The 1 Percent That Makes All the Difference

For every 100 women there are 101 men. Although 1 percent doesn’t seem like much, it makes all the difference.

On August 4, 2008, I found myself becoming part of the statistics. It happened in the building of my Lonely Planet recommended hostel in Ulaanbaatar — the capital city of Mongolia. I was climbing up the stairs leading to the dorm room I had stayed in, the keys already in my hand, when I noticed a man standing by the door, a big smile on his face. He looked at the keys I was holding and said something in Mongolian. I smiled awkwardly and replied (in English), “I’m sorry, but I don’t speak Mongolian.”

It was the fifth day of my first-ever solo world travels. Everything seemed so new, so exciting. I had carefully planned the beginning of my trip months before, making sure to read all I could about the local cultures, traditions, cuisine, must-see places, and the fascinating histories behind the places I was about to visit. Needless to say, I had taken all required safety precautions — after all, I was a woman traveling on her own, with many more things to take into consideration, as many acquaintances had kindly reminded me.

I had just bought a map of the trek I was planning to go on with some nice fellow travelers I had met on the Trans-Mongolian train. It was around 4 p.m. The sun was shining and the famous blue Mongolian skies were clear from clouds. Many people were outside. I could hear their meaningless chatter from inside the building. The man kept gesturing me to open the door, the smile never leaving his face. I had no reason in the world to feel discomfort, but yet I did. Again, I apologized in English, then shrugged. We both seemed to have been caught in this endless loop of miscommunication.

“He’s probably from the hostel’s staff,” I thought. But I couldn’t put my mind at ease. “If he’s from the hostel, why send him over if he doesn’t speak a word of English?” I wondered. I had just arrived at the hostel and had yet to familiar myself with the staff. The fact that it was a “mixed” building, housing both tourists and locals, had, of course, complicated matters. “Basically, he could be anyone,” the hard- to-please little watchdog inside my head pointed out. A disturbing sensation in my stomach began to clench me from the inside. It grew stronger and stronger. I smiled at him confusedly while running several scenarios in my head.

“I have three options,” I told myself. “Options 1: Open the door and let him examine whatever it is he wants to examine in the room. Option 2: Unlock the door quickly, run inside, close the door, and lock it. Option 3: Walk down the stairs and go out to the busy street, where all the people are.” After weighing the options, I chose the third one, mocking myself for being so paranoid. “If only he were a woman, he’d understand why I’m about to walk away; if only he were a woman, he’d know about the constant dilemmas we all face on a daily basis with what appears as the most ordinary of situations,” I tried to silence my slightly guilty conscience.

The man looked at me again, but now his smile was gone. In this moment, which will haunt me for as long as I shall live, we both suddenly understood each other perfectly without needing to utter a single word. His eyes told me what was about to happen and my eyes told him I was fully aware of that. This was by far the most dreadful moment of my life; a realization clearer than the beautiful blue skies outside. For a moment there, we both pretended nothing had happened. I made a huge effort not show him how scared I was. I said “Bayartai” — Mongolian for goodbye — and forced a business-as-usual smile. But it was too late, and I knew that. I turned my back to him ever so slowly and was about to go down the stairs when I felt his muscular arms grabbing my throat from behind. I tried to let go and run, but he was too strong. Although I had half expected this to happen, I still couldn’t believe it. Someone was trying to kill me, me, strangling me from behind, and all I could do was stand at the edge of the staircase all frozen, refusing to accept that this was, in fact, happening.

I had practiced Shotokan karate for four years precisely in order to avoid such situations, but the fear paralyzed me, and I don’t mean it figuratively. I couldn’t move a single muscle in my body; I couldn’t even blink, or speak, or scream. No voice came out of my mouth. I couldn’t even beg for my life. My body refused to cooperate and help me fight back. No, my Karate training hadn’t prepared me for this paralysis scenario. So many thoughts ran through my head, so much self-hatred for not being able to fight back and save my own life. “This is just another nightmare, a lucid dream; soon, you’ll wake up in your bed,” the voice in my head insisted. Meanwhile, another man came running up the stairs. He grabbed my legs and lifted me up in the air. They were both ridiculously strong and looked like professional wrestlers — which just so happens to be one of Mongolia’s national sports — so it was quite easy for them to keep me from moving. While the first man tightened his grip on my neck, the second man started to beat me up. But I didn’t feel any pain. The adrenaline rush was so intense, I just couldn’t feel a single thing. It felt like being stuck in a silent film. It was so quiet. They were quiet; I was quiet. No one outside knew this was happening inside the building, merely thirty-forty feet away.

A lot of pressure began building up inside my head. I became dizzy. There were black spots everywhere, which had then transformed into beautiful colorful stains. I was beginning to die, I realized. That’s how it felt. Suddenly, my paralyzing fear was replaced by anger. “How dare they try to take my life away from me? The only thing that is truly mine in this world,” I thought. Just like that, all the dreams I had, all the emotions I had felt, all the plans I had made — they were all worthless. To them, I wasn’t another human being, another small world of its own. To them, I didn’t mean a single thing. I thought about my family and friends, imagining them looking down at my fresh grave with teary eyes. It was inconceivable. I demanded myself to do something, anything, before it would be too late.

