Amy: Welcome to Breaking Down Patriarchy! I’m Amy McPhie Allebest. Today’s topic may be difficult for some listeners - we will be talking about violence against women, including all kinds of physical and sexual violence. The essential text we are discussing is the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, given at the United Nations in 1993, and we are including it in this history-based project on systemic patriarchy because throughout history, violence against women and particularly domestic abuse was seen as a private matter, sometimes in some places, even endorsed by the state. But even when not promoted, patriarchal institutions have condoned or disregarded violence against women, looking the other way and failing to protect victims and survivors, and instead protecting the perpetrators of that violence. Even the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, or CEDAW, in 1979 (and listeners should look that up if you haven’t heard of it), neglected to address violence against women. So in 1993, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted this resolution, the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, and we’ll be sharing passages from it today. It’s an incredibly important declaration, and in addition we will be sharing important, difficult stories that require a lot of strength. My reading partners and I went over this content in a very detailed way beforehand so that they could choose what they wanted to talk about, and I’m really honored and grateful for this amazing mother-daughter team, Elena and Abigail Gonzalez, who are with me today to discuss this issue!
Hi, Elena and Abigail!
Elena/Abby: Hi, Amy!
Amy: Our family met Elena and Abigail in California in 2006, and we have been dear friends ever since. Occasionally in my life I have had a feeling, right when I met someone, that I knew them already, which in my religious tradition we explain with the belief that all human beings lived together as siblings in one family before we were born. Elena, I had that feeling really strongly when I met you, like “oh, I know you,” like I remembered you. That’s only happened a handful of times in my life, and I’m so grateful that we are friends. And Abigail, we have known and loved you since you were little, and I’m so grateful that you agreed to be here and have this important discussion today!
Amy: So I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about yourselves and tell your story. Elena, why don’t you go first.
My name is Elena Gonzalez. I was born in Mexico, and I grew up with seven siblings, three sisters and three brothers. It was a family that was really dysfunctional. Unfortunately, ever since I can remember, I have suffered abuse….[pause] of every type. My mom and dad were completely oblivious to everything going on… my siblings and I were pretty much on our own. My parents eventually separated, and I remained alone with two older brothers, so at that point I was the youngest. As time passed the abuses continued… from cousins, my brother - my own brother - [pause]... step-fathers, when my mom brought us with her to their houses.
As I grew up I never went to school. I wanted to go to school, so finally I started when I was ten years old, and I attended until I finished my first year of high school in Mexico. Then I came to the United States. Like so many people I immigrated to the United States without any documents. It was really difficult and I arrived here with my mom and one brother and one sister. Once I arrived here they didn’t put me in school; instead they took me to work, and I have been working ever since.
After awhile I met the man who is the father of my three children. (pause) Unfortunately it was an experience that went on for 15 years and was really really difficult. At the beginning obviously he was really caring, really convincing. But after a short time he became violent. He said he would change, but…. (pause) I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know where to go. I couldn’t go back home because I was afraid they would abuse me there too… so I didn’t have any other path. So I stayed with him.
I had a son, and he was born at 7 months. The doctors didn’t know why, but I knew why - it was because of the abuse… the abuse I suffered every single day. Thank God my son is ok - he’s 22 years old now.
I had my daughter - just like my first pregnancy I had a lot of problems when she was in utero because of that same abuse. Thanks to the care of my doctors, we were both ok, and she was born safely and now she’s 17.
When I was pregnant with my third child - I found out I was pregnant when I was two months along - and that was when I decided to leave the relationship because it would be better for me psychologically. I say “better” because he had always told me I was good for nothing, that I would never be able to get along without him, that I didn’t do anything right - my cooking, my cleaning, anything I said - it was all bad. So my self-esteem was literally on the floor. But I kept working, I kept the house running… and sometimes when he said those things I would think, “How is it that I’m good for nothing, if I pay the rent, I pay the bills, I buy food, I take my children everywhere they need to go, how am I good for nothing?” But I didn’t know how to leave. BUT, then I started going to some classes, thanks to a friend I started attending classes and the teacher helped me to have more confidence in myself… to believe in myself. And that helped me to finally say “NO MORE.”
