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A speech given at the December 3, 1998 * Volunteer Recognition Awards Ceremony * of Battered Women's Alternatives (San Francisco) - by NicoletteToussaint


I am here tonight to thank all of you for working to ensure universal human rights. I believe that the future of democracy, and of world peace, depends on you.

On you?

You may not have thought of the volunteer work you do as human rights work, but I do. Your work might seem like human rights work if you answer the crisis line, act as a legal advocate, provide counseling, or serve as clinical intern, but what about those who do the other countless, mundane tasks that keep Battered Women's Alternatives running? Those cheerful, reliable souls who lick stamps, sort mail, write down phone messages on little pink slips, plan fund-raisers, make copies and coffee, perhaps even change diapers? Those of you who spend your volunteer hours doing things that aren't historic, heroic, or glamorous deserve a special word of thanks, and that certainly includes _____________, who is missing this program tonight because she's answering the crisis line.

I think Mother Theresa was thinking of people like you when she said that there are no great deeds, only ordinary deeds done with great care.

I know that each of you does the work that you do because you care a great deal. And I want you, out of that great care, to start thinking of yourself tonight as a human rights worker. To help you do that, I'm going to ask you for a moment not to think not of copiers and coffee machines, but of human beings. Think of one human being, one particular client. Picture her face and remember her experiences as I read part of a historic document that was signed 50 years ago in San Francisco:

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal, and inalienable rights, of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world...

Now therefore, the General Assembly ... Proclaims this Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Article 1) All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.

2) Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration

3) Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person

4) No one shall be held in slavery or servitude

5) No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment

6) Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law

7) All are equal before the law and entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law

Article 12) No one shall be subject to arbitrary...detention

13) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each State

17) No one shall be deprived of [her] property

19) Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression

20) Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association

23) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment [and] to equal pay for equal work, [and]

25) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and protection

A moment ago, I asked you to think of a particular client, and as you did, I read to you from the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As you contrasted its words with the experiences of your client, I'm sure you realized that the fundamental human rights of every woman and child who is battered are gravely violated.

Because you are BWA volunteers and staffers, I know you understand the cycle of violence. I don't have to explain to you how violence begins, or how it how moves from name-calling and threats, to slapping and shoving, and then to battering and death.

I know you understand how power and control ungirds and excuses domestic violence.

Perhaps however, you haven't made the connections between domestic violence and other forms of violence against women. The term "violence against women" includes a variety of acts traditionally seen as "part of the culture" in every society, but which now are beginning to be understood as violations of the fundamental human rights of women. Internationally, this includes customs such as bride-burning in India, female infanticide in China, and selective malnourishment of females in Latin America. In our own nation, violence against women includes rape, incest, and wife beating. Because domestic violence so often includes rape, I'm sure it won't be hard for you to make connections between domestic violence and rape. Tonight, I'm going to draw even broader connections by mapping out the logical implications of a system of values that celebrates power over empowerment.

I'm sure you know that over the last 20 years, social scientists have conducted a great deal of research looking for what predisposes women to become victims of domestic violence. What they have found, of course, is nothing. Domestic violence cuts across all lines of race, class, and culture. The only things shared by victims of domestic violence are their victimization and the fact that 95% of them are female. Researchers looking for similarities that predispose victims to rape have come up just as empty-handed. Rape victims have nothing in common other than their victimization and the fact that almost all of them are female.

The irony is that it took almost two decades for researchers to turn the seach around, to ask if there were any similarities among the perpetrators, rather than the victims, of rape and domestic violence. (The scientists' excuse was that it was easier to find the victims, since they were all conveniently grouped together in the hospital or the shelter, waiting to be interviewed, while the perpetrators all seemed to be running around at large and unavailable!) When researchers finally did get around to looking at perpetrators, they found some connections. In the 1980s, a number of studies questioned men who had been convicted for domestic violence and rape - by then, many had been conveniently rounded up in jail. The women's movement had been pressing for changes in law enforcement, and arrest was getting a bit more frequent. In their jailhouse interviews, the scientists found that rapists and batterers did have something in common.

They all shared two beliefs:

1) that violence is a legitimate way of solving problems, and

2) that it is proper for a man to control women

Of course, those beliefs are not limited to rapists and batterers. They're pretty common in our society in general. If you don't believe me, go home and turn on the TV. Every American child watches 200,000 violent acts on TV before turning 16, and one in every eight Hollywood films shows a rape. It's no coincidence that polls show that 25% of all Americans think domestic violence is okay, that slapping around your wife when she doesn't do what you want is normal behavior.

