Violence against women worldwide causes more deaths and injuries than traffic accidents, cancer, and malaria combined.
Yet not enough is being done to stop it, says Swedish journalist and author Karin Alfredsson, who has launched an unprecedented global initiative aimed at focusing attention on a worldwide epidemic of violence against women.
"It's everywhere," Ms. Alfredsson says.
The project, called Cause of Death: Woman, is taking her or members of her team to 10 countries – Pakistan, Mexico, the United States, Egypt, South Africa, Spain, Brazil, Russia, Sweden, and the Democratic Republic of Congo – to document what they call the "violent reality" for women and to highlight ways to end it.
Alfredsson's team includes Kerstin Weigl, an award-winning reporter for the Swedish national daily newspaper Aftonbladet, and Linda Forsell, a photojournalist. Their findings and recommendations will be presented at a February 2012 conference in Washington, D.C., organized by the US-based National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV).
Alfredsson's project provides a catalyst for conversations, says Sue Else, president of the NNEDV. "We can't begin to address this epidemic problem until we talk about it openly and widely," Ms. Else says.
Funding (2.5 million Swedish kronor, about $390,000) is being provided by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency; Sigrid Rausing, a philanthropist, anthropologist, and publisher; and the family of the late Swedish crime novelist Stieg Larsson, whose books often dealt with gender-based violence.
The project – an offshoot of Alfredsson's career as the author of five works of fiction focusing on the issue – will include an interactive website with real-life examples of women affected by gender-based violence and information on how to stop it, Alfredsson said in an interview at her home outside Stockholm.
More than 30 years ago, and almost single-handedly, Alfredsson persuaded Swedish authorities to take the issue seriously and to act more forcefully in handling cases of domestic violence, says Margot Wallström, the United Nations special representative on sexual violence in conflict.
Alfredsson's book on that subject, "Den man älskar agar man?" ("The Person You Love You Hurt?"), was published in 1979. Since then, she has written 14 books – most of them dealing with women's issues.
Alfredsson played a pivotal role in pressuring Swedish politicians and the police to treat domestic violence not merely as a family matter but as potentially criminal, Ms. Wallström told the Monitor. "She really started the discussion."
Alfredsson considers herself to be a journalist, despite having written a series of fictional thrillers whose main character, a Swedish doctor named Ellen Elg, confronts acts of violence against women in countries as diverse as South Africa, Poland, Vietnam, and India.
As part of the new project, countries will be rated using several criteria, including whether they have effective legislation in place to prevent violence against women, whether their judicial system is dealing with the issue, whether measures exist to protect women threatened with or harmed by domestic violence, and whether they have programs to treat offenders.
Some countries already have taken significant steps. In Spain, model legislation has been enacted and a special court has been set up to deal specifically with cases involving violence against women.
In South Africa, with the highest rate of rape in the world per capita, according to the UN and Interpol, the Sonke Gender Justice Network works with men and boys to promote gender equality, prevent domestic and sexual violence, and reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS.
The US-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the cost to society of "intimate partner violence" – rape, physical assault, and stalking – is more than $5.8 billion a year, including $4.1 billion in direct medical and health-care costs.
Most countries, however, have still not done enough to address the problem, according to a report published earlier this year by UN Women, a UN agency. Few countries have enacted legislation making rape within marriage a crime.
Wallström says her office has thrown its full support behind the Alfredsson initiative. "This is a global problem," she says. "Women are attacked because they are women.... This has to stop."
In some countries rape is seen as a "cheap and effective" weapon to instill fear and terror in a population, she says.
The UN Security Council has recognized violence against women as a significant impediment to peace and security, Wallström says. "But from recognizing the problem to being able to stop it is a big step," she says. "That is what we're now focusing on – going after the perpetrators and ending impunity.... It is a huge problem."
"I think that [Alfredsson's project] will help put the spotlight on the problem and intensify the debate," Wallström says.
• For more information, go to www.causeofdeathwoman.com (in Swedish, but it offers an English-language newsletter).
• For more stories about people making a difference, go here.