One of the things also was that he had…. (pause) Other interests (implied that he was having affairs). So that was how I could leave, because he was gone sometimes and wasn’t attacking me all the time. It was really hard to leave when I was pregnant and had two other kids. But now we’re ok. It was a really hard process - I think it was three to four years, that I was trying to protect my children. Because my children suffered the same that I suffered - hitting, yelling… I fought for custody, but he had visitation and unfortunately he hurt my children. Those were really hard times. Actually when I look back I don’t know hoq I did what I did. I don’t know how I got through all of that. But it made us stronger, and my kids and I supported each other. Now we are… we finally feel safe. We finally have protection so he can’t get near us. He doesn’t know our address, he doesn’t know anything about us, so we feel safe.
Amy: Thank you so much. And then the other question I want to ask is what brought you to this project. What interested you in this topic?
It’s sad that still in this time there still exists this machismo and discrimination against women. Ever since I can remember I have seen that it was always men who made the rules and ran the house, and could say what a woman could and couldn’t do.
But I’m a single mother now. I raise my three children, I keep them moving forward… and I have been able to do everything a man does. My children are studying in school - my son goes to UCLA and he’s working, I have kept a roof over their heads, they have had food, they have had clothes, I do everything a man does. So I feel like they should give us more rights and opportunities and that that stigma should change.
Amy: Ok, let’s get started. I’ll begin with some background information about this document and what prompted its creation.
So historically, if we think back to some of the very first episodes on this podcast, we learned that the very first human writings, the Code of Hammurabi and the Middle Assyrian Law, women were considered in many ways to be the possessions of men, and if they behaved in a way that the men thought was out of line, the men could legally beat the women, or “crush her mouth with a brick” or stone her to death. We remember the stories in the Bible about wives and daughters being offered to be assaulted so that a man wouldn’t be harmed. We learned on other episodes that the term “rule of thumb” comes from a law in the United States that a man could only legally beat his wife if the stick he used wasn’t bigger in circumference than the base of his thumb. So the concept that women have a “right” to a life free from violence is a new idea. And since it has always been men and not women who have historically been in power, these norms have been very, very slow to change. And even in the versions of patriarchy where the leaders say that they value women and want to protect women, like conservative religions, patriarchal institutions have in too many cases been very, very slow to condemn the perpetrators of violence against women.
Data from the UN Women website:
- Amy: It is estimated that 35 per cent of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or sexual violence by a non-partner (not including sexual harassment) at some point in their lives. Some national studies show that up to 70 per cent of women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime.
- Abigail: In 2017, 87,000 women were intentionally killed. Of those, more than half were killed by intimate partners or a family member. This number means that 137 women across the world are killed by a member of their own family every day.
- Amy: Adult women account for nearly half (49 per cent) of all human trafficking victims detected globally. Women and girls together account for 72 per cent, with girls representing more than three out of every four child trafficking victims.
- Abigail: It is estimated that there are 650 million women and girls in the world today who were married before age 18. During the past decade, the global rate of child marriage has declined, and South Asia had the largest decline during this time, from 49 per cent to 30 per cent. Still, 12 million girls under 18 are married each year and in sub-Saharan Africa—where this practice is most common—almost four out of 10 young women were married before their 18th birthday. Child marriage often results in early pregnancy and social isolation, interrupts schooling, limits the girl’s opportunities and increases her risk of experiencing domestic violence.
(Here I want to encourage listeners to look up the work of National Geographic photographer Stephanie Sinclair and the work she has done documenting this for Nat Geo and the New York Times, and please look up girlsnotbrides.org.
- Amy: At least 200 million women and girls aged 15-49 have undergone female genital mutilation in the 30 countries with representative data on prevalence. In most of these countries, the majority of girls were cut before age five. More than 20 million women and girls have undergone female genital mutilation by a health care provider. With population movement, female genital mutilation is becoming a practice with global dimensions, in particular among migrant and refugee women and girls.
