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Gender, violence and the post-2015 framework

Written by Caroline Harper


Violent attacks on girls and women are nothing new. But two particularly shocking attacks on young women in 2012 have not only sparked widespread condemnation, they are also shaping the discussion on what follows the Millennium Development Goals.

The shooting of 15-year old Malala Yousafzai in the head in Pakistan – punishment by the Taliban for her vocal support for girls’ education – was condemned immediately in her own country and around the world. However, that a 15-year-old girl could be seen as such a threat also revealed the sheer power of social norms that deny girls their rights and exposed huge vested interests in maintaining a status quo that is weighted against women’s rights.

More recently, the brutal rape and murder of 23-year-old ‘Nirbhaya’ in India provoked widespread horror and inspired almost instant mass demonstrations, with thousands of people taking to the streets to demand change in the treatment of women.

These two tragic, high-profile events have led to national and international soul searching on how to address deep-rooted misogynistic thinking and behaviour. There is a growing call for a post-MDG agreement that includes an end to violence against women among its goals and that has a distinct goal focused specifically on gender.

This call is not based on two isolated incidents. Countless other horrifying stories are now beginning to surface, as highlighted by Naila Kabeer in her recent blog. These provide a glimpse of widespread violence against women and bring raw reality to the staggering numbers cited in multiple reports produced by and for donors and governments on the status of women and girls worldwide.

In 2008, an estimated 3.9 million women who should have been alive – all things being ‘equal’—were not. Many were never even born as a result of sex selection during pregnancy. Many more died as a result of lack of care and opportunity. Of the missing millions, 85% were missing from China, India, and sub-Saharan Africa.

Today, there are 112 boys born for every 100 girls in India. Around 140 million girls and women worldwide are living with the consequences of female genital mutilation (FGM) – around 92 million of them in Africa alone. Every year, nearly 5,000 women and girls are murdered by family members in the name of ‘honour’, with many countries in the Middle East and North Africa offering little or no protection from the penal code. These appalling statistics show only what we know. They offer a mere snapshot of the full extent and pervasiveness of violence against women and girls.

It is only right that such statistics grab the headlines, for they illustrate some of the worst human rights offences. But we should remember that other discriminatory actions affect even more women and girls.

  • The educational deprivation faced by girls remains chronic in some parts of the world. In Afghanistan, Chad, and the Central African Republic, there are fewer than 70 girls for every 100 boys in primary school.
  • In healthcare, girls and young women remain exceptionally vulnerable to death and disease. Girls under 20 who give birth face double the risk of dying in childbirth faced by women over 20, and girls under age 15 are five times more likely to die than those in their twenties.
  • Despite an overall 34% decrease in maternal mortality ratios since 1990, they remain shockingly high in many parts of the world. Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest ratio, with 640 maternal deaths for every 100,000 live births in 2008.
  • In labour markets, vertical and horizontal segmentation continue to blight progress in gender equality and women continue to bear a disproportionate burden of care and domestic duties.
  • Control over household resources and assets, including land, remains heavily weighted in favour of men.
  • The participation of women in the political sphere is lamentably low with women occupying only around 20% of the world’s parliamentary seats.

 So we need to ask: should a post-2015 agreement include a specific focus on violence against women? Indeed, should there be a gender equality goal?  My answer to both questions is ‘yes’.

Some will argue that a gender goal is a reaction to deeply tragic events and not well thought through; there will be debate about whether progress in maternal mortality or girl’s education or violence against women holds greater development potential; some will suggest that a gender goal is too narrow and that we should focus on inequalities in general. But ensuring the human rights of women and girls should not be an optional development goal. It has to be a national and global commitment.

It is a goal that, if achieved, has additional benefits. Studies on poverty prove that women’s equality is critical to change poverty dynamics. Experience also shows us that while ‘mainstreaming’ gender across all issues is vital, we must also uphold its presence on high-profile agendas as a clear and separate objective. Maintaining a clear gender focus is critical to keep our collective eye on the goal of gender equality.

A future gender goal must be part of any discussion on the purpose of a global framework, its achievements and its impact. The evidence of the impact of the MDGs themselves may never be fully understood. They influenced aid, but the geo-political shifts since their initial design have rendered aid itself less important. New goals need to influence governments directly, not necessarily via donors.

International instruments with the potential to influence social norms, and government decision making, and giving civil society influencing tools, can ‘nudge things along’ according to Duncan Green and his colleagues, but the main drivers of change will, in fact, be domestic.

Perhaps as Andrew Norton suggests, a set of absolute targets on poverty alongside national goals might work well for women’s empowerment, because this empowerment is at the core of any beneficial change. And empowering women means challenging often entrenched social norms.

The overwhelming response that these two cases in India and Pakistan have prompted is testimony to the power of feeling and lived experience across and within countries. Entrenched social norms will take time to change, but change they will. It is national commitment to the empowerment of women which will ensure change, but this must be ‘nudged’ forward by an explicit commitment to actions on gender in a post-MDG framework. If we are to ensure that national protests are not merely short-lived expressions of outrage, as some Indian activists fear, then the international community must also play its part in keeping the momentum going.   Importantly explicit commitments to gender in an international framework support women’s rights instruments, instruments which have enabled gains around the world, but gains which as described by Maxine Molyneux are now under attack or have been lost.  Gender should be mainstreamed across goals and a gender goal with the empowerment of women at its core should exist in the post MDG framework. Such a goal will allow us to hold our governments and the international community to account in ensuring progress is made and in bringing about fundamental change in attitudes towards violence against women.