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Changing cultures to value women

In February, Mexico's president, Felipe Calderón, signed a law, passed by the country's Senate in December, that requires local and federal authorities to curb violence against women, a problem that has reached critical proportions.

In February, Mexico's president, Felipe Calderón, signed a law, passed by the country's Senate in December, that requires local and federal authorities to curb violence against women, a problem that has reached critical proportions.

Passage of the law is a good step. Like many countries (including the United States), Mexico needs to acknowledge and confront violence against women. But although the law is a critical step toward protecting women's lives, it won't have a significant impact unless it is systematically enforced and complemented by a wide range of local and community actions - and by a huge effort to change a culture in which women are not valued. In this, Mexico's situation reflects the state of affairs in countries around the world.

Domestic violence is part of the wider issue of gender violence, which most of the time is violence against women. According to the Mexican Health Ministry, about one in three women suffers from domestic violence. About 6,000 women a year die from domestic violence (as compared with the U.S. figure of 1,000 women a year, which is still an awful number). And this culture of violence branches out in horrible directions: More than 400 women and girls have been killed in Ciudad Juárez and Chihuahua in the last 14 years. Rape and beating routinely precede the murder of women. In addition, thousands of women have become desaparecidas, or missing.

This is not an evil that affects only individual women. It's actually something that is holding Mexico, and many other countries, back. As Noeleen Heyzer, executive director of the United Nations Development Fund for Women, puts it: "Violence against women devastates people's lives, fragments communities, and prevents countries from developing."

It's woven so deeply into Mexican culture that most women don't report it, or, if they do, do not carry it to the courts. In Mexico, and throughout the world, a range of cultural, economic and social factors - including shame and fear of retaliation from their partners, or their partner's friends or family - contribute to women's reluctance to report or denounce those acts.

UNICEF Mexico reports that four in 10 women report acts of spousal violence carried out against them, but only one in three commence legal proceedings. Women who do seek to prosecute or denounce domestic violence face serious obstacles. As in many other countries, violence is considered to be a "private matter," part of the "normal" conduct of relationships, a fact reflected in many Mexican telenovelas or soap operas that show scenes of men slapping, striking or killing women.

The real nub here is that many men in Mexico consider themselves superior to women, who are rightly subject to their whims. South American machismo more or less depends on such ideas - but machismo of some sort exists almost everywhere in the world, with gender chauvinism deeply written into the culture of many countries. In India, for example, law-enforcement officials - despite growing efforts since the 1980s to bolster India's laws - often ignore or minimize women's reports of violence. If women succeed in getting a case to the courts, lawyers (even women's lawyers) have been known to conspire with men being accused to subvert cases.

It's probably unnecessary to mention the wide range of physical problems - organ damage, gynecological problems, miscarriage, and exacerbation of chronic illness - that can result from domestic violence, damage so terrible that suicide is not uncommon in the most extreme cases. Although some may sneer at the idea, it is crucial to realize that the notion of "violence against women" must include the psychological: name-calling, withholding money, forbidding the woman to work or see her family, ridiculing her or insulting her in front of family or friends. Studies make it clear that, in many cases, psychological violence can be as devastating, or even more devastating, than physical violence.

Because of these effects, and the extent of the problem, many experts and organizations - including the Pan American Health Organization and the Inter-American Commission of Women of the Organization of American States - are calling for domestic violence to be treated as a public-health issue. As Carmen Barroso, director of the Western Hemisphere region for the Planned Parenthood Federation, recently said: "Health systems should be the main door for detection, treatment and support for victims of violence against women."

Several Latin American countries have made progress toward equality between the genders. But a profound change - forbiddingly profound - needs to take place regarding domestic violence. This includes the creation of a nonviolent culture. That will require education, starting at the lower grades, an education aimed at sensitizing both men and women about their rights and responsibilities, and of the dramatic consequences of not assuming them.

This cultural change must extend to the law - namely, to implementing the antiviolence laws and policies that exist in many countries. Biggest of all, the laws need to be enforced. Women need to know that, if they complain, they will have recourse and protection. Judges will not be reluctant to apply the laws. In this regard, programs are being implemented in Costa Rica to provide sensitivity training for judicial personnel from Supreme Court justices to social and judicial workers.

Domestic violence is obviously not limited to Latin American countries. In China, according to a national survey, it visits one-third of the country's 270 million households. A survey by the China Law Institute in Gansu, Hunan and Zhejiang provinces found that one-third of surveyed families had witnessed family violence, and that 85 percent of victims were women. Because not only men but also many women consider violence as a normal part of family life, only 5 percent among those surveyed said that their marriage was unhappy.

There has been some recent progress. Some roadside and subway advertisements in China now decry the harm this scourge does to society. (You can see similar billboards in Mexico.) Special refuges and community support groups for victims are becoming more numerous. The All-China Women's Federation has been playing a significant role in bringing the issue into legislation and policy. A range of organizations have allied in a project called "Domestic Violence in China: Research, Intervention and Prevention."

In Russia, estimates put the annual domestic-violence death toll at more than 14,000 women. Natalya Abubikirova, executive director of the Russian Association of Crisis Centers, drew a dramatic parallel: "The number of women dying every year at the hands of their husbands and partners in the Russian Federation is roughly equal to the total number of Soviet soldiers killed in the 10-year war in Afghanistan." There are shelters, hotlines and crisis centers in a number of cities, but nothing close to an adequate, systematic approach. Truly stringent laws have yet to be enacted and enforced.

Domestic violence is also rife in most African countries - for example, Zimbabwe, where, according to a United Nations report, it accounts for more than six in 10 murder cases in court. In surveys, 42 percent of women in Kenya and 41 percent in Uganda reported having been beaten by their partners. Although some countries such as South Africa have passed legislation, the big test - full implementation, with teeth - has not been passed.

In case one thinks the United States is somehow immune, think again. According to the FBI, one out of every four women is a victim of domestic violence at least once in her life. The Office of the U.S. Surgeon General says that domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women between 15 and 44 - more than car accidents, muggings and rapes combined. As mentioned, about three women die each day from some form of domestic violence. And our culture, which is thought to be based on equality, still has not fully acknowledged the seriousness of the problem. In Senate Judiciary hearings that led to the 1990 Violence Against Women Act, it was famously reported that there are three times as many animal shelters as there are shelters for battered women and their children. While that ratio has changed, the animals still have more shelters.

Mexico's new law is its first-ever federal measure to combat domestic violence and other abuses against women, although similar measures were already on the books in many cities and states. For Mexico, and for women's rights, it is a crucial step forward. The question now, in Mexico and throughout the world, is whether the will exists to implement the law. That will be a measure of the Mexican government's ability to end this tragic epidemic.