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Tackling violence against women: High in rhetoric, low in practice?

Written by Caroline Harper, Nicola Jones


Jessica Espey, Caroline Harper and Nicola Jones

The International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, on 25 November,  presents the world with an all too brief moment to reflect on the state of women’s rights, empowerment, protection and the effectiveness of related policies. There is concern that development professionals have reached a state of ‘gender fatigue’, but research into cases of violence against women across the globe reaffirms that this is no time for fatigue. On the contrary: complacency in tackling gender concerns is reinforcing appalling human rights abuses.

According to an in-depth study in 2006, at least one in every three women around the world has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused -- usually by someone she knows (Report of the Secretary General, 2006). In Pakistan, last week, two new ministers were appointed to the cabinet, despite personal histories of repressive attitudes towards women: one has defended ‘honour-killing’ and the other has been charged with presiding over a ‘jirga’ (where women are traded as compensation in disputes). These appointments suggest that tackling gender inequality remains low on political agendas and here lies the root of the problem.

Since the 1993 General Assembly’s adoption of the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, there have been many summits and forums to address gender-based violence. But all of this talk has not been backed by the human and financial resources needed to translate rights and agreements into tangible change.

Violence against women and girls is pervasive across many levels of society. Recent ODI work, in partnership with Plan International, on school violence has revealed that girls experience alarmingly high rates of sexual assault and abuse, often in the very places that are supposed to provide a ‘care’ function, such as schools or religious institutions. A recent study in Ghana found that 24% of boys interviewed admitted having raped a girl or taken part in a collective rape (UNICEF Bureau Regional Afrique de L’Ouest et Du Centre 2008). A natural response to such abuse is to stay away from school, but missing out on education can have negative impacts on both the individual and society. In terms of human capital, non-attendance at school can lower an individual’s future potential to earn an income and become economically productive, and has implications for the intergenerational transfer of poverty. Violence against girls also undermines their physical and mental health, leaving them vulnerable to sexual infections, unwanted pregnancies and psychological trauma.

Looking beyond the appalling physical and emotional costs to the girls and women caught up in violence, there can be enormous economic costs for society.  Recent studies have attempted to outline the cost of violence against girls and women in monetary and development terms. According to Jones and Walsh ‘There is also a strong link between lost economic productivity and women’s poor health.USAID has estimated that over $15 billion is lost worldwide each year through reduced productivity as a result of the deaths of women and newborns. Many of these deaths are the result of long-term complications following sexual violence.  

Steps are being taken to tackle violence against girls, and boys, in educational facilities, as shown by the World Congress against sexual exploitation of children and adolescents in Rio de Janiero (25-28 November 2008). The Congress aims to promote and support regional, international and cross-border cooperation between countries and organisations to combat the sexual exploitation of children. However, much more needs to be done to develop a rigorous evidence base showing the extent of the violence and to develop better mechanisms to share knowledge, and to learn from the successes and failures of existing policy interventions.

It is important that efforts to tackle violence against women and girls focus on the cultural and social power dynamics that perpetuate gender inequalities. As Ban Ki Moon recently emphasised,‘violence against women and girls continues unabated in every continent, country and culture… Most societies prohibit such violence- yet the reality is that too often, it is covered up or tacitly condoned’. Legal statutes and regulations are in place in the vast majority of countries, and yet local dynamics and traditional practices often undermine the efficacy of these legal covenants. One such traditional practice is that of child marriage.

Although all children under the age of 18 are recognised in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) (Article 1) as subject to protection from exploitation and abuse, UNICEF estimates that an average of 42% of girls in Africa are married before the age of 18. Girls who are married as children tend to have less education, more unequal relations with older male spouses, and face a greater likelihood of early pregnancy and familial violence. This demonstrates the links between social norms, cultural practices and rights, whereby women are either unaware of their rights or are unable to exercise them due to deeply embedded patriarchal attitudes and structures. Aware-raising initiatives and community education are required, to galvanise an understanding across society of the impact of gender inequalities and discriminatory practices on their community as a whole (for example The White Ribbon Initiative).

On the cusp of a far reaching global recession it is also time for governments to wake up to the social and economic costs of failing to protect women’s rights. Women, who commonly form a greater proportion of the informal and low-paid labour market, due to sex-discrimination in employment, are particularly vulnerable to economic shocks and are, therefore, more susceptible to acute and chronic poverty (CPRC 2004, Braunholtz-Speight et al 2008). As employment opportunities fall, women may resort increasingly to sex work, where they are exposed to higher incidences of  violence, or be lured by traffickers promising jobs and education opportunities (The State of the World’ Population 2008). 

The global financial crisis may also have a more far-reaching impact on gender concerns. The tightening belts of donors and multilaterals will mean, to some extent, the streamlining of projects. Women’s rights, empowerment and support services are already woefully under funded, and must not be marginalised on the development agenda. Above all, a concerted resource commitment is required to ensure that women do not carry the burden of the economic decline.

What must be done:

Gender-Budgets: A greater share of financial resources should be invested in ensuring that legal frameworks become constructive initiatives and policies. UNIFEM’s gender-responsive budgeting (GRB) work and OECD-DAC gender equality markers encourage greater and more efficiently-used resources, but have not been backed by the political leverage needed to bring about substantive change. There needs to be a decisive international commitment to the amount of funding allocated to gender-related targets in both national budgets and international aid. Resources need to be set aside in national budgets for capacity building, to improve gender-disaggregated data collection, analysis and reporting. This will allow funds to be used in the most efficient, results-based capacity and will facilitate a better understanding of how targeted aid can best reach women at all levels.

UN Gender Architecture Reform: The lack of status and funding for the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) restrains the effective dissemination and monitoring of gender-related resources, and limits effective lobbying on such issues as gender-based violence. In July, the General Assembly asked the UN Secretariat to devise options for better ‘system wide coherence’ on gender policy and funding, at national and international levels. Suggestions included the potential for a ‘composite entity’, which would strengthen coordination between UN agencies on gender inequalities, funded through a regular budget of the UN Secretariat. This comprehensive reform is essential to improve gender mainstreaming and ensure sufficient resources;.

Civil Society: Women’s associations and community initiatives focusing on rights, empowerment and preventing violence should receive financial, technical and political support from national governments. It is important to ensure civil society groups and organizations continue to have access to funding in the new post-Paris environment in which the focus and funds have shifted towards national governments.