The 58th session of the Committee on the Status of Women is underway at the United Nations in New York this week. This important annual gathering of representatives of UN Member States, civil society organizations and UN entities is a critical opportunity for key stakeholders to assess the targets and indicators for gender equality outlined in the Millennium Development Goals (MGDs), identify the advancements and continuing challenges many women face around the world, and generate important policy solutions for greater empowerment of women and girls everywhere.
While the MDG goal of greater gender equality is a step in the right direction towards eliminating violence against women, it fails to address how systemic violence against women acts as a major barrier in reaching development targets. Gender-based violence is a critical issue that cuts across national boundaries, race, and class. The World Health Organization reports that 35 percent of women globally have experienced either intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime. A recent survey conducted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights found that more than one-third of European women — translating to 62 million women — have been the target of physical or sexual violence from the age of 15 onwards, with 12 percent saying they were sexually abused as children. What is particularly troubling is that only 14 percent reported violence by a partner to the police, while even fewer — a mere 13 percent — reported abuse by a non-partner.
Further data indicates that there is no part of the world, including Scandinavian countries, which typically score high on other measures of gender equality like economic security or political participation, that is truly equal because of the prevalence of violence.
Violence against women is not only a fundamental human rights issue; it is also a major global public health epidemic. In India, for instance, rape is a notoriously under-reported crime, notwithstanding the recent widely reported brutalities here and here, due to social stigma and a general mistrust of the police. The National Crime Records Bureau in India reports that a woman is raped every 22 minutes. The conviction rate for rape cases in India is only 26 percent, although in 94 percent of the cases the perpetrator is known to the victim. A TrustLaw poll run by Thomson Reuters finds India the worst G20 country to be a woman, due to the high incidence of female infanticide, child marriage and slavery.
The United States also has a significant problem with violence against women, with 1 in 6 women having been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime and 1 in 4 women victims of domestic violence. Moreover, a rape happens every 6.2 minutes in the U.S. And like most parts of the world, reporting is low; shockingly, 60 percent of assaults are not reported to the police. The Steubenville rape case involving high school football players, the assaults reported on college campuses that are usually linked to alcohol consumption and coercive behavior, and sexual assaults in the military, which is now considered an epidemic, all share a common thread with similar incidents in other parts of the world. Violence against women and girls is rooted in a fundamental structure of gender inequality where wider social norms and prevailing attitudes perpetuate such behavior with profound costs to their societies.
Activists worldwide have been pressing for decades for more targeted attention to eliminate violence against women through the implementation of key global protocols like the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination of Women (CEDAW), the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (Istanbul Convention), and within the United States with the International Violence Against Women Act (I-VAWA) that is yet to pass in Congress, and the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which was reauthorized in 2013 after a bruising battle in Congress.
Increasing access to gender equity data is key to mobilizing support for effective and comprehensive public policy to eliminate gender-based violence at the global level. Here are five other recommendations that cities, nations and the global community can adopt to effectively confront the global challenge of violence against women:
- Change cultural norms and social values regarding sexual entitlement of men and notions of masculinity.
- Create strategies to engage men as allies in this work through mass media campaigns like Bell Bajao.
- Support education and sensitivity training of law enforcement and legal professionals as stipulated in the provisions of the International Violence Against Women Act.
- Implement and enforce laws related to violence in countries like these that have no laws on their books regarding domestic violence against women and pressure countries like the United States to ratify CEDAW.
- Fund more research and rigorous evaluations to assess programs like the Safe Cities Global Initiative that focus on public education, prevention, counseling, technical assistance and other effective strategies that include creating corporate partnerships.
The MDGs are set to expire in 2015; the next global agenda for ensuring gender equality has to systematically address gender-based violence as a barrier to overcome in order for real change to occur for the world’s women and girls.
Dr. Shyama Venkateswar is the Distinguished Lecturer and Director of the Public Policy Program. Follow her on Twitter: @DrSVenkateswar, like the Public Policy Program at Roosevelt House on Facebook and follow @PcubedatRH on Twitter.