Inside the walls of a coastal town in Morocco, several women crouch at the roadside selling bunches of herbs. One of the women catches my eye. She is nursing a baby but looks at least 60 years old. I try to see her as a woman with whom I share substantive experience. I have no children; I am not poor. As a lesbian, I do not require access to safe contraception. I do not need to worry about my rights as a married woman. Yet there is one thing that all women share - something that shapes our lives and partly determines the way we live and the choices we make - that is, the threat and reality of sexual violence.
It is this commonality that is taking me to the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations headquarters in New York this month. In the past 15 years, the women's movement has become truly global, a development kick-started in an unlikely place: Beijing. In 1995, 23,500 women and 5,000 government representatives of 189 counties gathered in the Chinese capital for the UN Conference on Women and formulated a Global Platform for Action (PfA), through which governments should address gender inequality, including measures to end violence against women. The PfA remains the most wide-reaching international commitment to women's equality. At this year's catch-up conference in New York, many of the delegates will be asking how far we have come and what still needs to be done.
As I write, women and girls all over the world are being beaten by their husbands, raped, burned and mutilated in the name of "tradition", forced into marriage, sold into prostitution and murdered for transgressing a twisted code of "honour". Violence against women is an international epidemic. It has been identified by the World Health Organisation as a grave health issue, affecting more people than HIV and Aids.
Globally, at least one-third of all women and girls will be beaten or sexually abused once or more throughout their lives. In Kenya, 70 per cent of those asked by the Women's Rights Awareness Programme admitted they knew neighbours who beat their wives, and almost 60 per cent said that the women were to blame. The news is not much better in the UK. A recent survey on Londoners' attitudes to rape found that almost half think that rape victims are at least partly to blame.
The poorer the woman, the more vulnerable she is to exploitation and sexual violence. If a woman has to fight for clean water, she may be pressured to swap this for sexual favours. If there is no work in her town or village, she could be targeted by traffickers promising her a better life overseas.
In most countries, women have won the right to vote only within the past 50 years. There is still nowhere in the world where women have access to political or social power equal to that of men. I spoke to Rachel Carter, head of policy and advocacy at the UK-based NGO Womankind Worldwide. She believes that the main achievements of the Beijing conference have been the formation of a vibrant international movement and the development of legislation against violence towards women in countries that had no prior public awareness of the issue.
“However, the massive gap left to be plugged is implementation," Carter says. "There is a tendency for some governments to see their country strategies, legislation and policies as an end rather than a means to an end."
Do we need to create a new formal agreement, as we did in Beijing? "I would be reluctant because, if anything, in today's climate, I think we would go backwards. Climate change and the rise of fundamentalism have made it worse for women. Women's rights are being eroded. Women's freedom was used as an excuse for the invasion of Afghanistan, but now women's rights are being traded out and it is worse in some ways for them."
Baroness Gould is chair of the Women's National Commission, which provides a link between the UK government delegation to the conference and NGOs. She is similarly cautious: "If we had another Beijing, we might go backwards in terms of reproductive health, in particular abortion and contraception. There are very few countries in Africa where abortion is legal."
There is evidence to back up Carter and Gould. Zimbabwe has long had a vibrant women's movement, but women have borne the brunt of the recent turmoil there, and growing numbers of cases of both sexual and domestic violence are being reported. In countries experiencing conflict, or which have recently done so, violence towards women tends to have increased.
During the Beijing conference, representatives of uncompromising Catholic and Muslim countries refused to sign in support of women's rights to abortion and contraception, or a right to sexual self-determination, and yet these are the very issues that lie at the root of women's vulnerability to domestic and sexual violence. "If a woman lives in a country where rape in marriage is not a crime, and domestic violence is viewed as perfectly acceptable, how can she ever leave?"asks Hilary McCollum, a UK-based anti-rape activist. "And if there is no option for a woman not to marry, how is she ever going to be free from the control of men?"
South Africa is one country that is suffering from a surge in sexual violence, even though it has one of the best constitutional and legal frameworks in the world for human rights, including violence against women. After the end of apartheid in the early 1990s, and during its transition towards democracy, South Africa experienced a rapid increase in reported rapes. South African rape statistics are now among the highest in the world. In 1997, the Human Sciences Research Council released a report claiming that child rape in South Africa had reached "epidemic proportions". One-third of reported rapes between January and September 2001 were of children between zero and 11 years of age.
According to rape crisis groups in the country, many of the rapes committed are akin to those experienced during the anti-apartheid struggle, with victims suffering extreme violence, often by multiple perpetrators. "While the history of apartheid and conflict must play a role in this," Carter says, "I think we must go back again to the root causes of power imbalances between genders, patriarchy, and women's bodies being used as both personal and political territory upon which wars are played out." It has been recognised since the 1992-95 Bosnian conflict that rape is a tool of war. During the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, for example, up to half a million women were raped by combatants.
Women in rich countries are also vulnerable to pimps, rapists and wife-beaters. Dowry deaths, honour killings and female genital mutilation all happen in the UK. Girls are taken to Harley Street clinics by their Somali-born parents to be mutilated in the name of culture. Pakistani families send girls "home" to marry a cousin they have never met, often before puberty. Women born into Turkish families can be killed by their male relatives for daring to love an unsuitable man.
Honour crimes also happen to women of British descent. Wives who dishonour their husbands by leaving them or being unfaithful often die for stepping out of line. The Deputy Prime Minister, Harriet Harman, much derided for her outspoken feminism, has fought hard to prevent men from pleading provocation in such cases, a defence that can be traced back to the Middle Ages.
But the global women's movement is making a difference. A recent Unicef report found that female genital mutilation in one region of Ethiopia had fallen from 100 per cent to 3 per cent, largely as a result of innovative public education programmes run by Kembatti Mentti Gezzima-Tope, a women's self-help centre in the township of Durame. Meanwhile, the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project in Duluth, Minnesota, has saved the lives of countless women and been replicated around the world. By developing a multi-agency approach that involves the courts, prosecutors, probation and refuge workers, it has brought about a sharp fall in the number of women killed as a result of domestic violence.
“In the UK, we have made enormous progress in terms of sexual violence," Gould says. But we live in difficult times. For Carter, relying on what she calls "paper rights", such as those outlined in the PfA, will not translate into women's lives being saved or sexual violence being eliminated. We need concerted action, she says, and her hope is that the conference at the UN this month will inspire just that. "We need to be able to tell men what they will gain if they give up power, which will be no easy task.
“Right now we don't have enough mechanisms to hold governments to account, despite the PfA. Fifteen years after Beijing, and we are struggling to hold up the damn walls."
Julie Bindel is co-founder of Justice for Women