Why violence against women matters

10 December 2007

by Sue Turrell

"The attainment of MDG 3 will require a comprehensive approach to overcome not only violence against women, but also gender-based discrimination in laws and policies, and deeply embedded social and cultural norms that perpetuate gender inequality." (WHO)

Despite the recognition by the international community that violence against women is a serious and fundamental problem limiting progress in human development, reading the UK Equal Opportunity Commission's new publication, ‘The Gender Gap', is depressing. It includes the stark statistic that conviction rates for rape stand at 6%, making it understandable that 95% of women never report an attack in the first place.

Sue Turrell is the executive director of WOMANKIND worldwide It can be easy for women in the UK to think that the equality debate has been won and that it doesn't concern us any more. But this ignores both the ongoing structural inequalities in our own country - and the fact that women's struggle for equality is only just beginning in many other parts of the world. For example:

  • The World Health Organization has reported that up to 70% of female murder victims are killed by their male partners
  • More than 60 million women are "missing" from the world today as a result of sex-selective abortions and female infanticide, according to an estimate by Amartya Sen, the Nobel Laureate
  • At least one out of every three women has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime, according to a study based on 50 surveys from around the world

Violence Against Women is often subsumed into the more commonly used term ‘Gender Based Violence' (GBV). But this can obscure the reality that women and girls constitute the vast majority of GBV victims and men the majority of perpetrators. VAW remains a universal phenomenon, taking place throughout the world, cutting across social classes and ethnic groups. But this does not mean that VAW is either natural or inevitable - it persists because it is normalised within society and, therefore, becomes acceptable and invisible.

‘Governments are failing to prevent violence against women. This has to change'

In many countries women are not protected from violence though this is changing slowly due to the hard work and sustained pressure from the women's movement throughout the world. In the past year Egypt has banned Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), a Domestic Violence and Prevention Act came into force (.pdf document) in Zimbabwe, and similar legislation was passed in Ghana and Albania. In the UK Governance has risen to the top of development agendas, as symbolised by DFID's ‘Making Governance Work for Poor People' (2006). Attention, including political will and funding, has focused on building both "supply" and "demand" sides of good governance, from strengthening institutions and the capacity of the state to be more accountable and to deliver for its citizens, through to ensuring citizens know their rights and engage with their elected representatives and public officials

But tackling VAW still remains a low priority for most governments. Laws, conventions and policy frameworks are poorly implemented and monitored weakly. Preventative, protective and rehabilitative services. lack resources and perpetrators often act with impunity. Violence acts as a barrier at all levels and at all stages of ‘governance', ultimately manifested as direct political violence against women representatives. ‘Good governance' is impossible if violence against a large proportion of citizens is endemic and accepted. The real problem lies in the fact that more fundamentally, few governments have accepted or addressed the root of VAW - the imbalance of power between men and women.

The historically unequal power relations between women and men and pervasive discrimination against women in both the public and private sphere - which often takes the form of violence - has resulted in women's voices being ignored. Treating women as victims or passive acceptors will not eliminate inequalities. Transforming women's participation in governance, in which the role of government is key has to be part of any poverty-reduction strategy and is a necessary step in any sustainable reduction in VAW.

If one in three women are experiencing violence; governments that fail to address this cannot claim to be legitimate. Well-functioning and legitimate democracies require adequate representation of women - including those in poverty and excluded by ethnicity or disability - and the protection of their interests. Women's voices must be amplified to ensure good governance - and need representation in formal/informal governance institutions. Governments throughout the world that fail to recognise VAW as a governance issue, fail to act to prevent violence -and fail to uphold the rights of women and children to protection and participation. This has to change.

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