- Amy: Approximately 15 million adolescent girls (aged 15 to 19) worldwide have experienced forced sex (forced sexual intercourse or other sexual acts) at some point in their life. Based on data from 30 countries, only one per cent ever sought professional help
- Abigail: Eighty-two per cent of women in government positions throughout the world reported sexual harassment while serving their terms (harrasment is defined as remarks, gestures and images of a sexist or humiliating sexual nature made against them. They cited social media as the main channel through which such psychological violence is perpetrated; nearly half of those surveyed (44 per cent) reported having received death, rape, assault or abduction threats towards them or their families.
This is extremely sobering data. And I feel like now is a good time to add just one more comment, which concerns all the content of this episode, including the title of this UN declaration. I watched a TED talk several years ago by Jackson Katz, called “Violence Against Women: It’s a Men’s Issue.” Please, please watch this TED talk today - it’s so important. (https://www.ted.com/talks/jackson_katz_violence_against_women_it_s_a_men_s_issue?language=en)
He talks about the grammatical structure of the sentences we use when we talk about violence, and how that reflects our cultural attitudes. What we often do - and again, you’ll hear it all throughout this episode - is that we frame violence in the passive voice. Instead of saying “John beat Mary,” we say “Mary was beaten.” And that removes the perpetrator of the violence completely, and puts the burden on the victim to solve the problem. And there’s a great TikTok video by poet christi steyn that builds on this idea - she says:
“We talk about how many women were raped last year, not about how many men raped women.
We talk about how many girls in a school district were harrassed last year, not about how many boys harassed girls.
We talked about how many teenage girls got pregnant in the state of Vermont last year, rather than how many men and teenage boys got girls pregnant.
So you can see how the use of this passive voice has a political effect. It shifts the focus off men and boys, and onto girls and women.
Even the term “violence against women” is problematic. It’s a passive construction. There’s no active agent in the sentence. It’s a bad thing that just happens to women. When you look at the term “violence against women - no one is doing it to them, it just happens. Men aren’t even a part of it.”
I do think we have to be careful to not generalize and make it sound like all men are rapists and all men are harassers. But I do think it’s really important that when we talk about the violent acts that do happen, that we shift the focus back onto the perpetrators of those crimes, rather than thinking of it as the victims’ issue and the victims’ responsibility and burden.
So now to the document, which was written in 1990 and is largely constructed in that passive voice. But we’ll read it as it’s written.
Abigail, can you start us off by reading the beginning of the declaration?
Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women.
Proclaimed by General Assembly on December 20, 1993.
The General Assembly ,
Recognizing the urgent need for the universal application to women of the rights and principles with regard to equality, security, liberty, integrity and dignity of all human beings,
Affirming that violence against women constitutes a violation of the rights and fundamental freedoms of women and impairs or nullifies their enjoyment of those rights and freedoms, and concerned about the long-standing failure to protect and promote those rights and freedoms in the case of violence against women,
I think it’s meaningful that this document acknowledges the way that abuse can destroy people’s quality of life, and makes them unable to enjoy any of their rights and freedoms. The “enjoyment” of life is not something we hear about in formal documents, but it is valid and useful.
Recognizing that violence against women is a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women, which have led to domination over and discrimination against women by men and to the prevention of the full advancement of women, and that violence against women is one of the crucial social mechanisms by which women are forced into a subordinate position compared with men,
Violence prevents the full advancement of women. (Professor Beverly Allen’s work in Bosnia, where they used rape as a weapon of war. This is an old strategy. It humiliates and demoralizes the survivor so they can’t advance in any area - indeed it is a social mechanism whereby women are forced into subordination.
It also makes me think of a few scenes of Mad Men. You see these men in suits who are sexist, but pretty civilized, but when the women in their lives are insubordinate, all they have to do is press their advantage, and they can completely dominate the women into doing whatever they want.
