As I was preparing for this article, I asked a very good friend who is Jewish if it was appropriate for me to use the term "holocaust" to portray the worldwide violence against women. He was startled. But when I read him the figures in a 2004 policy paper published by the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces, he said yes, without hesitation.
One United Nations estimate says that between 113 million and 200 million women around the world are "missing." Every year, between 1.5 million and 3 million women and girls lose their lives as a result of gender-based violence or neglect. As the Economist, which reported on the policy paper, put it last November, "Every two to four years the world looks away from a victim count on the scale of Hitler's Holocaust." How could this possibly be true?
Here are some of the factors:
• In countries where the birth of a boy is preferred, selective abortion and infanticide eliminate female babies.
• Young girls die disproportionately from neglect because food and medical attention is given first to males.
• In countries where women are considered the property of men, their fathers and brothers can murder them for choosing their own sexual partners.
• The brutal international sex trade kills uncounted numbers of girls.
• Domestic violence is a major reason for the deaths of women in every country.
• Six thousand girls undergo genital mutilation every day, according to the World Health Organization. Many die, and others live the rest of their lives in crippling pain.
All these figures are estimates; registering precise numbers for violence against women is not a priority in most countries. It is comfortable for us to ignore these issues, especially when the problems are so widespread and for many, so far away. And by "us," I include women.
Going forward there are three challenges: Women are not organized or united. Those of us in rich countries, who have attained equality under the law, need to mobilize to assist our fellows. Only our political pressure can lead to change.
Next, there are the forces of obscurantism that want to close the world off. The Islamists are engaged in reviving and spreading a brutal and retrograde body of laws. Wherever the Islamists implement sharia, or Islamic law, women are hounded from the public arena, denied education, and forced into a life of domestic slavery.
Lastly, cultural and moral relativists sap our sense of moral outrage by defending the position that human rights are a Western invention. Men who abuse women rarely fail to use the vocabulary the relativists have kindly provided them. They claim the right to adhere to an alternative set of values - an "Asian," "African" or "Islamic" approach to human rights. This mind-set needs to be broken. A culture that carves the genitals of young girls, hobbles their minds, and justifies their physical oppression is not equal to a culture that believes women have the same rights as men.
Three initial steps could be taken by world leaders to begin eradicating the mass murder of women. A tribunal like the International Court of Justice in The Hague should look for the 113 million to 200 million women and girls who are missing. A serious international effort must urgently be made to precisely register violence against girls and women, country by country. And we need a worldwide campaign to reform cultures that permit this kind of crime.
In the past two centuries, those in the West have gradually changed the way they treat women. As a result, the West enjoys greater peace and progress. It is my hope that the third world will embark on this effort. Just as we put an end to slavery, we must end the "gendercide."
• Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born Dutch legislator, lives under 24-hour protection because of death threats against her by Islamic radicals since the murder of director Theo van Gogh, with whom she made the film "Submission." ©2006 Los Angeles Times Syndicate