The War On Women (And the Brave Ones Who Fight Back)

By Sue Lloyd-Roberts

Simon & Schuster, £16.99

THERE are many moments in Sue Lloyd-Roberts’s book when you have to pause, rub your eyes and take in the enormity of what you have just read. I did so in every chapter.

The casual inhumanity of man to woman, and indeed woman to woman, in country after country, reads like nothing less than an indictment of our species.

Few journalists could claim the authority with which to write so unequivocally on this subject but Lloyd-Roberts saw it all first hand, from Argentina to Ireland, Latvia to India. Fearless, resourceful and redoubtable, the woman known to her friends as the BBC’s “hopeless cause correspondent” died last October of myeloid leukaemia at the age of just 64, her campaigning zeal burning ferociously to the end.

She had finished all but the final chapter and conclusion of this book, the threads having been deftly tied together by her daughter Sarah. Lloyd-Roberts never wrote a memoir, but this is a much more fitting legacy: a book that will harden readers’ resolve to fight for change.

The War On Women scrapes the film from one’s eyes, forcing the reader to gaze on the chronic misogyny and abuse blighting the lives of women and girls in too many places around the world.

In one society after another, the Catholic church, the Muslim authorities, governments and officialdom, the police, the military, even parts of the UN, are shamed: she documents corruption, brutality, and cold indifference in male-dominated power structures on four continents.

Her opening chapter on female genital mutilation (FGM), a topic upon which she campaigned tirelessly, confronts us with the reality of young girls being held down, and their clitoris and labia being sliced off with razors. The practice is now being slowly tackled, but is rife in many parts of Africa, invariably in highly patriarchal societies where women have lesser status than men. We meet a Gambian woman, Maimouna, who was designated as her village’s “cutter” and was compelled to assist in carrying out the barbaric ritual on her own five-year-old daughter while the child screamed: “Mum! Mum! Help me!”

Lloyd-Roberts’s writing is urgent and pacy, as good reportage should be, but with the added piquancy of magisterial indignation. What could be too harrowing to bear is thus compulsive reading.

She describes meeting a Gambian imam who claims complacently that FGM is a good thing, suggesting outrageously that the clitoris causes itching and watery discharge.

Lloyd-Roberts retorts that “I have had a clitoris for 60 years and this has never happened to me”, to which he responds that she is “an exception", and “bursts out laughing, his wicked eyes gleaming”.

She writes: “It is not the absurdity of his argument but it is the laughing that makes me most angry ... He knows that what he is saying is preposterous and this clearly amuses him. It is as if he is admitting that genital mutilation is about control. Nonetheless, through gritted teeth, I thank him sincerely for the interview. At least he had agreed to talk to me and … he confirms the chronic misogyny that lies behind the custom.”

That “chronic misogyny” crops up everywhere. We meet survivors of the Magdalene laundries in Ireland where women were effectively imprisoned for the crime of being illegitimate.

We go to Saudi Arabia, “the world’s largest women’s prison”, where women need permission from a man to leave their house. We meet Rawda al-Yousef, one of those women who exist in every oppressive patriarchal society, who satisfy their own yearning to be noticed by men by becoming the most enthusiastic advocates against their own sex.

In Egypt we learn about the systematic sexual assault of female protesters in Tahrir Square. We learn about the sex traffickers who put ads online for au pairs or waitresses from former Soviet states, only to confiscate the young women’s passports, rape them and sell them to brothels in Western Europe; a frightening number are never heard from again.

Then there are the UN peacekeepers who have exploited these girls in brothels in Bosnia and Kosovo, and ignored their pleas for help.

There are heartbreaking chapters on forced marriage, rape as a weapon of war, and honour killings, which take place at the rate of two or three a day in Pakistan. She visits Jordan, where premeditated murder is punishable by death – except for men who kill women in their family who have behaved in a way the men deem morally unacceptable.

And just when it seems it can surely get no worse, Lloyd-Roberts takes us to India, considered by the secretariat of the G20 group of nations (which includes India) to be the worst place on the planet to be born female. There, six-year-old girls are married off to grown men, paedophilia abetted by parents in the name of “tradition”. Unicef estimates 18 per cent of girls are married by aged 15, resulting in children giving birth to children and suffering lifelong injuries or death. Dowry deaths – meted out in revenge where a woman’s family have not paid the full dowry – are thought to take place at the rate of one an hour. Infanticide of girls aged up to four is rife. Girls are almost twice as likely as boys to have died in India by age five. Overall, there are 914 females for every 1000 males and rape is commonplace. Why is all this happening? Because girls are not valued.

Indian women are fighting back as best they can and one cause célèbre was the brutal gang rape and murder of student Jyoti Singh in 2012, after she and a male friend got in a bus with a group of men. One of her attackers has said “a girl is far more responsible for a rape than a boy” and lawyers for the accused have taken up that refrain, one even claiming that if his own daughter engaged in “pre-marital activities” he would pour petrol on her in front of the family and set her alight.

A war on women indeed. The murderous misogyny of Europe’s witch trial era has not been vanquished, just relocated.

Not that Lloyd-Roberts presents the UK as a haven of enlightenment. On equal pay, honour killings, forced marriage and FGM, she highlights inadequate protection for women and girls. While FGM has been robustly tackled in France, it still happens here.

Sue Lloyd-Roberts bursts forth with energy and passion from the pages of this book, crying out for change and posthumously recruiting new foot soldiers to fight back in this bitter war. It should rouse anyone who complacently imagines that feminism has done its job, to see how very much farther there is to travel.