Concerned that some groups of women, such as women belonging to minority groups, indigenous women, refugee women, migrant women, women living in rural or remote communities, destitute women, women in institutions or in detention, female children, women with disabilities, elderly women and women in situations of armed conflict, are especially vulnerable to violence,
We can’t talk about this topic without bringing up the epidemic of violence against Native American women in our country right now. I just listened to Koa Beck’s book White Feminism: From Suffragettes to Influencers and Who They Leave Behind, and there is a whole section on this topic that I highly recommend reading, but for right now I’ll share some information from the Indian Law Resource Center website:
In the United States, violence against indigenous women has reached unprecedented levels on tribal lands and in Alaska Native villages. More than 4 in 5 American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence, and more than 1 in 2 have experienced sexual violence. Alaska Native women continue to suffer the highest rate of forcible sexual assault and have reported rates of domestic violence up to 10 times higher than in the rest of the United States. Though available data is limited, the number of missing and murdered American Indian and Alaska Native women and the lack of a diligent and adequate federal response is extremely alarming to indigenous women, tribal governments, and communities. On some reservations, indigenous women are murdered at more than ten times the national average.
...the vast majority of these women never see their abusers or rapists brought to justice. ...For more than 35 years, United States law has stripped Indian nations of all criminal authority over non-Indians. As a result, until recent changes in the law, Indian nations were unable to prosecute non-Indians, who reportedly commit ...96% of sexual violence against Native women. The Census Bureau reports that non-Indians now comprise 76% of the population on tribal lands and 68% of the population in Alaska Native villages. Many Native women have married non-Indians. However, it is unacceptable that a non-Indian who chooses to marry a Native woman, live on her reservation, and commit acts of domestic violence against her, cannot be criminally prosecuted by an Indian nation and more often than not will never be prosecuted by any government.
Federal and state officials having authority to protect Native women and girls are failing to do so at alarming rates. By their own account, between 2005 and 2009, U.S. attorneys declined to prosecute 67% of the Indian country matters referred to them involving sexual abuse and related matters. ...Due to the lack of law enforcement, many of these crimes in Native communities are not even investigated.
United States law creates ….a system that allows criminals to act with impunity in Indian country, threatens the lives and violates the human rights of Native women and girls daily, and perpetuates an escalating cycle of violence in Native communities. Women who are subjected to violence should not be treated differently and discriminated against just because they are Native and were assaulted on an Indian reservation or in an Alaska Native village!
Listeners, please visit indianlaw.org, or read Koa Beck’s White Feminism, or look up a New York Times article called “Native American Women Are Facing A Crisis,” by Maya Salam in April 2019. And consider donating to the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center. I think American citizens in particular need to know about this egregious human rights violation - this crisis is happening right here, right now.
Because violence against women in the family and society is pervasive and cuts across lines of income, class and culture, it must be matched by urgent and effective steps to eliminate its incidence.
So while violence does disproportionately affect women who are racial minorities, and immigrant women, and gay and trans women, it does impact women in every single walk of life. Sadly, I’m sure every single listener hearing this right now, no matter who you are, can think of a girl or a woman you know who has been abused at some time in her life.
For the purposes of this Declaration, the term "violence against women" means any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.
Violence against women shall be understood to encompass, but not be limited to, the following:
(a) Physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring in the family, including battering, sexual abuse of female children in the household, dowry-related violence, marital rape, female genital mutilation and other traditional practices harmful to women, non-spousal violence and violence related to exploitation;
(b) Physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring within the general community, including rape, sexual abuse, sexual harassment and intimidation at work, in educational institutions and elsewhere, trafficking in women and forced prostitution;
(c) Physical, sexual and psychological violence perpetrated or condoned by the State, wherever it occurs.
This is powerful because it makes it clear that male family members do not own their female family members. There are some men who commit acts of violence against strangers. These acts are unspeakably despicable and can cause terrible harm. These crimes are also more commonly agreed upon as “crimes.”
But one thing that this document makes clear is that abuse is abuse, even within a family. Often a man who would never scream at or hit or threaten a coworker, will allow himself to do that to his wife or daughter. This comes from that ancient belief that hasn’t quite died out yet, that a man does own the women in his household, so he has the right to do that to “his women.” But he could not do that to “someone else’s women.”
