suffer violence at some point in their lives. But I suspect this figure would be higher if we included all the emotional, structural violence that for many girls and women forms the warp and weft of everyday life.

When it comes to violence against women, there are few practices as harmful, or as widespread, as early marriage. It is not just the intense emotional and social pressure that the young bride is put under. Fundamentally, it violates a girl’s right to determine her own future – how can a child give her “consent” to marry when she is just 10 or 12 years-old?

In such an unequal union, we know that girls are far more vulnerable to physical violence, especially when they are married to older men. It is hard to insist on practicing safe sex, leaving them more likely to contract HIV or become pregnant before they are ready. And early childbearing itself can be devastating to a girl’s body – across the entire developing world, childbirth is the number one cause of death for girls aged 15-19.

And despite all this, the practice is defended in the name of “tradition.” This is why my fellow Elder Ela Bhatt says, “Child marriage is violence that is happening with the consent of society.”

Of course, not all of society consents. There are a few courageous voices, growing louder and stronger every day, who are challenging the status quo. I have been privileged to meet some of those who are showing their true mettle, defying tradition to protect the rights of girls and women in their communities.

The state of Bihar has one of the highest rates of child marriage in India – 69 percent of girls are married before the age of 18. It is actually illegal in India to marry before the age of 18, for girls, or 21, for boys. But for most young people there, the weight of family and community tradition overrides this relatively recent law.

When I travelled to Bihar with my fellow Elders earlier this year, a boy called Premnath told me how his father is pressuring him to find a wife who can help with the housework after his mother passed away last year. But Prem – just 18 years-old – is resisting. He has pledged to delay marriage, and proudly showed us a book of similar pledges from other young people and their families.

Together with his peers in the “Jagriti” movement, both girls and boys, he is now mobilizing young people all over Bihar to make the same commitment. They already had more than 21,000 signatures when we visited last year – a staggering achievement. It seems, in fact, that he and his peers are defying their own Elders! This takes some guts, and I have to salute them for it.

I want to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women by recognizing the work of young men like Premnath. It is one thing to stop an individual act of violence, or perhaps a violent individual. But to take on a whole community, a whole tradition, and try to challenge something that has been harming girls for generations –that is courage.

Men have a lot to answer for, I cannot deny it. We have built institutions that oppress and harm women, and we justify our practices as “the way things are” or “the way things have always been”.

Yet, as I always say, I am a prisoner of hope. I do believe that we men can help put a stop to these traditions. We can refuse to participate in them, and we can refuse to condone them. We can go further, and campaign against them.

It is not an easy task. But if an 18-year-old boy in a patriarchal, traditional community like Prem’s can do it, I have faith that others can do it, too.

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Topics: Women

soundoff (16 Responses)
  1. james

    A good article. Sometimes I feel a sense of shame because I am a man. I can't understand it.....all this violence. How ignorant we are. And maybe no wonder we are in such global conflict, Our world leaders are predominantly male.

    November 21, 2012 at 4:44 pm | Reply
  2. Jennifer

    I thought this was a good article because it gives good examples about how men are allowed to treat the girls and women, but also that there are men, well boys, willing to stand up and defy a tradition that I am sure they are taught from birth. That takes guts and courage from the younger generation.

    November 21, 2012 at 11:26 pm | Reply
  3. Terry Washington

    As long as men continue to think of gender-based violence as a " women's issue"(as though women were some kind of far off alien life form), thi s matter will continue( full disclosure: I am or was one of those men)


    November 22, 2012 at 3:36 am | Reply
  4. cognitionaman

    Reblogged this on cognitionaman.

    November 23, 2012 at 6:23 am | Reply
  5. fernace

    The world won't reach its full potential until men realize the viability of womens humanity & include us as partners in our quest to improve our lots in life! It's like putting snow tires on only 1 side of your car, it's still gonna spin out! Religion has a lot to do w/the 2nd class status women are relegated to, in much of the world! We witnessed it right here, in our very modern USA, during the election! The GOT-Party "evangelicals" were all over the redistribution of power of womens bodies & health issues, from the individual woman, herself, to a bunch of narrow minded, scripture spouting politicians! In this country we can at least speak up for ourselves, which we did w/our votes, but way too many women worldwide are not so fortunate! I agree w/Tutu's views on the subject, but what excactly are he & his elders doing to rectify the situation? Education, discussion, organization!? Educating people, women, men & children, is crucial to helping them gain a different prespective than their traditions dictate!!

    November 24, 2012 at 1:43 pm | Reply
  6. Theguiltymale

    "Time for men to challenge status quo treatment of women"

    Men have challenging this since day one so speak for yourself Desmond Tutu. We need to recognize the status quo treatment of both women AND men, boys and girls, not just one or the other. I'm tired of this simplified biased outlook on things coming from the UN.

    November 25, 2012 at 6:00 pm | Reply
  7. SuZieCoyote

    I have had a version of his thought many times: "If men overwhelmingly brutalize women, then men are overwhelmingly brutal. It isn't just men who are brutal. The issue is slavery and all societies practice it overtly or covertly. In many situations, marriage, is simply legalized slavery. Humans will enslave anyone weaker than themselves and slavery requires abuse and violence to keep the slave docile. "Tradition and religion" are used to create emotional, spiritual, and societal slavery. Devout women routinely enslaves themselves; all that would be needed to stop much of the violence would be for women to wholesale reject the male religions. Religion is used so that to the greatest extent possible, the brutality can be emotional and societal, rather than physical. After all, well and regularly beaten slaves don't perform as well. Women (bred to be) smaller and less powerful suffer the bulk of the abuse, but boys and weaker (physically, economically, socially) males are abused as well. Everyone wants a personal servant and those who are powerful get them one way or another.

    January 15, 2013 at 11:24 am | Reply

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