And in an awful way, it is. The notion that it is right for men to have authority over women and children is wound through and through our entertainment, our religious and cultural history, and our laws. The Bible, says (quote) "for the husband is head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church." And it commands, "Wives be subject to your husbands and to the Lord." The tale of Hansel and Gretel is a horrifying saga of child abuse, and in the traditional English puppet show of Punch and Judy, Punch throws the baby out of the window for crying, then kills Judy. This was considered funny stuff in England two hundred years ago!

Our law, of course, is rooted in Judeo-Christian teachings. The genealogy of American law is traced through England, which was a Catholic theocracy until Henry the 8th wanted a divorce, and used the law to murder his wife. After that, Catholic Canon Law mixed with laws passed by parliament and with English common law to become the father - and I use that word intentionally - of our own law. Many of you, having dealt with our courts, know how profoundly biased American family law is against women. That's not surprising, considering where our laws originated. The phrase "rule of thumb" comes from an English common law which gave men the right to beat their wives, providing that they used only a stick no larger than the width of a man's thumb.

To recognize how far we have come in changing our laws and customs, I want to tell you the story of a woman named Sarah, who lived in one of our 13 original American colonies. I don't know if her name was Sarah, but I do know that between 1620 and 1800, there were many Sarahs. Our Sarah lived perhaps in Virginia. At the age of 13, she was given in marriage - given because she was property owned by her father - to a man who was much older. Her father, who was a poor man, received her dowry, and he kept it, because Sarah, being a woman, could not own property.

On Sarah's wedding night, she was raped. (Marital rape was an unimaginable idea, one that wouldn't appear for almost 300 years. Sarah's consent to marriage was legally considered to be her consent to all sexual acts with her husband.) As a result of the rape, Sarah became pregnant. (Contraception of all kinds would remain illegal and criminal throughout the realm for more than two centuries.) One morning after the baby's birth, Sarah awakened and was shocked to discover that her son was missing! His father had sold him into indentured servitude - what we call slavery. Sarah could do nothing. She had no alternatives. She had no legal right to object, no parental rights, not even a right to see her child. When she cried, her husband beat her.

Sarah could not protest to the court, because legally she was property, not a person. She could not leave because she had no money, and no woman could work outside the home. Indeed, thousands of widows and other women without men were accused of being witches; some were burned. Sarah could do nothing but pray and bear her cross, because she had no right to legal representation, and like all women, she was forbidden to speak in public. If Sarah had done what I'm doing now, speaking publicly, she would have been called a "public woman" - which means a prostitute - and treated accordingly.

I tell you Sarah's story because I want you to appreciate how very far we've come, how much has changed, how deep the roots run, and why it's so hard to change the system.

It wasn't until 1988 that all 50 US states had enacted laws against domestic violence. Domestic violence is still the only crime in which the victim, rather than the state, must press charges. All other acts of interpersonal violence - mugging, battery, and murder - are considered offenses against the security of state, and they are prosecuted by the state, not the victim.

In view of all this, it's truly a miracle that we are here! Hundreds of people gathered together, working to end the violence that Sarah had to suffer in secret! We are the tangible answer to Sarah's prayers - moving, bodily evidence of the awesome progress made towards women's equality in the past three centuries.

But the beliefs that oppressed Sarah - a moral code that holds that bigger people have the right to enforce their will on smaller, weaker people - is still very much with us. Domestic violence is a root cause of many social pathologies, and all around us, we can see the consequences of this ideology of power and control. Statistics tell us that:

More than half of all homeless women left home to escape beatings 25% of women who have attempted suicide have been battered

In the US, more babies are born with birth defects due to battering than from the combination of all diseases for which pregnant women are immunized

Children from violent homes are physically abused or seriously neglected at a rate 15 hundred percent higher than other children

Children from violent homes have higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse

And most tellingly:

80% of men in prisons were physically or sexually abused as children

I want to suggest to you tonight that when we experience violence in our homes, it has consequences even more far-reaching than those I just mentioned. Our model of the world is created in our homes of origin. What we see as children, patterns our expectations about how males and females will behave toward one another: how we should behave towards those who are smaller and weaker, and what we can expect of justice as our rings of acquaintance ripple outward, pulling us far beyond the families we first knew.

