Tomorrow, on Valentine's Day, countless couples will celebrate romance by candlelight. On the same day, one billion women and men worldwide will stand up to shine a light on the darker side of gender relations.
According to the UN, one in three women worldwide will be raped or beaten in her lifetime. In some countries, up to seven in 10 women will be beaten, raped, abused or mutilated. Often, the victims are treated as criminals - dishonoured, brutalised, ostracised, imprisoned and even executed - while perpetrators remain free.
Last December, the gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman in India - two months after Pakistan's Taliban shot 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai for advocating education - triggered large-scale public protests. This outcry should mark the start of a global movement to lift the veil of silence that shrouds violence against women - which often begins at home - and protects the perpetrators.
From honour killings to child marriages, from date rape to sex slavery, crimes against women are prevalent in every society. But, when women are courageous enough to report abuse, doctors are often unhelpful, police are hostile, and the justice system fails them.
In the 1970s, feminists identified the connection between rape, male privilege and female sexual vilification. Today, readily accessible internet pornography is teaching boys and men that sexual acts involving degradation and even violent abuse of women are acceptable.
Meanwhile, many privileged women dismiss feminism as passé. But gender discrimination continues to pervade all aspects of society.
Feminism has a crucial role to play in the 21st century. Governments must continue to advance women's rights through legislation, while civil society must promote a cultural shift that rejects women's marginalisation or mistreatment. Only by enabling women to realise their potential can countries ensure economic and social progress.
This potential was evident during the Arab Spring uprisings, when women, empowered by advances in literacy and education, organised and led protests that toppled regimes. But gender equality remains a distant goal in the region, with women being left out of the political process.
Next month, government and civil-society leaders will gather in New York for a meeting of the UN Commission on the Status of Women to agree on a plan to eliminate violence against women. Global leaders should take this opportunity to pledge to adopt the policies and devote the resources needed to end pervasive violations of women's human rights.
Although 187 countries have signed the 1979 United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, statistics show little progress.
Change is possible, but it requires collective action by the international community. Five steps are particularly important:
- Ratify and enforce all relevant regional and international treaties, and implement laws that prohibit violence against women and ensure effective punishment of offences.
- Enhance women's economic and political empowerment.
- Increase public awareness of the problem.
- Mobilise men and boys against violence through educational programmes.
- Improve support for survivors of violence and their families.
All people deserve justice, equality and freedom from violence. Tomorrow, people worldwide should support One Billion Rising, a global call for them to show their support for the one billion women who have survived violence and abuse. Your involvement will bring the world closer to ending this deadly war against women.
George A. Papandreou is president of Socialist International. Ouafa Hajji is president of Socialist International Women. Copyright: Project Syndicate