This article was written by David Wolstenholme. I am performing at his event The Woman's Show in Feb 2007.

A United Nations report issued in March 2006 states that up to 200 million women are missing worldwide today. Over 50 million of these women are missing in India alone. The regions where women are at the highest risk are India/Pakistan, Middle East and Africa. To put this in perspective, compare this incredible number of missing women – 200 million, to fatalities from all 20th century wars, which amounts to 190 million. Is it because these are all women that the silence is so deafening?

Women between the ages of 15 and 44 globally are more likely to be injured or die as a result of male violence than through cancer, traffic accidents, malaria and war combined (reported by the UN). These worldwide victims are claimed not only in conflicts but also in everyday life. Think about the millions of women who don’t die, but are physically maimed or psychologically wounded for life, they do not even feature in these horrifying statistics. While the causes are multiple, it eventually boils down to the simple fact that today a woman’s life and her dignity, in most parts of the world, are worth less than a man’s. This situation can no longer be tolerated.

The World Health Organisation estimates that 20% of all women worldwide will be subjected to rape or attempted rape during her lifetime, and 33% will be a victim of violence. That means, in an average women’s lifetime over 700 million women will be raped.

Violence against women in India is soaring – a woman is raped every 30 minutes and one is killed every 75 minutes. In one Bombay clinic 7,999 of the 8,000 foetuses aborted were female. In South Africa the statistic is far worse. A woman is raped every 25 seconds (Rape Crisis) and one is murdered every six hours by an intimate partner (MRC 2003).

Because of an underlying tolerance, the problem is getting worse not better. A recent study in Jordan conducted by the 2005 Communication Partnership for Family Life found that almost 50% of Jordanian women found it acceptable for a husband to beat his wife. A staggering 76.2% of unmarried female youths thought that beatings were acceptable if a woman is unfaithful or insults her husband.

After ten years of democracy here in South Africa we are first in two worldwide statistics – we are firmly number one as having the highest number of rape victims per capita and we have the highest HIV/Aids infection rate globally. In 2006 we must demand that a women’s right to be free from violence is not a privilege but a fundamental and universal human right. Our South African society has a responsibility to see that all women are not threatened or humiliated.

It’s women themselves that must take the lead if we are to see this violence and abuse reduced. Sadly, too often it’s the women who are first to look away. It is far more comfortable to ignore issues that surround violence and abuse.

The covers of many Women’s’ magazines feature sex, how women can get more, how to reach an orgasm – what kind of message is this sending to those depraved individuals that rape and abuse? Why are all of these magazines so frightened to address the issue of the missing women worldwide? Is the almighty “paid for” advertisement worth their “deafening silence?”

Oprah in the US has taken on the missing women and the abuse issue. She is asking her vast audience to take action. She has been calling for women to write their congressional delegates and senators to bring the issue of abused women to the forefront. The most powerful woman in American media will have an impact.

Calling women to action is not a new concept. In the early seventies when the Irish Catholic and Protestant war was at its height, a famous philosopher/writer made the point: if women really wanted this war of terror to stop it would only take a week – as there was an Irish woman in each situation who knew who was doing the killing and they could act if they could find the courage of their voice. They could have demanded that the killing stop or those guilty participants would be reported. He made the case that as a woman you either stop the war or become its next victim.

This applies in South Africa. For every crime against women there are one or more women, usually family members, who know about it, but take no action. By their silence these women are condoning the act. To move from a victim based society to women controlling their own destinies takes three simple steps.

They are:

  • Create communities that are positive, educational and enhance all women’s lives.

  • Network between communities - this will create vast opportunities as women can explore unlimited possibilities in totally safe environments.

  • Promote awareness – that abuse in any form will not be tolerated.

Every one of the thousands of communities that are already formed, and the thousands more that still need to be formed, must recognise those members who are suffering from abuse of any kind. It is essential that a list of counsellors, social workers, psychologists, legal specialists and law enforcement contacts are made available to all members of each community. It is not enough to just supply these vital contacts. Each community should monitor any case of abuse by supporting that victim. When the police or other authorities are slow to act – name and shame them.

This support system must be applied to businesses around the country. For most women their job and that business, big or small, is a safe haven when things go wrong. As 85% of all victims are abused by a family member (UN Report), the workplace and their colleagues is where most turn to first. This is not happening today, as almost all businesses are reluctant to get involved with any issue that involves domestic violence.

Think about the billions of rands that are lost every year by the hundreds of thousands of women that are suffering from being the victim of rape or physical abuse. They are totally unproductive in the workplace (that’s if they turned up at all).

Companies are very quick to offer retirement plans and medical aid schemes. For a fraction of those costs why not offer a counselling programme for all women that they employ? These small communities, composed of one or two people in smaller companies and teams of two to five people in different divisions in larger companies, would be armed with the contact numbers of those vital contacts who will professionally and effectively support and deal with the situation at hand.

How simple would it be to educate this corporate voluntary community within each company? It would take a morning every quarter or a day every 6 months to bring in a specialist and provide the training needed. All that is required from these volunteers is to understand the vital signs so that they would recognise a colleague who is suffering and first provide a safe environment for the victim to talk and be listened to. It is counter-productive for a boss to threaten the victim for poor performance not knowing the underlying circumstances. Most victims are too embarrassed to share their sordid details with their boss.

Secondly, these company counsellors will provide the contacts and numbers of the relevant specialists depending on the nature and seriousness of the situation.

Thirdly, to follow up and ensure that the victim is getting the required attention and guidance to recover or free herself from the abusive situation that she finds herself in.

Progressive companies that provide this support to their female employees will immediately benefit from a bonded and happier work environment and increased productivity. This will automatically build that team spirit that so many companies spend so much time, energy and money on. More importantly they would be making a positive difference to South Africa’s biggest social injustice.

The Women’s Show to be held in Cape Town 2-4 February 2007 has adopted the missing women as its theme. This vital show with 52 live performances featuring local and international celebrities will focus on women’s communities, the power of networking and bring awareness to the country’s most important single issue.

is the Exhibition Director of the Women’s Show

David Wolstenholme