The 25th of November marked International day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, beginning sixteen days of activism against gender-based violence, concluding on the 10th of December, Human Rights Day. The UN has previously characterised gender-based violence as a ‘global pandemic’. Accordingly, one in three women and girls encounter physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, many experiencing some form of violence before the age of fifteen. The theme of this year’s campaign, ‘Leave No One Behind’, can be taken as a call to focus on the intersections of gender-based violence. Females in refugee, indigenous and LGBT communities are among the most vulnerable and marginalised victims of violence and have the least agency to access support services. Sexism and other instruments of oppression are closely intertwined and can only be tackled together.
Indeed, the strongest indicator of a country’s level of violence – whether within or beyond its own borders – is the level of violence perpetrated towards women. As a marker of a society’s well being, female safety surpasses a multitude of other markers, such as economic growth, levels of democracy and government corruption. This is because violence against women normalizes and naturalizes all other forms of violence. Despite claims from commentators, such as Steven Pinker, that the level of global violence has diminished, few such accounts recognize the ubiquitous experience of gender-based violence. While the inaugural International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women was first held in 2000, contemporary statistics continue to reveal alarmingly high levels of violence towards women throughout the world. The practice of genital mutilation has decreased by 24% since 2000, yet there are more than 200 million women alive today who are victims of mutilation, many before the age of five. A further 750 million women were married before the age of 18.
This persistent, pervasive level of violence towards women can be attributed primarily to social norms and structures. Social norms are perhaps the hardest cause of violence to address in that they are intangible and unwritten. From the outset, a generalized preference for sons rather than daughters in some societies contributes to high levels of sex-selective abortion. Eighteen countries exhibit abnormal gender imbalances and the UN Population Fund has suggested that there are over 163 million women unaccounted for in Asia’s population. These norms are transmitted throughout society and are internalized by men and women alike, as seen in the minimal representation of female politicians in national governments. For example, the Hungarian government is comprised of 8.8% women, followed by 13.4% in Japan and South Korea with 14.7%. This represents a top-down impediment to the inclusion of female voices in decision-making bodies, feeding into formalized gender inequality, non-representative legislation and thus political disenfranchisement among women.
Inequitable social structures can make certain societies more inclined to gender-based violence and often manifest as marriage, divorce, inheritance and property ownership laws favouring men. The World Bank’s annual survey on ‘Women, Business and the Law’ found that 155 of the 173 surveyed economies have at least one gender discriminatory law in place. Some countries, such as Egypt, are expected to regress on the family equity scale. At a domestic, regional and international level, approval and administration of equitable laws is an arduous process. For example, in 2012, the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women was centred on the rights of rural women and yet produced no agreed conclusions, despite thirty-seven countries retaining at least one gender-biased land law. Whether positive or negative, gender-sensitive legislation has an inter-generational effect on families and communities. In 46 countries where there is no law in place to protect women from domestic violence, women have distinctly shorter life spans. Conversely, countries that make provisions for child-care can expect greater average female earnings.
While many governments, NGOs and regional bodies have aligned themselves with the UN’s goal to “achieve gender equality and empower women,” few have taken more than tokenistic steps towards its fulfillment. In her address to the UN, the UN Women Executive Director, Phumzile, Mlambo-Ngcuka, stated, “Violence against women and girls is not inevitable. There are many ways to prevent violence in the first place and to stop cycles of violence repeating.”
One such way is funding under-resourced education programs for men and perpetrator interventions. Two thirds of violent men who attend behaviour-change programs cease violent behaviour towards their partners and families. However, these programs still need to provide greater help for perpetrators with mental health problems, as 30% of violent men also suffer from mental illness. Particularly among high-need demographics, such as Indigenous and refugee men, group therapy often prioritizes restorative justice and healing more effectively than incarceration. In any patriarchal society, providing women with lasting agency and enterprise is contingent on changing male values and norms.
For this change to be sustainable, it cannot be imposed on a society from beyond its borders. Governments should be mindful not to impose their culture-specific vision of gender equality upon other countries. For example, the US cited oppression of women as a reason for invading Afghanistan and Iraq, however, US-led initiatives to boost female empowerment were counterproductive and often catalysed the regression of female rights for several reasons. Firstly, many Afghanis came to associate US programs with imperialism and rejected them in totality. Furthermore, schools for women were constructed without any provision for long-term funding and so were empty once US forces withdrew. Moreover, almost no local women were involved in peacemaking discussions, even though post-conflict agreements negotiated with females are likely to be more sustainable and less impulsive. The US invasion in 2001 saw a historical high for female casualties and yet, since the US presence, Afghanistan and Iraq each have a greater number of women in parliament (28% and 25% respectively) than the US.
At a normative level, policy makers need to dismount harmful laws, while at a positive level they need to increase deterrents to perpetrators. In some nations, this process is very much in motion; some governments have committed to bridging legal gaps, while others have been proactive in ensuring the provision of funding for women in need. French President Emmanuel Macron anchored his intention to “fight for the non-negotiable equality of both sexes” to creating legislation that sets the minimum age of sexual consent at the age of 15, as no such law exists under the status quo. Similarly, the Australian government has guaranteed women leaving domestic violence two weeks of paid leave from employment. It is imperative that this becomes an increasingly fluid process.
In the past year, sixty-five economies have achieved a total of ninety-four reforms to accelerate women’s economic opportunities with the greatest number being instituted in developing economies. Policymakers with minimal funds should focus on harnessing existing systems instead of financing new ones. In the underdeveloped Pacific island of Kiribati, locals have benefited from great reduction in violence by adding a violence education dimension to the primary school curriculum and tapping into nearby services in Fiji and Tonga.
In addition, greater data and information is needed about the when are where women are most vulnerable as prevention rather than response is known to be less socially and financially costly. For example, UNESCO has highlighted the heightened occurrence of domestic violence and sexual assault in the wake of natural disasters. In a recent report, researchers drew attention to a 300% increase in domestic violence following the twin cyclones in Vanuatu in 2011. In the same year, the Canterbury earthquake in New Zealand was accompanied by a 53% increase in calls made to police regarding domestic violence. By systematically collecting data about women in similar crisis settings, help services are able to more incisively and efficiently help those in need. Moreover, monitoring the level of violence towards women helps to ensure that institutions and governments are accountable for making strides in the direction of gender equality.
As violence towards women surpasses the level of violence attributable to any war or armed conflict, it is a worthy effort for national governments and populations to invest in. Women occupy an under-class in every demographic from refugees to politicians and greater efforts must be made to show radical progress by the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women in 2018 to ensure that we ‘Leave No One Behind’.