Amnesty's bid to stop violence against women targets movies

Human-rights group details atrocities and urges responsible portrayals in media

Globe and Mail
March 6, 2004
By Marina Jimenez

Sexually explicit and violent Hollywood films are partly responsible for a rise globally in violence against women, according to Amnesty International and Star Trek actor Patrick Stewart, who called the entertainment industry "irresponsible" yesterday at the launch of a comprehensive new report.

Mr. Stewart lambasted Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill for perpetuating the violent attitudes of men toward women, saying the film industry should be ashamed of its "lazy and sensationalist" portrayal of women.

"I condemn utterly films like Kill Bill. We are told it is about empowering women. All it does is empower a woman to kill other women," he said at a news conference in London. "The entertainment industry has to be super-watchful over this."

He spoke at the launch of Amnesty International's 122-page report entitled It's in our Hands: Stop Violence Against Women, which details astonishing levels of violence against women in every country and context.

Among the many examples cited: honour killings in Jordan, including a man who received a 12-month sentence in 2002 for killing the pregnant sister he felt had "tarnished her family's reputation"; female genital mutilation in Africa and Europe; in1999, 33 U.S. states had exemptions to marital rape laws, many of which spared a husband from prosecution if his wife was mentally or physically impaired, unconscious or asleep and legally unable to consent; the abduction from Iraq of 70 women a month into the sex trade; the killing of hundreds of women in Mexico; female infanticide and sex-selective abortions in China.

One in three women will suffer violence in their lifetime; two million girls between the ages of 5 and 15 are introduced into the commercial sex trade every year; and as many as 135 million girls the world over are estimated to have undergone genital mutilation.

Amnesty says it is not officially condemning Kill Bill, a film about an ex-assassin betrayed by her boss who swears revenge on her former master, or calling for censorship of Hollywood films.

Instead, the human-rights group, which also lobbies for freedom of expression, is calling on filmmakers, entertainers and the media to be more responsible in their depiction of women.

"People should think when they compose music or lyrics how their attitudes towards women may contribute to violence against women," said Gita Sahgal, who is with Amnesty's international secretariat. "We are not calling for a ban on films, or for more controls. The film industry contributes to a tolerance of violence towards women. We urge those in popular culture to think about ways they might be stereotyping women."

Mr. Tarantino was unavailable for comment yesterday, busy editing the second volume of Kill Bill, according to the Guardian.

Amnesty's report notes that the violence cuts across boundaries of wealth and race and that gains by women in parts of the world are being reversed or ignored. In the United States, women accounted for 85 per cent of victims of domestic violence, according to a 1999 report, and in Britain emergency services receive an average of one call a minute about violence in the family.

Mr. Stewart, who played Captain Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation, is a long-time Amnesty supporter who decided to go public yesterday with his own experiences of domestic abuse.

As a boy, he observed his father abusing his mother.

"I saw society -- police, doctors, neighbours -- conspire to hide abuse," Mr. Stewart said, nearly breaking down in tears.

"Violence against women diminishes us all. If you fail to raise your hand in protest, you are part of the problem."

Amnesty's report says that problems exist even in countries such as Canada, where there is legislation in place to protect women. For example, aboriginal women have much higher rates of domestic assault than women in the population as a whole. Abused women are often forced to leave the reserve because of a lack of funding for shelters, and because their homes may belong to their husbands, according to the Native Women's Association of Canada, which worked with Amnesty's Ottawa branch on the report.

Some parallel systems of justice, such as Islamic sharia law in northern Nigeria, discriminate against women, prescribing the death sentence for such offences as sexual intercourse outside marriage.

Canada's community-based justice programs, which seek to bring all parties together in a healing circle, do not always serve the interests of women, according to the report.

"With sentencing circles, sometimes the man remains in the community and doesn't receive a harsh sentence," said Kukdookaa Terri Brown, president of the Native Women's Association. "There was a recent case in the Yukon where the chief assaulted his wife and received a very light sentence and the women up there were very angry."

A United Nations report last year said that Canada could do more to combat violence against women and girls, and increase funding for crisis centres and shelters. Amnesty is calling on Ottawa to fund front-line organizations and train advocates to support victims of violence as they seek redress and justice.