November is the UN-proclaimed International Day for the Elimination of
Violence Against Women. Violence against women is a year-round
occurrence and continues to an alarming degree. Violence against women
is an attack upon their bodily integrity and their dignity. We need to
place an emphasis on the universality of violence against women, the
multiplicity of its forms and the ways in which violence, discrimination
against women, and the broader system of domination based on
subordination and inequality are inter-related. The value of a special
‘Day’ is that it serves as a time of analysis of the issue and then of
rededication to take both short-term and longer-range measures.
Pierre Spitz, a former Geneva colleague, had coined the
term “silent violence” for policies which not only perpetuate the
existing system but in some cases reinforce it by forestalling the
development of a political consciousness which might degenerate into
social disorder. (1) In this spirit, we can speak of “silent violence”
against women. Both at the international UN level and at the national
level, there have been programmes devoted to the equality of women and
to the promotion of women in all fields. There has been growing
attention to physical violence against women, the creation of centers
for battered women and attention given to the trafficking of women.
There has been just enough attention to women’s issues and enough
advances of some women to prevent “the development of a political
consciousness which might degenerate into social disorder.” It has
often been repeated that it is necessary to ensure the education,
training, good health, employment promotion, and integration of women so
that they can participate fully and effectively in the development
Yet as Susan George, another
former Geneva colleague, has written “That all governments are concerned
for, and are representative of, the majority of their people is patent
nonsense. Plenty of governments are most concerned with enriching those
who keep them in power. Human rights, including the right to food, run
a poor second.” (2).
Women have largely
remained invisible and inaudible by being allowed to have the key role
in the “informal sector” — those sectors of the economy that are the
least organized, often left out of the statistics of the formal economy
as if it did not count. Women have turned to the informal sector — or
have been pushed into it — as a way of sustaining a livelihood for their
families. Women’s work in this sector accounts for a large proportion
of total female employment in most developing countries of Africa, Latin
America and Asia. The informal sector, though often considered
marginal in economic planning, tends to account for a significant
proportion of total employment.
informal sector, women work as food producers, traders, home-based
workers, domestic workers, recyclers of waste, prostitutes, and
increasingly engage in drug trafficking — anything to earn an income to
feed their children. The informal sector is their last hope for economic
and social survival for themselves and their families.
In the informal society, women survive and often have a
major responsibility for the economy of the whole family. Fathers are
often absent by need or by choice. Some women do well in the informal
sector and serve as a model — or a hope — as to what others can
accomplish. Self-employed women are increasingly helped by micro-credit
programs. These are useful but rarely do such loans allow a person to
move outside the informal economy.
has been a good deal of research on women’s role in agriculture, on
women’s informal-sector employment, and increasingly on women’s
entrepreneurship. Researchers in different world regions have pointed
to the handicaps faced by women to obtain credit and in getting access
to new agricultural technologies. However, research has rarely been
brought into the mainstream of global or national decision-making.
Inequality and the walls built around the informal sector
are the marks of the “silent violence” against women. Amartya Sen
defined the major challenge of human development as “broadening the
limited lives into which the majority of human beings are willy-nilly
imprisoned by the forces of circumstance.” On 25 November, this day for
the elimination of violence against women, we need to look closely at
the social, cultural and economic walls that imprison.
(1) Pierre Spitz. “Silent violence: famine and inequality” International Social Science Journal Vol. XXX (1978)
(2) Susan George. Ill Fares the Land (Washington, DC: Institute of Policy Studies, 1988).
* Rene Wadlow,President and representative to the UN, Geneva, Association of World Citizens