I remember feeling astounded by the great capacities of the human brain — how, in such situations, right before a possible death, it suddenly enables you to think straight like never before, piling up layers of unrelated linear thoughts, rather than letting each new thought push away the former, as it usually does. How was it even possible for me to think about my family and the meaning of my life — or rather, its lack of meaning — and still manage to work out a plan for getting myself out of this irreversible situation — death?

I knew I had to make a noise and draw some attention; it was my only shot. But I couldn’t scream — the man’s grip around my neck was too tight. I focused, closed my eyes, and somehow managed to form a horrifying shriek which came straight from my stomach. I had never managed to scream (let alone speak) from my stomach before. My assailants, who must have been scared of being caught, tossed me against the staircase. I knew the encounter between my head and the cement nearly five feet below was inevitable. I didn’t want to die. I tried with all my might to make the remaining seconds I thought I had last longer. Then, I felt the most painful blow to my head and it all went black.

When I woke up, I thought I was a ghost. I heard distant voices. Children were laughing somewhere, but they seemed to be millions of miles away. I found myself at the bottom of the staircase — after having lost consciousness, I rolled down two whole stories, I realized. My assailants were nowhere to be found. To this day I have no idea how long I had been out or what they had done to me when I was lying on the stairs, unconscious. Before taking off, they couldn’t resist the urge to take away most of my money, my camera, and other valuables, of course. Only years later would I discover that they had taken some of my memories as well.

The four years I had practiced Karate did pay off and big time: right before my head hit the stair, my hand had slipped under my neck to protect it. My body had done this on its own. My left elbow and the skullcap had taken the blows, both saving me from a sure death. I smiled to myself, happy as can be — I survived! I was alive! How wonderful! I crawled to the street. I remember seeing people run toward me, worried expressions on their faces. It must have been scary for them to see the strange marks on my throat and the blood coming down.

After long hours at a local hospital, and once the blessed effects of the adrenaline rush had disappeared, I felt the aftermath of all the injuries I had sustained: a big swollen bump on the head, an aching scarily-swollen spinal cord, a very sore neck, a temporarily paralyzed hand (caused by a damaged nerve in the left elbow), and numerous bruises all over my body. But I felt certain that the worst was behind me.

Wild horses in central Mongolia. This is how I chose to remember Mongolia

I had taken some days to recover — as much as it’s possible to recover from such a violent experience. Knowing this could have happened to me anywhere else in the world, I decided not to let fear get the better of me and let them “win.” Instead of canceling the trip I had dreamt of for so long and going back home, to my family, I chose to continue with my solo travels throughout Asia. It was then I had realized how limiting and dangerous it could be to be a woman, to be born with a pair of Xs rather than with an XY.

*

Take a look at the woman sitting next to you on the subway; take a look at your colleague, your friend, your girlfriend, your wife, your sister, or your own daughter. Most likely, some if not all of them have experienced some sort of gender-based violence in their lives. You’d be surprised how many women manage to hide these awful experiences behind a wide everything-is-fine smile, their closet full of painful skeletons.

In the present day, it’s still not safe to be a woman. Far from it, actually. According to the UN Women Organization, one in three women worldwide has suffered physical and/or sexual violence, more often than not by an intimate partner. In fact, 47 percent of all murdered women in the world had been killed either by an intimate partner or by a family member. In comparison, 6 percent of all murdered men had been killed by their partner. It’s not for nothing the terms “gendercide” and “femicide” had been coined. An alarmingly large number of women are murdered around the world every single day. In Guatemala, for instance, two women are murdered each day. In countries like India, Pakistan, Iran, and Bangladesh, thousands of women are victims of dowry deaths1. In India alone, approximately 25,000 women had committed suicide following dowry harassment between 2012 and 2014.

Source: Infographic by the World Health Organization

Violence against women (VAW) and girls takes many shapes and forms that go well beyond murder and homicide. These include:

Despite the tendency to think these things only happen in developing countries, western countries are no exception. In countries like Australia, the US, Canada, South Africa, and Israel, 40 to 70 percent of all murdered women had been killed by intimate partners. Things aren’t looking very bright for the EU either. According to a 2016 report published by the European Commission, one in three women has been a victim of physical or sexual violence since the age of 15 and a staggering 75 percent have experienced sexual harassment at work.

With such worrying figures, it’s hard not to look at VAW as an epidemic. Unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections (including HIV), an increased likelihood of miscarriages, depression, post-traumatic stress, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, headaches, back and abdominal pain, central nervous system disorders, and suicide attempts — these are only some symptoms that stay with many women long after the traumatic act. It doesn’t end here, though. Not only do many of the surviving women suffer from poor health, but they also lose work days, wages, and, at times, even the ability to take care of themselves and their children.

