She was an 8-year-old girl with thick brown hair, large brown eyes, a purple dress and a fondness for running through the fields in northern India where she tended horses.
Then a man called her into the nearby forest, grabbed her by the neck and forced her to take sleeping pills, according to police accounts. The man dragged the girl, Asifa Bano, to a Hindu temple, where he and other men raped her repeatedly over three days, before murdering her — after one man insisted on raping her one last time. Asifa’s body was left in the forest.
Murder and rape happen in all societies, but this girl’s body was a battleground: Hindu extremists were trying to terrorize and drive out the Muslim community that Asifa belonged to. The killing triggered a huge controversy in India, with some Hindu lawyers and housewives protesting against prosecution of the murder suspects and Prime Minister Narendra Modi keeping shamefully silent for too long. To their credit, many middle-class Indians, including Hindus, mobilized to demand justice for Asifa.
There’s a lesson from that horror story and millions more like it. The #MeToo movement has had a stunning impact across America, eroding the impunity that allowed powerful men to get away with sexual assault and harassment. But we now need a global effort — by rich and poor nations alike — to make the #MeToo principles truly universal.
A few glimpses of the scale of sexual violence as one of the top human rights challenges of our time:
A United Nations study of 10,000 men in six countries in Asia and the Pacific found that almost one-quarter acknowledged having raped a woman, including 62 percent of men in part of Papua New Guinea. A separate 2011 study found that 37 percent of men in part of South Africa said they had raped a woman.
So let’s see #MeToo as a global human rights movement.
We tend to think of “human rights” in terms of political dissidents being tortured, but gender violence is not only far more common but also sometimes institutionalized and shaped by legal codes and government policy.
We should all be speaking up, regardless of gender or geography. These assaults and indignities don’t affect women alone, because these patterns of violence and repression suppress talent and hold back entire societies. When millions of girls and women are brutalized, we’re all diminished.
The U.S. could show leadership in addressing these issues. A starting point would be for Congress to pass the long-stalled International Violence Against Women Act, which would require the U.S. to adopt a strategy to confront gender violence around the world and work with other countries to reduce it.
Another useful step would be for Western countries to use aid programs more frequently to end impunity. We can train the police and the courts abroad to treat sexual violence cases more seriously, and hospitals and clinics to treat victims with more professionalism and compassion. Crucially, we can also support women’s groups in other countries as they try to raise these issues on their national agendas, for this kind of violence persists as long as it is invisible.
It’s not one girl’s problem, or one family’s problem. That’s the tip of a global human rights crisis.