THE BLOG
09/12/2014 06:22 pm ET Updated Nov 12, 2014

The Global Context Surrounding Violence Against Women

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Everyone that's wired into today's social pulse is well aware of the travesty of Ray Rice sucker-punching his now-wife in the face and subsequently knocking her out. Amazingly and thankfully, society has decided not to change the subject regarding this horrific and violent display of domestic abuse. As a result, America is now engaging in a national conversation regarding domestic violence in our society, in unprecedented fashion. In a recent interview on National Public Radio, Kim Gandy, CEO of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, noted that this has been the most prolonged national discussion on domestic violence that she has seen in her entire career. That is quite a statement coming from a woman of her stature. Ray Rice's public abuse of his now-wife has turned into a pathbreaking moment in the battle to protect women in the United States and around the world from domestic violence and abuse.

This conversation has opened as many wounds as it has hearts, with countless brave women taking to Twitter with the #WhyIStayed and #WhyILeft hashtags to publicly share their stories. In doing so, they have brought much-needed context, depth, and nuance to this important discussion.

And yet there remains a deeper dialogue that must happen concurrently. And that dialogue is nothing less than a comprehensive global inquiry into the ways in which women and girls are both treated and mistreated around the world - an inquiry whose honesty must be as brutal as the abuse that has preceded it.

Domestic violence does not exist in a vacuum. In order to effectively build a world where women everywhere are fully empowered to achieve lives of dignity and meaning (at the very least, a basic goal to which all societies and individuals ought to aspire), people need to critically examine the broader societal and cultural contexts that have permitted domestic violence, among many other anti-female atrocities, to proliferate throughout the world.

Domestic violence must be seen through the lens of a broader behavior pattern of global society in general, and of men in particular. That behavior all too often is demonstrated through the systematic subjugation and degradation of women and girls in physically demeaning, humiliating, and frequently ultra-violent ways.

This isn't exactly breaking news, especially if you're a woman. According to recent studies, a full 1 in 5 women in the United States have reported being sexually assaulted. Due to under-reporting and shame related to sexual assault, the actual number could be much higher. That women are sexually assaulted at this scale is a gross miscarriage of justice, and it is completely unacceptable for a society that prides itself on personal freedom to allow these atrocities to occur with such brazen ubiquity (though it is of course unacceptable for any and all societies).

That said, there is a correlation between women earning $0.77 for every $1 a man makes in the United States, and the fact that 60 million girls are out of school around the world. There is a correlation between women suffering from domestic abuse and violence in America at a rate of 1.3 million women per year, and the fact that over 500 million women in the world are illiterate - one in seven women on the planet. There is a correlation between 1 in 3 girls being forced into a child marriage before they turn 18, and the fact that 150 million women around the world suffer the unimaginable pain and loss of female genital mutilation, where her clitoris and labia are gruesomely removed without anesthesia.

This correlation has to do with the fact that in any society you look at, Western, Middle Eastern, or anywhere else on Earth, women have been treated as inferior to men - treatment with significant historical precedent, and treatment that continues to this day. Seen in a vacuum, the problems facing women are nevertheless still atrocious. Rape, on its own, is an atrocity. As is domestic abuse, or global poverty, or insufficient funding to combat cervical cancer, or wage discrimination, or anything else that results in great harm to women around the world. And the conversation society is having about domestic violence is important and much needed. It ought to continue.

But when you critically examine the entire scope of the problem - when you see that the disempowerment of women around the world affects not one in five women, or one in three girls, but every single woman on the planet - and therefore every human being on the planet - it becomes clear that the problem of women's disempowerment must be combated with a global response of an intensity that the world hasn't seen before.

Women are subject to extreme violence all over the world, lack of physical and social autonomy, discrimination, health issues from maternal care to fistulas to breast cancer, poverty, infanticide, lack of access to education, child marriage, and more. It is apparent that something akin to all-out war has been launched against women, a war that has sought to minimize, subjugate, and disempower women at every conceivable level.

At times, this subjugation can be subtle, for example in the proliferation of gender stereotypes in TV and cinema. But all too often, the subjugation is as unconcealed as it is deliberate. It manifests as a cold-hearted university president unwilling to claim responsibility to his university's inaction when a female student is raped. It manifests as a football player sucker-punching his wife and knocking her out. It manifests as gang rapes in rural India when women are seeking to relieve themselves at night in a village without bathrooms. It manifests as rampant sexual violence all over the world, including in the United States. It manifests as girls being dissuaded from pursing math, and science, and engineering in favor of playing with Barbies and Kens. And it manifests as a world where women are frequently forced into sex slavery, with 79 percent of victims of human trafficking as women and girls.

Women's issues matter because women matter, and the conversation needs to embrace a broader evaluation of how women are treated and mistreated everywhere. A man's decision that it is somehow okay to beat his wife, as Ray Rice did, does not exist in an isolated world outside of external influence. On the contrary, his horrid action is part and parcel of a broader cultural narrative that brazenly plays into gender stereotypes and accepts unreasonable levels of gender-based inequality at every level of society, whether economic, social, legal, or political. When a man in the Sonagachi Red Light District of Kolkata has no qualms about beating his sex slave while satisfying his prurient urges, it is clear that the problem stems not only from the coldness of this one man's heart, but also the social and cultural contexts that taught him that somehow, in some way, it was okay to treat women this way.

The world needs to embrace a global conversation about how women have been disempowered in most of the areas central to meaningful human experience. It needs a global conversation about how the empowerment of women is the central social challenge facing humanity today. And above all, the world needs you to join this conversation, and to not change the subject until everyone is on the same page. I, for one, am not going to change the subject. I'm talking about women's empowerment until the notion of an empowered woman becomes redundant -- because woman and empowered ought to one day be synonymous. And I hope you will join me in this campaign.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-656-HOPE for the National Sexual Assault Hotline.