Women and girls are half of a country’s available human capital. When they are not able to participate in the workforce due to violent acts they had suffered, their country’s economy suffers too. In the US, annual costs of intimate partner violence stand at US$5.8 billion; in Canada, violence against women and children result in US$ 11.38 billion each year, whereas in England and Wales domestic violence translates into an annual average cost of US$32.9 billion. It is estimated that the global costs of violence against women and girls may amount to 2 percent of the global domestic product (GDP).

Source: UNWomen Organization

International organizations such as the UN, the World Bank, and the World Health Organization constantly help countries around the world implement women’s rights-related reforms at the national level; treaties and conventions are agreed upon; international commissions assemble with the sole purpose of promoting women’s rights; aspiring declarations aimed at putting an end to any form of discrimination against women and setting out to eradicate gender-based violence are being declared; special global task forces are being established in order to fight gender-based violence; countless NGOs, charities and other community-based nonprofits such as OXFAM and UN Women set up VAW awareness campaigns, but yet it just doesn’t seem to be enough. Gender-based violence is nowhere from being over.

*

Apparently, there are more men than women in the world. Much more. For every 100 women, there are 101 men — this means 60 million more men than women in the world. Surprised? I know I am. If nature had its way, this ratio would have been a stable 1:1 — a sex ratio that represents a state of equilibrium between males and females of sexual-reproductive species, also known as Fischer Principle. So why are there more men than women? It’s a no-brainer: like always, we think we can outsmart nature. It is estimated that as many as 126 million women are missing in the world’s population as of 2010 due to sex-selective abortions. This number is expected to grow to 150 million by 2035. While many countries engage in this form of “gendercide,” China and India are by far “winning it” — in these countries, the percentage of missing women due to sex-selective abortions stands at 9.5 and 7.4 percent, respectively. In China, there is a surplus of 50 million men. In India, 50 million women and girls are missing from the subcontinent’s population.

I can’t help but wonder if the world could have been a safer place for women had we been the majority? Would a man like Brock Turner, a young white privileged man — also known as the “Stanford Rapist” — still had spent only three months in jail after having sexually assaulted an unconscious woman? Would we have still been expected to learn to defend ourselves and avoid expected dangers had there been more of us? Or would we have put more focus on teaching our children, boys and girls — but, mainly boys — why violence is never the answer? Would women still have been expected to come to terms with the currently unchangeable reality and adjust accordingly?

Brock Turner, the “Stanford Rapist.” Rapists are rapists, no matter how rich their families are, no matter what their GPA happens to be, no matter if they are destined for greatness.

When I came back from my wonderful solo travels, nearly one year after my attack, I was almost fully recovered. People, mostly men, clicked their tongues and told me they weren’t surprised this had happened to me. “It’s your fault,” they said. “As a woman, you should have known better than to travel alone. What did you expect?” These are just some pearls of wisdom I had heard. With such responses, it’s no surprise these things happen, I realized. I did some reading, only to discover there’s already a name for that: victim-blaming. Somewhere along the line, our society had lost its ability to feel empathy, not sparing its criticism from women and even blaming them for victimizing themselves — apparently, women who had suffered violence in their life, “chose” to be victims, be it because of the clothes the had chosen to wear, their behavior, or their inability to walk out on an abusive partner.

It’s not fair to expect our governments, influential international organizations like those I had previously mentioned, and various goal-oriented NGOs to do all the work for us. This has to come from the micro level as well; this has to come from us. We all know that education is pivotal when attempting to change a certain type of harmful behavioral pattern and preventing it from recurring in the future. So let us educate, first ourselves, then others around us. We need to talk about it more, with our children, our partners, our friends, our colleagues; we need to encourage victims to speak up and share their stories without worrying about shaming. The social media is a powerful tool at our disposal, so why aren’t we making the most of it? Past successful campaigns like “Slap Her,” “It’s a girl,” “Orange the World,” “#IAmNotAfraidToSpeak” demonstrate how easy it is to spread awareness via this channel.

Activists react to a gang rape of a 16-year-old. The much talked-about protest against gender-based violence, included close-ups of 20 models taking the role of victims and more than 400 stained red and white panties on Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana beach. Source: Huffington Post

I never asked why this horrible thing had happened to me. I simply asked why. Why do these things happen? I consider myself extremely lucky and I’m grateful for being alive. Life is the most wonderful gift we had been given whether it sounds like a worn-out cliche or not. It just is. This experience had also made me very sad and angry, though, knowing how many other people — and women, in particular — weren’t as lucky. Whenever I read about another woman who had been raped or murdered; whenever I read about a woman who had found her death by someone she knew and possibly even trusted and loved, I can’t help but imagine what her very last thoughts were. She must have had similar thoughts to the ones I’d had; she must have felt alone in the world like I did, far away from her loved ones. It brings shivers down my spine.

For every 100 women there are 101 men. Although 1 percent doesn’t seem like much, it makes all the difference.

Me, feeling victorious after having reached the Everest Base Camp, nearly 10 months after my injuries.

1 Dowry Death — When a woman is either murdered or pushed to commit suicide due to torture on the side of her husband and his family, with the aim of extorting a bigger dowry from her family