Women need to know that their husbands, their boyfriends, their brothers, their fathers, DO NOT OWN THEM. Not in any way.
Amy: Abigail, you had told me that you would like a chance to tell your story. Would you like to do that?
Women are entitled to the equal enjoyment and protection of all human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field. These rights include :
(a) The right to life;
(b) The right to equality;
(c) The right to liberty and security of person;
(d) The right to equal protection under the law;
(e) The right to be free from all forms of discrimination;
(f) The right to the highest standard attainable of physical and mental health;
(g) The right to just and favourable conditions of work;
(h) The right not to be subjected to torture, or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
Amy: Elena, you had also said that you would find it empowering to be able to tell your story. Would you like to do that now?
Like I said before, since I was a little girl I always experienced violence. When I was with the father of my children, I didn’t know how… I knew that I was not ok, I knew that he was doing damage to me, with what was happening, but I didn’t know how to leave. Mentally I was not well, but I didn’t know what to do or who I could tell what was happening to me. I just thought I was… he made me feel that it was me who was the problem. So I was afraid to speak and I didn’t know who I could tell.
I didn’t know that I could call the police, that I could report him - it took until I was getting separated from him after fifteen years that it occurred to me that I could report him, and I started to speak and realized that I should have been doing that since the beginning. But I just had been so afraid and hadn’t known how to do it.
I had been so scared to speak because of the way he… it was the mental and physical violence. There often weren’t bruises, you know what I mean? so when I did start to speak it took a long time for anyone to pay attention to me. It wasn’t until they talked with my son when he was an adult that they finally understood the damage that he had done to me and my children.
Amy: Article 4
States should condemn violence against women and should not invoke any custom, tradition or religious consideration to avoid their obligations with respect to its elimination. …. States should
(d) Develop penal, civil, labour and administrative sanctions in domestic legislation to punish and redress the wrongs caused to women who are subjected to violence; women who are subjected to violence should be provided with access to the mechanisms of justice and, as provided for by national legislation, to just and effective remedies for the harm that they have suffered; States should also inform women of their rights in seeking redress through such mechanisms.
Amy: Elena and Abby, do you feel that justice has been done?
Just like my daughter said, never. Through testing the evidence, CPS confirmed the abuse - that everything Abby was saying was true. The little one though… well he was three years old, so he couldn’t… he could barely talk. So Abby was the one who spoke, and they investigated everything, and everything was confirmed. The detectives who investigated the case listened in on a phone call that they secretly recorded to be able to get proof because by the time Abby told what had happened, time had passed so if they did medical exams they wouldn’t have found anything. So they did a recorded phone call. There were a lot of people listening - police, detectives, people from CPS. In that call, my children’s father accepted when my daughter told him that what he had done had done so much damage to her. And then he laughed at her and told her that what had happened was my fault. When the phone call was over my daughter was really upset. The detectives came and told me that the phone call was sufficient proof to lock him up in jail for what he had done to my children. They sent the case to the prosecutor, but he said that it wasn’t sufficient, and so nothing ever happened. He is still free. He did SO MUCH DAMAGE, and… finally we got a restraining order against him, but even then he violated the restraining order so many times. I even had a criminal restraining order against him and he kept violating it. So it is not true what they say when they say that they give a restraint. Because he violated it so many times and he continues to be free. So honestly for me, the system failed me, and it failed my children. Because if they had paid attention to me, if they had helped us when we asked for help, my children wouldn’t have suffered so much abuse.
Amy: Adopt all appropriate measures, especially in the field of education, to modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women and to eliminate prejudices, customary practices and all other practices based on the idea of the inferiority or superiority of either of the sexes and on stereotyped roles for men and women;
I think about the case of Chanel Miller, who was sexually assaulted at a party on Stanford campus in 2015. As she was being attacked, two Stanford graduate students happened to pass by on their bikes, they are the ones who stopped the attack. I remember reading two things about them: 1. when they saw what was happening, they didn’t just walk past, they came to her rescue, and 2. They cried. One thing I know about Scandinavian children is that they are taught in a more egalitarian way from the time they are little. They are taught to think of girls as their equals, so they respect girls and women and would never, ever take advantage of a girl or a woman.
