In the midst of the war between Athens and Sparta in the early fifth century B.C., Aristophanes wrote Lysistrata, a play featuring an Athenian woman who organised all the women of Greece, seized the Acropolis and the Treasury of Athens and forced the men into an honourable peace by withholding sexual contact.  To the magistrate's query, "What business are war and peace of yours?" Lysistrata replied, "War is the care of the women!  I prophecy that before long we women will be known as the peacemakers of Greece." 

Lysistrata's dilemma - that of being caught up in a war while powerless to influence its course through conventional means - is essentially the same dilemma in which most women find themselves in times of armed conflict.  For, even though women have participated in and suffered from war for centuries, they have been virtually excluded from all stages of decision-making, from the commencement of hostilities to the conclusion of peace. 

War is only one of many forms of violence to which women are subjected world-wide.  There are other types of violence which affect most women at some point in their lifetime, regardless of their class, colour, religion or culture, and which can be equally devastating, even life-threatening.  Every day, women are battered, sexually harassed, abused, raped and psychologically tortured in the home, the workplace and society. 

Yet the problem of violence against women has only recently been recognised as a crime and major obstacle to equality, development and peace.  In effect, peace - a fundamental human right - has been systematically denied to half the world's population for centuries, irrespective of the type of political and legal systems under which they lived.  A woman's right to be free from danger and fear for her personal safety within the home, the workplace and society is likely to be the toughest battle women will wage in the 1990s. 


"Peace includes not only the absence of war, violence and hostilities at the national and international levels but also the enjoyment of economic and social justice, equality and the entire range of human rights and fundamental freedoms within society," proclaimed the Nairobi Forward-looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women in 1985.  This positive and comprehensive definition of peace brings into sharp focus the far-reaching implications of peace for women in that it highlights the absence of structural violence, including economic and sexual inequality, denial of basic human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the deliberate exploitation of large sectors of the population..." 

Even more importantly, the Nairobi Forward-looking Strategies were instrumental in creating a consensus: violence on the personal and international level are in fact inextricably linked.  "The questions of women and peace and the meaning of peace for women cannot be separated from the broader question of relationships beween women and men in all spheres of life and in the family," it was agreed. 


"...the wife: however brutal a tyrant she may unfortunately be chained to - though she may know that he hates her, though it may be his daily pleasure to torture her, and though she may feel it impossible not to loathe him - (he) can claim from her and enforce the lowest degradation of a human being, that of being made an instrument of an animal function contrary to her inclinations."  John Stuart Mill. 

It is a great tragedy that for most abused women violence begins at home with husbands, fathers, brothers and uncles.  In developed and developing countries alike, physical, sexual and psychological abuse within the family affects an astounding number of women. 

This bent towards brutality against women is reflected in popular culture the world over.  The gist of a Spanish riddle is : "Question : What do mules and women have in common?  Answer : A good beating makes them both better."  A Russian saying echoes the same refrain : "A wife may love a husband who never beats her, but she does not respect him." 

Owing to a paucity of research and the taboos surrounding admissions of violence against women in the family, the actual numbers of facts of violence will probably never be known.  The fact that abuse is generally condoned by social custom and considered part and parcel of marital life, rather than a crime, is in itself a grim indication of its high incidence. 

  • In parts of Papua New Guinea, 67 per cent of women are victims of marital violence. 

  • In Bangladesh, half of the 170 reported cases of women murdered between 1983 and 1985 took place within the confines of the family. 

  • In the United States, a woman is beaten every 18 minutes; between 3 million and 4 million are battered each year, but only 1 in 100 cases of domestic violence is ever reported. 

  • In Columbia, about 20 per cent of the patients in a Bogota hospital were victims of marital violence. 

  • In India, five women are burned in dowry-related disputes each day, according to the official figures, although the number estimated by activist groups is much higher. 

  • In the United Kingdom, one in three families is a victim of assault and one in five a victim of serious assault, according to a recent report by the Home Office. 

  • In Austria, in 59 per cent of 1,500 divorce cases, domestic violence was cited as a cause in the marital breakdown. 

Divorce petitions on grounds of violence in countries as diverse as Canada, Egypt, Greece and Jamaica are further evidence of the magnitude of the problem of domestic violence and of the fact that it is becoming one of the main grounds for divorce in many countries. 

Despite these revealing findings, "the extent of violence against women in the home has been largely hidden and widely denied by communities that fear that an admission of its incidence will be an assault on the integrity of the family", according to a recent United Nations study.  Experts assert that domestic violence is not merely a social ill but a crime of equal stature with other crimes that urgently needs to be addressed as such.   

Without adequate legal protection and a social system responsive to domestic violence, women typically find themselves helpless before their spouses and before society as a whole.  In fact, it has been argued that marriage renders women even more vulnerable to violence, in this instance from their own husbands.  Wife assault accounts for about 25 per cent of violent crimes in the United States, while one in seven wives in the United Kingdom has been raped by her spouse.   

