Combating Sexual Violence: Thoughts from Lehigh University on "Women Uniting Nations"

16 November 2017 — The following submission comes from United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI) member institution Lehigh University, which organized a viewing on campus of the webcast Fourth Annual UNAI J. Michael Adams Lecture and Conversation “Women Uniting Nations: A Conversation on Struggles against Sexual Violence around the World” held on 27 October 2017. 

When I heard “the number is going up, the age is going down”, I was horrified. This fact—which haunted me all day after I watched the webcast of the Fourth Annual UNAI J. Michael Adams Lecture and Conversation on our campus in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, USA—was conveyed by Prof. Ruchira Gupta of New York University, who spoke on “Women Uniting Nations: A Conversation on Struggles against Sexual Violence around the World”. Sexual abuse is threatening the equality of women and girls. To me, as a woman, settling for a world where all women are not guaranteed the same rights is unacceptable. This issue has become prominent and will remain present until awareness is sufficiently raised and action taken.

Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5 is focused on gender equality and eliminating violence against women and girls. It sounds like a simplistic and achievable goal. Such violence, however, is not anything that will be easily combated in the coming years. During the lecture, we learned that sex trafficking involves millions of people across the globe, most being female, making it the third-largest criminal enterprise in the world. While it is more prominent in certain countries, it should be accepted and practiced in none. Prof. Gupta observed that the concept of sexual violence is more than just modern-day slavery. The difference is that the driving factors behind sex trafficking are misogyny, militarism and machoism. This exacerbates inequality because women are targeted for the sole reason that they are women. According to Prof. Gupta, such intentional targeting of women is now properly being called “femicide”.

There were many other shocking facts presented that helped cast light on whether or not we are really making progress. We learned that rape is now classified as a weapon of war. Throughout history, male soldiers have sought to establish their dominance over conquered territory through rape. That represents, however, only one avenue through which women and girls are brought into the sex trade; for there are countless way that women continue to be imprisoned. Some girls are married off very young and widowed after their older husbands pass away. Some are forced into pregnancy too early and are lost to maternal mortality. Some become victims of domestic violence or are used by their husbands to collect a dowry. All of these examples are a reality for too many women and girls around the world.

The fastest route to finding a solution is to cooperate and collaborate.

When asked about overcoming cultural barriers to end sexual abuse, Prof. Gupta expressed her firm belief that cultures can change their practices on this matter. Some countries have started to implement laws that are being taken elsewhere as precedents and that exemplify the direction in which we should be moving. Working toward achieving SDG 5 is a uniting platform. Prof. Gupta identified this mission as “Women Uniting Nations.” Women are the ones who are stepping in to be the uniting factors in supporting such a global task.

Lehigh University Environmental Engineering student Zoe Kravitz was part of the group who viewed the webcast. She was intrigued by the data, and acknowledged the role that multilateral organizations play in combating issues such as sexual violence. “By having the UN and women from all over the world speak up about the issue and show meaningful support, I think that women, as well as men, in countries where it’s heavily practiced will realize that this must end. Women can feel more empowered to stand up, knowing that people all over the world have their backs.” This, essentially, is the goal behind the idea of “Women Uniting Nations”. We would like everyone to know that the students from Lehigh University who participated in the webcast viewing are all committed to advocating to stop sexual violence.

While it is frustrating to think that all of these horrible actions really take place in our world, Prof. Gupta reminded us that it is important to resist the violence. Whether that takes the form of new laws that criminalize sexual abuse, celebrities using their platforms to tell their stories or women standing up inside their own homes, there is a strong movement of resistance. According to panellist Counsellor Hajime Kishimori of the Permanent Mission of Japan to the United Nations, we can also “incorporate art and culture as a means of learning what peace means to us.” Art and culture have the potential to create a powerful effect. Additionally, enacting more legislation geared toward securing equal salaries and universal access to education can help move the world towards the overall goal of peace and equality. The lecture and conversation opened a window onto a situation that most of us knew very little about. We’ve gone from conference participants to activists, and are committed to taking strides to implementing SDG 5 by 2030!

The author, Jordan Davis, is United Nations Partnership Intern at Lehigh University.