Moroccans call for gender equality on International Women's Day in Rabat. Photo: AFP
The evidence is ubiquitous. The gang rape of a young woman on a bus in New Delhi sets off an unusual burst of national outrage in India. US colleges face mounting scrutiny about campus rape. In South Sudan, women are assaulted by both sides in the civil war. In Iraq, jihadis enslave women for sex.
Despite the many gains women have made in education, health and even political power in the course of a generation, violence against women and girls worldwide "persists at alarmingly high levels," according to a UN analysis that the Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is scheduled to present to the General Assembly.
About 35 per cent of women worldwide - more than 1 in 3 - said they had experienced violence in their lifetime, whether physical, sexual, or both, the report finds. One in 10 girls under the age of 18 was forced to have sex, it says.
Indian nuns march for peace on International Women's Day in Allahabad. Photo: AFP
The subject is under sharp focus as delegates from around the world gather to assess how well governments have done since they promised to ensure women's equality at a landmark conference in Beijing 20 years ago - and what to do next.
Since the Beijing conference, there has been measurable, though mixed, progress on many fronts, according to the UN analysis.
As many girls as boys are now enrolled in primary school, a sharp advance since 1995. Maternal mortality rates have fallen by half. And women are more likely to be in the labour force, though the pay gap is closing so slowly that it will take another 75 years before women and men are paid equally for equal work.
Polish feminist activists march on International Women's Day in Warsaw. Photo: AFP
The share of women serving in legislatures has nearly doubled, too, though women still account for only 1 in 5 legislators. All but 32 countries have adopted laws that guarantee gender equality in their constitutions.
But violence against women - including rape, murder and sexual harassment - remains stubbornly high in countries rich and poor, at war and at peace. The United Nations' main health agency, the World Health Organisation, found that 38 per cent of women who are murdered are killed by their partners.
Even as women's groups continue to push for laws that criminalise violence - marital rape is still permitted in many countries - new types of attacks have emerged, some of them online, including rape threats on Twitter.
March in Philippines on International Women's Day in Manila. Photo: AP
Where there are laws on the books, like ones that criminalise domestic violence, for instance, they are not reliably enforced.
The economic impact is huge. One recent study found that domestic violence against women and children alone costs the global economy $US4 trillion ($A5.18 trillion).
"Overall, as you look at the world, there have been no large victories in eradicating violence against women," said Valerie Hudson, a professor of politics at Texas A&M University who has developed world maps that chart the status of women. The vast majority of countries, by her metrics, do not have laws that protect women's physical safety.
In some cases, the laws on the books are the problem, women's rights advocates say. In some countries, like Nigeria, the law permits a man to beat his wife under certain circumstances. But even when laws are technically adequate, victims often do not feel comfortable going to law enforcement, or they are unable to pay the bribes required to file a police report.
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the executive director of the UN agency for gender equity and women's empowerment - known as UN Women - said that for the laws to mean anything, governments around the world have to persuade their police officers, judges and medical personnel to take violence against women seriously.
"I am disappointed, I have to be honest," she said about the stubborn hold of violence against women. "More than asking for more laws to be passed, I'm asking for implementation."
According to Equality Now, an advocacy group that tracks laws pertaining to women, 125 countries specifically criminalise domestic violence. But so-called wife-obedience laws still remain in some places. In some others, rapists can get off the hook by marrying those they assault.
Yasmeen Hassan, the group's executive director, said that governments need to be reminded that they committed to making their laws fair for women. Cultural differences cannot be an excuse, she said. "It's always a cop-out for governments to not do what they signed up to do," she said.
The new round of global development targets that governments around the world will have to agree to later this year, known as Sustainable Development Goals, includes a separate requirement for women's equal rights, including how they protect their female citizens from violence.
The latest UN report draws attention to the rise of "extremism and conservatism," and without naming any countries or groups, it argues that what they share is a "resistance to women's human rights". The assaults and abductions by the Islamic State have brought new urgency to the issue.
Hudson, the academic, said the persistence of violence in so many forms is in part because it can establish domination against women of all kinds, for a broad range of personal and political purposes. A husband can just as easily beat his wife if she is a high school dropout or a college graduate. An entire territory can be claimed if fighters rape the local women - or take them as sex slaves, as is the case of the Islamic State.
"I think violence against women is so darn useful," she said. "That's why it'll be so hard to eradicate."
Violence can start before birth. Sex-selective abortions, have been reduced in some countries, as in South Korea, but are higher than ever in other places, like India, and are going up sharply in places like Armenia.
Harassment is commonplace. In the United States, 83 per cent of girls aged 12 to 16 said they had experienced some form of harassment in public schools. In New Delhi, a 2010 study found that 2 out of 3 women said they were harassed more than twice in the last year alone.
Violence against women is often unreported. For instance, a study conducted in the 28 countries of the European Union found that only 14 per cent of women reported their most serious episode of domestic violence to the police.
"Violence against women has epidemic proportions, and is present in every single country around the world," said Lydia Alpizar, executive director of the Association for Women's Rights in Development, a global feminist group. "Yet it is still not a real priority for most governments."
Perhaps the biggest change in 20 years, say those who attended the 1995 Beijing conference, is that the subject is now front and centre in public discussion.
"There is actually a great deal more attention being paid today to violence against women," said Charlotte Bunch, a feminist scholar who attended the Beijing conference. "The truth is, it's a complex issue that isn't solved easily."
Source: The New York Times