Listening to the news yesterday, I grimaced as I heard about the latest episode to unfold in the story of the schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria last year: according to news reports, captive girls are being recruited as torturers and combatants by the militant group. 24 hour rolling news and social media have helped generate unprecedented public concern about this case, and others such as those of Malala Yousafzai or Jyoti Singh. Meanwhile high-profile initiatives such as William Hague and Angelina Jolie’s Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative and Justine Greening’s Girl Summit on female genital mutilation and early/forced marriage are evidence of growing interest in the issues from UK decision-makers.
Away from the media glare, however, women and girls continue to experience violence in every country and every context. At home and at work. In anonymous city streets or close-knit communities. In the poorest slums and the richest gated communities. In poor countries and rich ones. This most egregious manifestation of gender inequality affects women’s health, limits their life chances, and prevents them from playing a full part in society. 1 in three women will experience violence in their lifetime, with the most likely perpetrator being their own partner.
But women and girls are not helpless victims. They are the ones leading the charge against violence, setting up services and demanding change at every level. A ground-breaking 2012 study on violence against women conducted over four decades and in 70 countries revealed that the mobilization of feminist movements is more important for change than the wealth of nations, left-wing political parties, or the number of women politicians. ActionAid’s latest analysis has built on this work, revealing that women in countries with weaker civil rights are around twice as likely to experience violence (see graph below).
Fearless: standing with women and girls to end violence was published last week as part of our new campaign calling on governments to act now on this widespread human rights abuse. In it, we chart the long list of commitments that women’s activism has demanded and won. We highlight the efforts of women and women’s organisations – sometimes supported by men – to support, organise and resist violence across many sites of struggle. And we analyse the challenges they face. These include funding shortfalls, especially for women’s organisations, the relegation of women to the margins of political life, and a failure to recognise and address the drivers of violence across multiple sectors and policies. Meanwhile women’s collective action is increasingly constrained by political repression, economic inequality and religious fundamentalisms. These issues affect civil society organisations everywhere, of course, but it’s often women’s organisations that experience them first and hardest.
What will it really take to end the violence? As part of our launch week we brought together an unusual group of women for a ‘Strategic Conversation’ on options for a policy change agenda. Unusual, because it was not the predictable and, dare I say it, dry meeting comprised of development professionals. Sure, we had a few of those (including ourselves) but also academics from both classic and more radical perspectives, and activists working both internationally and domestically. We took a critical look at the opportunities presented in 2015 – especially the adoption of the SDGs (including the anticipated target on violence) and the potential role of the UK government in driving forward progress.
The women’s movement has waited for decades for the international community to live up to its human rights obligations and commitments (notably the establishment of CEDAW and the adoption of the Beijing Platform for Action). So it’s not surprising that there was a fair degree of circumspection about exactly how transformative this moment will be. There was also an honest discussion about some of the contradictions inherent in the UK’s position: seen to be progressive in advocating a gender equality goal in the SDGs and championing action on violence internationally, but questioned over their wider agenda – especially the thorny issue of the private sector in development – and an uneven record at home.
Certain issues were clear, however. Addressing gendered power and the normalization of men’s entitlement to women’s bodies requires donors and national governments to move away from siloed initiatives towards supporting a multi-sectoral approach on all forms of violence. This implies working on prevention of violence as well as its results, and acknowledging the impact of wider policies – including economic policies – that increase women’s exposure to violence. Evidence is important, but influencing what gets researched, by whom and for what intent – including by activists – is vital. Most of all, for action to achieve sustainable change, women’s rights organisations must be given the recognition and support they need. That means governments giving cold hard cash and conceding serious power (and we all know how easy that is to achieve).