Women with guns to their heads

In South Africa a woman is shot dead by a current or former partner every 18 hours, according to a new report from the Stop Violence Against Women campaign and the Control Arms campaign.

The report, 'The Impact of Guns on Women's Lives', compiled by Amnesty International, the development agency Oxfam, and the global International Action Network on Small Arms, said women were paying an increasingly heavy price for the unregulated multibillion-dollar trade in small arms.

South Africa is named in the report, along with countries in the American continent and Europe, all battling to stem a mounting tide of handguns.

There are an estimated 650 million small arms in the world today, nearly 60 percent of which are in the hands of private individuals, most of them men, said the report.

A large number of women suffered directly or indirectly from armed violence. "Women are particularly at risk of certain crimes because of their gender; crimes such as family violence and rape. Given that women are almost never the buyers, owners or users of small arms, they also suffer completely disproportionately from armed violence," said Denise Searle, Amnesty International's Senior Director of Communications and Campaigning at the launch of the report this week.

"It is often claimed that guns are needed to protect women and their families, but the reality is totally opposite - women want guns out of their lives", she noted.

Guns affect women's lives, even "when they are not directly in the firing line," as they assume the role of breadwinners and primary carers when male relatives are killed, injured or disabled by gun violence.

The prevalence of affordable small arms that are and easy to carry and use has changed the landscape of warfare, allowing women and children to be recruited as combatants in countries as far apart as Nepal and Liberia.

Laws protecting women from physical abuse have not helped, including in South Africa, where violence against women has been regarded as a "private" matter between the abuser, the victim and the immediate family, the report said. A 1999 study in South Africa discovered that more than a third of women believed that if a wife did something wrong, her husband had the right to punish her.

The provision in the Domestic Violence Act in South Africa, giving police the power to remove a weapon from an alleged abuser at the victim's request, was rarely implemented, as most law enforcers did not view violence against women seriously, according to a study cited by the report.

The report suggested making a national gun licence mandatory for anyone wanting to own a gun, with the exclusion of those with a history of family violence; making violence against women a criminal offence, with effective penalties for perpetrators; and specific training for law enforcement organisations to ensure that they respected women's rights.

The campaigners also called for the equal participation of women in demobilisation, reintegration and disarmament programmes to ensure the effective collection and destruction of surplus and illegal weapons; and the establishment of an Arms Trade Treaty prohibiting arms exports to countries where there was a likelihood of the weapons being used for violence against women and other human rights violations.