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Sexual Violence: breaking a culture of silence

Health specialists, researchers, gender activists, policy makers and service providers are meeting in Johannesburg, South Africa this week for the first Sexual Violence Research Initiative Conference. The aim is to highlight the devastating scale of sexual violence around the world, to present current research and to share ideas and fill gaps in our knowledge of the extent and nature of sexual violence.

Little has been done to date at the highest policy level to show a global commitment to tackle sexual violence. In 1979, the UN adopted the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). In 1994 the UN also created the post of a Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women. There has, however, been no specific commitment to tackle sexual violence. Given that sexual violence shatters the lives of the girls and women affected, as well as undermining socio-economic development, social cohesion and gender equality, this week’s conference is a vital first step to tackling this issue.

How extensive is sexual violence?
An in-depth UN study in 2006, suggested that at least one in every three women around the world has experienced sexual violence at some time.ODI research has also demonstrated that sexual assault and exploitation frequently occurs in places that are supposed to be ‘safe’ and caring, such as schools.

A culture of silence?
Despite the shocking scale of sexual assault there is a culture of silence around the issue.  A mix of socio-cultural, resource and service-related reasons keep this issue in the shadows, for instance;

  • Victims may be afraid to speak out, as they lack the services and support systems to give them the help they will need;
  • Socio-cultural traditions may pour scorn on the victims of sexual violence, with some religious perspectives even implying that women incite such violence, whilst young women and girls may be afraid that revealing a history of sexual violence will undermine their chances of marriage;
  • Victims may consider it futile to speak up if the state lacks appropriate judicial systems and measures to punish offenders adequately.

What can we do?
Responding to and alleviating sexual violence requires many steps at many levels of society. This week’s conference may not provide service delivery solutions or propose practical steps at the local level but, importantly, it will inform international policy and raise awareness. As highlighted in an ODI blog, the creation of a strong, well-resourced, consolidated women and girl’s organisation within the UN would be a vital step for raising international awareness and enacting change at the international level. It would strengthen coordination between UN agencies on gender inequalities, and such issues as gendered sexual violence, funded through a regular budget of the UN Secretariat. The call for such an organisation is backed by the UK Government in its new White Paper on International Development, published this week.  

At the national level, state actors and governments need to reaffirm and uphold their commitments to CEDAW and put in place mechanisms to prevent, protect and provide for victims of sexual assault. Providing such services is not only a matter of fundamental human rights but of national socio-economic development – as improvements in women’s health and well-being has positive benefits  for national productivity.  

At the individual level civil society organisations can do much to raise awareness of the extent of the problem within local communities and to teach communities about the necessity and importance of gender equity and where help and support is available. If the state services are inadequate, the role of civil society is crucial in providing  provide important intermediate services. A good example is Plan West Africa’s mobile counseling units, which provide psycho-social support to highly vulnerable children who have been victims of abuse, sexual exploitation or have suffered other traumas.

ODI would be interested to hear of other civil society initiatives on sexual violence, and to hear views on how progress on this issue can be accelerated.