What do you think of that quote? Do you think the culture you grew up in taught the superiority of men and the inferiority of women?
Amy: The rest of the declaration talks about the importance of educating people and raising awareness about these issues, so that abuse happens less, and that when it does, people who are abused know that they can seek help, and then when they do seek help, there are appropriately trained professionals who can make sure that justice is served.
Elena and Abby, do you have any takeaways from this declaration or this episode that you want to share?
Thanks for inviting me. I want to thank everyone who has listened to me, and also I hope that my experience, that I have lived, helps those who are listening to know that they are not alone, and that they have to speak out. We have to defend ourselves, we have to get help, and I hope that just like I had people who helped me - I call them angels on earth - I hope that they will have help.
And also I want to comment that I had someone come into my life at that time, and she had survived domestic violence, and her daughters had too, and unfortunately she was hospitalized. She had been in a really bad place, but she came into my life when I was going through all of that, and she said, “You are not going to go through what I went through. I am not going to see you in a hospital. You are going to defend yourself. And she took me to the places to ask for restraining orders and showed me how to do everything, everything that she had been taught when she was going through it. So, now if someone comes into my life who needs help, I give her the tools that I was taught, that I was given.
Today, thank God, I am doing better, I’m doing really well, I’m with my children. It’s hard work every day, after you live through these situations, sometimes you’re sad and you don’t know why, but it’s because of what you’ve lived through - it’s a daily struggle. After eleven years in therapy, my kids in therapy - we will probably be in therapy for the rest of our lives - but we’re ok. We are happy, and we are trying to move forward, do the best we can in our personal lives, work hard, improve ourselves in every way… and well, thank you. Thank you so much, Amy.
Amy: I think one takeaway for me when I think about violence against women is thinking about Malala Yousafzai. When she was 11 years old the Taliban moved into her village and placed restrictions on girls and women, including prohibiting girls from going to school. But as we know, Malala defied the Taliban’s orders and not only went to school but also spoke out publicly against the Taliban. When she was 15, gun men boarded her school bus and asked “who is Malala” and when she answered, they shot her in the head, intending to kill her. And of course she recovered, she won a Nobel Prize - the youngest person ever to win - and she just graduated from Oxford University last year and is a global icon for education and women’s rights.
Lots of things we could discuss, but I want to highlight three things:
- The resilience of the human spirit. Malala was shot in the head. The big men in power, men with weapons, tried to wipe her out and annihilate her. Yet she rose up powerful, like an absolute goddess. That is the way I see you two. You are so strong, so brave, so powerful.
- The importance of education. That’s what Malala Yousafzai continues to fight for, that’s what this UN Declaration advocates for, that’s the point of this podcast. I can’t wait to see what you do in college, Abby, and I hope you thank your mother every day of your life for the gift of making sure you would get an education.
- The bad guys in the story of Malala Yousafzai were men, but the hero of the story, second to Malala, is her dad. He was a teacher who persisted in educating girls, and she says he has always been her biggest advocate and champion.
To the good men listening, we appreciate you, we need your support, and you can be a hero by standing with us and demanding justice and equity.
Thank you again so very much for being here, Elena and Abigail! I am so inspired by your courage.
Elena/Abby: Thank you so much!!
Amy: On our next episode of Breaking Down Patriarchy, we will be reading the first book by a man since John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women! We’ll be reading The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy, by Allan Johnson, written in 1997. Dr. Johnson was educated at Dartmouth and the University of Michigan, and he was a professor of sociology at Wesleyan University and then eventually at Hartford College for Women, and this book is one that I recommend either purchasing if you can, or listening to on Audible. I started reading it with a highlighter in hand, and found that I was marking almost the entire page - which defeats the purpose of highlighting. :) But that’s a good indicator that it’s a valuable resource, so see if you can read or listen to The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy, by Allan Johnson, and then join us for the discussion next time on Breaking Down Patriarchy.