by Lyric Thompson
In early March, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon released a distressing new report that showed that 35 percent of women worldwide—that’s one in every three women—have experienced some form of violence in her lifetime. The report also found that one in ten girls under the age of 18 was forced to have sex.
The release of the report coincided with the UN Commission on the Status of Women, a two-week global review of women’s rights. The theme of this year’s commission was the twenty-year review of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, the world’s preeminent policy agenda on human rights and the outcome of the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995. The review shows mixed results with regard to global progress for women and girls.
Globally, maternal deaths have fallen 45 percent from 1990 to 2013, although progress is uneven across countries and within them, across rural and urban areas, and across race, class, and ethnicity, among other variables. Extreme poverty, which affects a disproportionate number of women and girls, has been halved, though we are not confident that women and girls have enjoyed an equal share of that progress. And we have all but closed the gender gap in primary school enrollment rates.
The good news, however, pretty much ends there. Progress at the primary level of education has not been matched at the secondary level for girls, and even less so at the tertiary level. Female genital mutilation impacts 125 million girls globally and child, early, and forced marriage ends childhood for 15 million girls a year. Adolescent girls 15-19 are one of the demographics for which HIV prevalence has actually increased in the last 20 years—in fact, they accounted for two-thirds of new infections. And, the latest report from the Secretary General makes abundantly clear, rates of violence and exploitation against women and girls are still at a pandemic level.
Gender-based violence (GBV) is an egregious human rights violation and it knows no cultural, religious, class, or geographical boundaries. Much to the surprise of most Americans, it impacts girls and women here at home almost as much as those abroad. From northeast Nigeria, where Boko Haram kidnaps schoolgirls, depriving them of an education and consigning them to lives of sexual slavery in order to make a brutal political point; to Syrian refugee girls who are more than twice as likely to be forced into child marriages in the wake of their home-country’s conflict; to the girls and women who experience violence in the most common site in the world—the home—girls and women are experiencing violence today just as much as they were twenty years ago.
When girls experience violence they may drop out of school. When girls are forced to undergo female genital mutilation, an extreme but very real form of GBV, they may suffer health complications that could cripple them for life, or even result in death. And while it’s true that rates of GBV have been, and remain, alarmingly high, this is not a problem without a solution. There are a host of ways that communities, governments, and entities like the United Nations can better protect women and girls and prevent violence from occurring.
Firstly, they can invest in successful approaches to prevent and reduce violence. Unfortunately, however, latest estimatesshow that global expenditure in gender equality broadly—not to mention gender-based violence specifically—is falling. Second, policymakers can enact and implement strong policies and laws codifying a comprehensive approach—not just criminalizing violence, which is important, but also mapping out a plan of action for how we will work across sectors to provide resources for prevention and economic, health, and psychosocial support for survivors.
In the U.S., Congress can pass the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA), which makes ending violence against women and girls a top U.S. diplomatic priority, including codifying an important executive branch strategy that is set to expire this year in law and assigning key personnel at the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to lead global efforts to prevent and respond to GBV. Importantly, the strategy requires federal agencies engaged in foreign assistance work to undertake measurable steps in their programming to prevent and respond to GBV and to be coordinated in these efforts.
IVAWA also mandates action in five countries where violence is particularly severe and supports measures to prevent violence, protect survivors, and bring perpetrators to justice.
In recent weeks IVAWA has once again been introduced, with strong bi-partisan support, in both chambers of Congress, and advocates are hopeful that this year it will, at last, become law. It will be a strong—albeit much delayed—step forward in U.S. efforts to stamp out the scourge of gender-based violence globally.
About the Author
Lyric Thompson is Senior Policy Manager at the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW). In this capacity she leads the institution’s formulation of evidence-based policy recommendations and manages the institution’s advocacy efforts with the US Government and Internationally. Lyric also serves as co-chair of the Girls Not Brides USA advocacy coalition working to end child marriage, on the steering committee of the Coalition to End Gender-Based Violence Globally, and plays a leadership role in various other coalitions advancing the global policy agenda on women and girls. Her ICRW field work includes building the advocacy capacity of a coalition of women’s property rights groups in Tanzania and mobilizing a wide variety of stakeholders to achieve gender-responsive, urban development in slum communities of Mumbai, India.