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Reality check: 6 out of 10 women are still getting abused

Each year International Women’s Day provides the opportunity to celebrate womanhood. While it’s important to celebrate, let’s not forget the scale on which the rights of women and girls continue to be violated every single day.

While several key international legal instruments are now in place to protect and uphold the rights of women and girls, globally, up to six out of every ten women experience physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime.

Legal instruments to protect women:

  • The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms Discrimination against Women adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly, is often described as an international bill of rights for women. It defines what constitutes discrimination against women and sets up an agenda for national action to end such discrimination.
  • The UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (1993) commits governments to put in place legal protection and prevention measures
  • the Beijing Platform of Action (1995) is a call to arms to support women in the realisation of their full rights, including the right to be free from violence,
  • the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000) and the International Criminal Court (2003) more recently helped to define atrocities such as rape during armed conflict as a weapon of war and a gender-based crime for the first time.

There has been some progress in some countries to address violence against women and girls. According to an in-depth UN study in 2006, 89 countries had some legislation on domestic violence, and a growing number of countries had national plans of action in place. Marital rape is a criminal offence in at least 104 States, and 90 countries have laws on sexual harassment. However, in too many countries gaps remain. In 102 countries there are no specific legal provisions against domestic violence, and marital rape is not a prosecutable offence in at least 53 nations.

Getting real

Despite the best of intentions, the international instruments, heralded with so much global fanfare, seem very remote from the ordinary lives of women and girls. Some governments have yet to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms Discrimination against Women, and many states have reneged on their commitments under the Beijing Platform for Action to support women in realising their full range of rights.

Domestic violence poses more danger to women than cancer

Globally, up to six out of every ten women experience physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime. A WHO study (2008) of 24,000 women in 10 countries found that physical and/or sexual violence by a partner varied from 15% in urban Japan to 71% in rural Ethiopia, with most areas being in the 30–60% range.

For women and girls 16–44 years old, violence is a major cause of death and disability. In 1994 a World Bank study on ten key risk factors facing girls and women in this age group found rape and domestic violence posed more danger than cancer, motor vehicle accidents, war and malaria.

Studies also reveal increasing links between violence against women and HIV and AIDS. A survey among 1,366 South African women showed that women who were beaten by their partners were 48% more likely to be infected with HIV than those who were not.

Filling the gap

In the absence of adequate international and governmental responses to gender-based violence, many women’s civil-society organisations and non-governmental organisations have had to step in with important initiatives such as:

  • direct services, such as shelters and
  • counselling and legal advice to women and children who experience gender-based violence.

Other activities have been designed to prevent or reduce violence against women, such as:

  • calling on governments to put suitable legislation in place, or strengthen existing national laws
  • raising public awareness of, and changing their attitudes to violence against women – for instance through public education campaigns.

Girl power

We are working in several key countries to protect the rights of adolescent girls who are at risk of gender based violence. We work, for example, in many countries in Africa and South Asia, where child marriage is common. We work with young people, their families and the wider community to advocate against child marriage by recognising its negative health and social consequences.

We believe that in order to bring about stronger long-lasting change in reducing potentially harmful traditional practices, such as child marriage or female genital mutilation/cutting, it’s important to adopt strategies and activities that have the buy-in of the wider community, especially community leaders and religious leaders.

Through this process we have been able to slowly change the attitudes and practices of village elders and families to realise the importance for young people, especially girls, to delay marriage, to stay in school and get an education. Such behavioural changes bring about long lasting benefit — not only for the young girls but, ultimately, also for the wider community.

It is indefensible that more than 30 years since the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms Discrimination against Women was adopted, the rights of women and girls continue to be violated on a daily basis.

Until governments and nation states honour their legal obligations to support the full realisation of the rights of women and girls, NGOs and civil society organisations will need to remain vigilant to hold them accountable.

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