By Ciaran O'Reilly
International Women's Initiative Staff Writer
Thousands of women and men around the world, funded by millions of dollars, are working to eradicate violence against women. But is it enough?
Gender-based violence (GBV) remains a pandemic issue across the world. One out of every three women around the world experiences physical or sexual violence in their lifetime; rape is the first sexual encounter for 40% of women in South Africa; 59% of Zambian women have experienced a form of violence since the age of 15; 43% per cent of women in the EU have experienced some form of psychological violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime. While certain countries often grab global headlines for stories and statistics of unfathomable sexual violence, these statistics show that gender-based violence is a major problem for every country and society.
Countless reasons for the pervasiveness of this violence are produced on a regular basis by academics, practitioners and policy-makers alike. Mental illness, poverty, and cultural and social norms are all posited as just some of the possible and interrelated factors. Gender equality, and within that the issue of GBV, has long been a core goal of development policies and programmes across the world. Millenium Development Goal (MDG) Number Three, "Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women", showed mixed progress in 2015. Now in 2016, we have the Sustainable Development Goals and in particular, Number Five: 'Gender Equality'. Within it, specific targets relate to the elimination of violence, including trafficking and exploitation.
Despite these lofty ideals embraced by the international community, there remain of course numerous countries which legally position women as second-class citizens, while social, cultural and religious norms within these and other societies also do so informally. But in a patriarchal world, can we realistically expect men – those predominantly responsible for violence against women – to put themselves in the dock, to see themselves as they are and to make the hard choices? That is not to say that women do not play a role in the discrimination, inequality and violence perpetrated against other women. From madams who run brothels full of trafficking victims to the elderly women who perform female genital mutilation on young girls, women’s role in GBV is well known and documented. So too can we speak of male victims of GBV, from battered husbands to abused boys.
However, to equate the guilt of women to men or the victimhood of men to women, is to skew the reality and do a disservice to the women and girls who suffer disproportionately around the world every day. To truly address GBV requires much soul-searching, and indeed the actions of good men, and women, who will not stand by and who strive to make a difference however and whenever they can.
The fight against GBV is a constant back and forth across a global arena in which the victory is never certain and losses are far too frequent. Around the world, we hear of victories for women and girls in the same breath as equally monumental set-backs and failures. One only needs to look to Pakistan, celebrating as one of its young, brave and female citizens wins the Nobel Peace Prize while young girls continue to be beaten and burned alive. Equally, we can look at the US, where a woman has for the first time become the presidential nominee of a major political party, but in a country struggling with a rampant college campus rape culture.
Culture, traditions, attitudes, practices, education, policies, legislation – all of these take a great deal of time to change. Working with groups, cultures and governments resisting change towards greater women's rights requires a mixture of diplomacy, collaborative engagement and outright condemnation. In addition, active citizens and development organisations tackle gender-based violence alongside a myriad of other development issues, from water and sanitation to education to infrastructure to many, many more. All of these issues and the interventions to address them affects – to lesser and greater degrees – the levels of gender-based violence in each respective country.
Women and men are trying their best in various ways to hold back, and hopefully to push back, the tide of intolerance, ignorance and arrogance which threatens every women and girl. It is difficult to assess how many development organisations around the world, from local community-based groups to juggernauts such as USAID and DFID, are working on the issue of gender-based violence. Equally, it is difficult to know the total number of women and girls reached by their interventions or the total amount of money spent. What we do know is the language and intentions of grand international instruments such as Sustainable Development Goal Number Five and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and every other anti-GBV policy, law and programme around the world. But will we succeed where we failed under the Millenium Development Goals? In the face of the statistics with which I began, the fundamental question still remains: Are we doing enough?