Author Riane Eisler shows us what happens when a man, who believes that it is proper for a man to control women, also believes that God has given him the right to enforce his will in the world. Eisler does this by comparing the actions of an American fundamentalist preacher, Jerry Falwell, with a foreign fundamentalist preacher, the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran. In doing so, she reveals the links between institutionalized violence, the suppression of women, and the suppression of liberty. She writes:

In the United States, Jerry Falwell preached to millions of television viewers that God was against the Equal Rights Amendment. He took a stand against freedom of speech, against reproductive freedom of choice, and he said that the freedom to worship or not worship according to one's own conscience constituted a threat to liberty. He supported a "strong" and militaristic America; and he supported the brutally repressive South African government. By encouraging oppressive regimes to kill and torture their own people, with weapons provided by "God-fearing" American leaders, he put the stamp of the will of God on violence. In such ways, the Falwells of patriarchal Christianity demonstrate their "bread and butter" recognition of the connections between male dominance, authoritarianism, and male violence.

The Ayatollah Khomeini similarly recognized these connections when he proclaimed the chuddar -- the full-length dress that traditional Muslim women are required to wear -- as the symbol of Iran's return to a theocratic patriarchy... The Ayatollah Khomeini was originally expelled from Iran after he led a two-day riot in protest of more equal treatment for women. Upon his return to Iran, one of his first official acts was to suspend the Family Protection Act of 1967, an Act that gave women greater equality in divorce, marriage, and inheritance.

At the same time, the Ayatollah and his mullahs passed rigid new laws that sexually segregated schools and beaches. They swiftly imposed a law lowering the minimum marriage age for girls to 13.... And for the crime of believing in a faith that encourages equality between women and men, 10 Baha'i women were killed at a public execution in 1983. They included Iran's first woman physicist, a concert pianist, a nurse, and three teen-age college students.

Sadly, we now have an even more urgent example of where a belief in "God-given" superiority leads. Everything I am about to tell you is true. Verifiable. God-given superiority has lead to the genocide being committed, this day and this hour, against the women of Afghanistan. Like the women of colonial America, these women are prohibited by law from working outside the home; they are barred from schools; they have no public voice, and no recourse to the law.

In Afghanistan now, the windows of houses where women live must be painted black so they cannot be seen or see out themselves. They are allowed outside only if accompanied by a man, \and if they do go out, they can be arrested for making noise with their shoes. Women have been shot for showing their ankles.

Cut off from their jobs, they cannot receive international aid unless a male relative receives it for them. And many of them have no male relatives, because many husbands and sons were killed in Afghanistan's civil war. Depressed, endangered, impoverished, and denied even basic medical care, the women of Afghanistan can only pray that out here in the world, we will not give up the struggle for their rights.

You are the answer to their prayers, just as you have been the answer to Sarah's.

How, you ask? What can you do to ensure that women's rights are human rights? You could send a donation for Afghanistan to the Feminist Majority. But more importantly, continue to do what that old 60s phrase suggests: Think globally, act locally. Which means: keep on licking those stamps, changing those diapers, and making those calls and coffee.

Earlier, I read to you from the UN's 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I'm sure you remember that in September 1995, the UN held the Fourth World Conference of Women in Beijing. A worldwide platform for action was written in Beijing, and one of its ten planks specifically talks about working to end violence against women. Here in our own state, the California Women's Agenda has devised local ways of carrying out that global plan. You may be surprised to learn that you're part of that, carrying out a California Women's Agenda plank, specifically the one that says, "Set up shelters, provide legal aid and other services for girls and women at risk, and provide counseling and rehabilitation for perpetrators of violence against women."

As you do that, I want you to bear in mind something else from the California Women's Agenda: a directive listed under the heading, "principals to guide our organizing, post-Beijing." It says:


Begin to think of the work we do as peace work

View women's human rights as a new paradigm for achieving social change

I hope that after tonight, you will begin to do that. Because, as I told you at the beginning of this speech, the work you're doing is human rights work. And the future of democracy and world peace truly does depend on the work that you - and men and women like you throughout the world - are doing at this moment.

For that, you have my admiration, my thanks, and my gratitude. You are the answer to my own prayer, as well as Sarah's. And it truly is a miracle to see you all gathered in this room. As the poet Marge Piercy has said, "It goes on one at a time. It starts when you care to act. It starts when you do it again after they say no. It starts when you say "We" and know who you mean. And each day, you mean one more."

I am proud to be part of your "We." And I honor you.

In parting, I would like to leave you with the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, the only woman who signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948 in Herbst Theatre in San Francisco:

"Where, after all, do universal human rights begin?

In small places, close to home

Places so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world

Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity

And equal dignity without discrimination."

Bless you for your faith, your vision, and your courage.

Where, After All, Do Universal Human Rights Begin?
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Nicolette Toussaint, Dec. 1998