How have women confronted the scourge of gender-based violence?

What pathways, strategies and actions have they evolved to defend their bodily integrity and build coalitions and alliances for justice and gender equality?

What has worked well and why, and how can their efforts be supported and scaled up?

Violence against women and girls is a virulent form of abuse and discrimination that transcends race, class and national identity. It takes many forms and may be physical, sexual, psychological and economic, but all are usually interrelated as they trigger complex feedback effects. Other specific types of violence, such as trafficking in women and girls, often occurs across national boundaries. It is estimated that annually up to 2 million people, many of who are from the 150 and more countries constituting the "global South", are trafficked into prostitution, forced labour, slavery or servitude. By threatening the safety, freedom and autonomy of women and girls, gender-based violence violates women's human rights and prevents their full participation in society and from fulfilling their potential as human beings.
1 IN EVERY 3 While global statistics on gender-based violence are ¬uneven, estimates show that one in every three women has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime. Between 30 and 60 per cent of ever-partnered women have experienced physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner, and between 7 and 48 per cent of girls and young women aged 10 to 24 years report their first sexual encounter as coerced, with the attendant risks of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS.

The costs of violence are extremely high as they include the direct expenses for services to treat and support abused women and their children and to bring perpetrators to justice, as well as untold costs that may be inflicted on families and communities across generations, reinforcing other forms of violence prevalent in society.

However, women have not accepted these violations of their bodily and mental integrity, and they have confronted ¬gender-based violence on a daily basis and through big and small actions, with or without the support of States and international agencies. Through the use of socially sanctioned actions, including "naming and shaming", songs and other performative acts, the use of faith-based networks, or new and transnational forms of organizing, women have made alliances, lobbied States and municipal governments, and used international human rights law and continental and regional organizations to draw attention and to seek redress from oppressive social relations and practices.

THE GLOBAL SOUTH In our studies of women in the global South, violence is often inflicted by intimate partners or family members, through rape and defilement; via practices of female genital mutilation in parts of Africa and the Near and Middle East; by means of dowry murders in South Asia; and female infanticide, prenatal sex selection and systematic neglect of girl children, particularly in South and East Asia, North Africa and the Middle East. But gender-based violence may also involve persons in positions of trust, such as international peacekeepers or national police officers in conflict zones, who engage in rape, sexual harassment and sexual exploitation, often as a conscious strategy to humiliate opponents, terrify individuals and destroy societies, as has happened recently in the Democratic Republic of the Congo or Guinea.

In addition, violence may be also inflicted at the State level through direct acts of commission and omission, or through militaristic acts and postures effected by assorted apparatus of repression, while government economic and social policies may routinely subject large proportions of populations, particularly the poor, women and rural dwellers, to lives of poverty, deprivation and indignity, all of which can also be regarded as forms of violence. Economic pressures aggravate the severity of existing constraints particularly on poor women, for example, many remain in abusive relationships or engage in risky behaviours including the sex trade, in order to survive. Even where women work hard to pull themselves out of the drudgery of extreme poverty, they may be physically assaulted for attaining economic independence, while other women may endure accusations of witchcraft or of engaging in immoral acts. Some women have also experienced violence when they have attempted to participate in local or national elections, as occurred in Kenya in 2007, or in Mexico where some married women have refrained from or stopped participating in development projects because husbands perceived their growing empowerment as a threat to their patriarchal authority and beat them to try to stop it.

Women's Pathways and Strategies
To a large extent, attention to gender-based violence has come onto the global agenda from grassroots women's movements and from feminist organizations. Women's groups have created national, regional and global networks, and have played a leading role in raising awareness and pursuing positive change in community attitudes and practices related to gender-based violence. These networks have inspired a wide range of campaigns that have brought dramatic changes in norms, laws, policies and practices. Remarkable examples of leadership have also come from women confronted by conflict, in countries as far apart as Colombia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Women have made demands on their governments to make local laws conform to the dictates of international human rights law. In many countries of the global South, this has led to the enactment of legislation against violence and sexual harassment of women, the adoption of measures on gender equality, and coordinated national efforts to ensure full and effective implementation of legislation.

However, laws that have been passed have not been fully enforced, and, in many cases, they are not accessible to those who need them because of the high costs of seeking justice. In addition, many national efforts are not adequately funded and are thinly spread with disproportionate presence in urban, affluent communities, to the detriment of rural and poor communities. A major challenge hampering the effective implementation of laws and policies is the lack of political will and commitment to gender equality.

Women have also strongly advocated changes in the criminal justice system to make it more sensitive to their needs. This includes retraining judges and law enforcement officers to respond considerately to victims, and applying international and regional human rights law to cases involving violence against women; establishing special courts or police stations staffed by female officers; and creating investigative procedures and institutions run by individuals whose attitudes reflect that of the society in which they operate.

The idea that women understand each other's experiences better and can often communicate more effectively with local women and serve as models for women's empowerment has found expression in the female-only police stations in Brazil, or the Blue Helmets of certain United Nations peacekeeping missions staffed by women. Providing support services to victims of violence has been pivotal in women's mobilization efforts, such as shelters, legal-aid clinics and psycho-social counselling centres. This is so because existing services are not designed to cater to the specific needs of women, and the services that women need are often not available. Women have chosen to do things for themselves because national policies do not often provide for their needs.

Women's civil society organizations around the world have drawn attention to the struggle against gender-based violence, which is also related to the success of the UN Secretary-General's UNiTE to End Violence against Women campaign and the Strategy and Framework for Action to Addressing Gender-based Violence of the United Nations Population Fund. Some issues include:

  • Impunity: The high tolerance for impunity that exists and that must be tackled and ended.
  • Prevention and the Role of Men and Boys: The focus for anti-violence work for most organizations is now prevention, with an overarching theme centred on working with boys and men. But there is agreement that this must be done without letting them "take over the issue," and in figuring out everyone's role, including that of men and boys in ending gender-based violence, while respecting women's leadership and voices in defining this issue.
  • Confronting Cultures of Violence: Gender-based violence continues to be supported by the dynamics within societies, and both traditional and contemporary and community attitudes that protect perpetrators are a key aspect of this. However, it is important to re-examine the ways in which culture is often discussed in relation to gender-based violence, and to address both so-called "traditional cultural practices" and other forms of violence which are supported by contemporary attitudes and practices.
  • Data: Accurate data is needed on the prevalence and incidence of various forms of gender-based violence, as well as on the approaches and strategies that have worked best to reduce it in diverse settings. Resources must be devoted to document work and contribute towards a larger body of knowledge in this field.
  • Resources: Adequate resources must be provided for anti-gender-based violence work, both at the governmental and the civil-society levels and in all areas -- from service delivery, to making the justice system accessible for victims, to education and prevention strategies -- especially for people working on the ground, since this is where the first impact must be felt.

Reducing violence against women should be seen as a direct indicator for achieving development in general, and the Millennium Development Goal on gender equality, in particular. Policy attention and support needs to be increasingly focused on understanding women's own pathways in addressing the continuing scourge of gender-based violence, particularly in the global South.