A United Nations study recently concluded that "physical attack is often accompanied by sexual violence and rape, the psychological effects of which are perhaps more serious than rape by a stranger given the breach of trust that such conduct involves."  Yet, only a few countries, including Canada, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Poland, Scotland, the Soviet Union and Sweden, have incorporated marital rape as a crime in their legal systems.  Part of the reason for the slow recognition of marital rape is that in many countries, marriage is perceived to give a man complete licence for sex, regardless of the wishes of his wife. 

Violence does not occur as an isolated incident in the lives of  abused married women and young girls.  Physical brutality, as well as mental torture, usually occurs on a regular basis causing incalculable suffering and inflicting deep scars on the victims, the victims' families and on society as a whole.  Women's physical and mental health is often permanently damaged or impaired, and in some cases violence can have fatal consequences.  Pregnant women are particularly at risk.  Not surprisingly perhaps, abused women are 12 times more likely to attempt suicide than non-abused women.  For some battered women, alcohol and drug abuse become their only escape, with disastrous effects on their health and well-being. 

As a result, domestic violence has devastating repercussions on the family.  Mothers are unable to care for their children properly.  Often they transmit to them their own feelings of low self-esteem, helplessness and inadequacy.  Children themselves may become victims of their father's abuse if they try to defend their mother.  On the other hand, boys who witness their father beating their mother are likely to emulate this behaviour.  In Canada, it has been found that sons of batterers are more likely to beat their own wives. 

The economic cost to society of dealing with this problem is enormous in terms of medical treatment and counselling for the victim, the abused woman's dependence on the welfare system, and the introduction of preventive measures.  In Canada alone, wife battering cost the Government and taxpayers $32 million in 1980.  Yet, there is little guarantee that an abused woman will not be mistreated again. More ominously, domestic violence reinforces and perpetuates a status quo of political, social and economic discrimination against women. 


The reason why so many women "put up with" abuse in the home is primarily due to their unequal status in society and the fact that they have no viable alternatives available to them.  Women are often caught in a vicious circle of economic dependence, fear for their children's lives as well as their own, repeated pregnancies, shame, ignorance of their rights before the law, lack of confidence in themselves and social pressures.  Fear of harming a husband's career and apprehension about the attitude of the police also prevent women from reporting crimes of domestic violence.  A recent British study revealed that even though 92 per cent of abused women sought the detention of their abusers, actual arrests materialised in only 24 per cent of the cases.  

These factors effectively sentence abused women to a life of recurrent mistreatment from which they often do not have the means to escape.  Social prejudice reinforces domestic violence against women.  Particularly since wives are often considered as little more than their spouses' property, husbands assume that this subordinate role gives them the tacit right to  abuse their wives in order to "keep them in their place" - the underlying notion being that  women are at best naughty children in need of discipline. 

Physical brutality and sexual abuse are widespread largely because they have been sanctioned for centuries by legal systems which grant women no protection or recourse.  In nineteenth century England and North America, as well as in much of the developing world today, even when a wife died or was permanently injured as a result of domestic violence, the husband was often excused by the law under various pretexts and his sentence was remarkably light.   

In 1954, Scotland Yard Commander G. H. Hatherill boasted:  "There  are only about 20 murders a year in London and many not at all serious - some are just husbands killing their wives."  Indeed, in all cultures men have had the right to kill their wives on suspicion of adultery until very recently.  The same rules have not applied to male adultery. 

According to a recent comparative study on the legislation of several Mediterranean and Arab countries (i.e. Egypt, France, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, the Libyan Arab Jamaliriya, Portugal, Spain, the Syrian Arab Republic, Tunisian and Turkey), crimes of honour continue to absolve husbands and other male relatives, partially or fully, from charges of homicide or severe bodily injury to this day. 

The sanctity of privacy within the family, which makes authorities reluctant to intervene, often leads women to deny they are being abused, despite obvious physical signs of brutality which they attribute to self-inflicted accidents. Thus, what are euphemistically called "domestic disputes", but which frequently involve broken ribs and disfiguring facial injuries, are dismissed as family matters, while rape within marriage is ignored or simply not acknowledged as a crime in the vast majority of countries. 

Rape and physical assault also extend to the female children within the family.  From the United States to Australia, Egypt, India and Israel, one in four families falls victim to incest.  One report estimated that as many as 100 million girls, often under 10 years of age, are raped by adult men, very often their fathers. 

Yet these figures of domestic violence most probably represent only the tip of the iceberg, considering that only a fraction of all cases are ever reported.  It is particularly ironic that, in spite of impressive economic, technological and social progress world-wide, millions of women around the world are routinely abused within their own homes -a tragic crime which needs to be urgently addressed and vigorously tackled.