Commentary: Oscar Winner 'Saving Face' Sheds Light on Violence Against Women, a Global Problem

By Suneeta Krishnan

During the past several weeks, millions of people around the globe were exposed to the harsh treatment of women in many parts of the world through the Academy Award winning film Saving Face, which won in the best short film documentary category.

The film, by Pakistani filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, draws attention to the all-too-common practice of acid attacks on women in Pakistan by husbands, boyfriends, and others. Acid attacks, an extreme form of violence against women, are prevalent across South Asia, China, Cambodia, Thailand, and Jamaica.

These attacks leave horrific psychological and physical impacts on women, requiring long-term treatment and support. However, the physical violence of acid attacks is only one piece of the story. Psychological and sexual violence against women, which can leave few readily apparent physical marks, is rampant across the world. They are often perpetrated by intimate partners and seen as a private matter rather than a societal problem.

In the United States, a 2010 national survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that one in four women had experienced severe physical violence (e.g., being hit with a fist or something hard, beaten, slammed against something) by an intimate partner and one in five women had been raped in their lifetime.

A study of women aged 15 to 49 years in 10 low and middle income countries by the World Health Organization found that between 15 and 71 percent of respondents had experienced physical and/or sexual violence (e.g., slapped, kicked, choked, forced to have sex) by an intimate partner at some point in their lives. In the urban slums of Bangalore, India, nearly 80 percent of the 16- to 25-year-old married women surveyed reported experiencing some form of violence (hit, kicked, beaten, forced sex, humiliated/demeaned) by their husband and/or in-laws. Notably, two in five women who reported experiencing violence had contemplated or attempted suicide.

A large body of evidence has accumulated on the adverse health impacts of violence on women and their children. Abused women are more likely to have an unintended pregnancy, experience pregnancy complications, have a low birth weight infant, and experience an infant death. Violence is also linked to poor self esteem, eating disorders, depression, and self-harm. Children who witness violence are more likely to be victimized or perpetrate violence as adults. Thus, violence against women breeds future violence.

There is hope that this scenario is changing. Evidence on the adverse health and social impacts of violence against women and women's stories of suffering and resilience such as those documented in Saving Face are galvanizing governments, civil society organizations, and communities to address this problem. At the global level, the United Nations is promoting the development of multi-sectoral policies and programs to raise awareness and prevent and respond to violence against women through the UNiTE to End Violence Against Women campaign.

Men are organizing to end violence against women, through initiatives such as the White Ribbon Campaign, which began in Canada, and the MenEngage Global Alliance. At the local level, women are speaking up, supporting each other, and demanding their rights. In Bangalore, work is being done with young women and their mothers-in-law to strengthen their resistance to violence and to build common resolve to protect and promote their family's health.

Social change is not easily accomplished. Soon, the buzz from this year's Oscars will be over with the red carpet stored away for another year. However, efforts to prevent violence against women and mitigate its adverse impacts need to ramp up. Legal action against those who perpetrate violence must be ensured, and services to support survivors of violence must be made accessible.

Efforts focused on prevention of violence are equally important, and should address young women's educational and employment opportunities and young people's understandings of gender roles and relationships. Zakia and Rukhsana's resilience and dignity in the film should inspire us all to take action to ensure women's human rights and gender equity.

Suneeta Krishnan, Ph.D., is a social epidemiologist at RTI International who conducts community-based research in India to develop and test interventions that promote health and gender equity.