Combating violence against women [Archives:2006/915/Health]

January 26 2006

Dr. Saleh Al-Habshi
Master in Public Health

Violence is a major obstacle to development. In particular, violence against women currently is considered a priority social, economic and health problem hindering progress in achieving development. Violence against women occurs in all social and economic classes, but women living in poverty are more likely to experience violence.

Global estimates indicate that one in every five women faces some form of violence during her lifetime, in some cases leading to serious injury or death. Violence against women takes many forms, from the overt to the subtle. It can be physical, sexual, emotional or intimate partner violence.

Most violence experienced by women is perpetrated by someone they know – most often, their husband or partner. A 2005 review of nearly 50 population-based surveys worldwide found that between 10 and 50 percent of women reported being hit or physically abused by an intimate male partner at some point in their lives. However, a significant amount of violence is perpetrated by strangers, as well as authority figures such as police or government officials, and by combatants during armed conflict.

Poverty and hunger force many women to migrate as a survival strategy. In many countries, unemployed women migrants or those working in domestic service or factories are at high risk for employer abuse, including confinement.

Violence against women increasingly is documented in crises associated with armed conflicts. Women and girls often bear the brunt of such conflicts. It is estimated that at least 65 percent of the millions of people displaced worldwide by conflict are women and girls who face daily deprivation and insecurity. Displaced persons and women living in conflict situations or refugee camps already are very vulnerable to extreme poverty, hunger and illness. Their situation frequently is made even worse by high exploitation and abuse rates.

Despite the growing recognition of violence against women as a public health and human rights concern and the obstacle it poses to development, this type of violence continues to have an unjustifiably low priority on the international development agenda and in planning, programming and budgeting. Until recently, most governments considered violence against women, particularly domestic violence by a husband or other intimate partner, to be a relatively minor social problem. Today, due in large part to efforts of women's organizations and research evidence from WHO, UNICEF and UNFPA, violence against women is recognized as a global concern.

Violence against women is a major threat to social and economic development. This was recognized in the September 2000 Millennium Declaration, in which the United Nations General Assembly resolved “to combat all forms of violence against women and implement the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.” The declaration explicitly recognized that equal rights and opportunities for women and men must be assured.

Such violence is intimately associated with complex social conditions such as poverty, lack of education, gender inequality, child mortality, maternal ill-health and human immunodeficiency virus/acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (HIV/AIDS).

Efforts to reduce poverty and hunger may help prevent violence against women and thus should be supported.

Although more research is needed to fully understand the connection between poverty and violence against women, it is clear that poverty and its associated stressors are important contributors. A number of theories as to why this is so have been explored. Men in difficult economic circumstances (e.g. unemployment, little job autonomy, low socioeconomic status or blocked advancement due to lack of education) may resort to violence out of frustration and a sense of hopelessness. At the same time, poor women who experience violence may have fewer resources to escape violence in the home.

Alarmingly, 65 percent of the world's children who do not attend school are girls, and two-thirds of the world's illiterate are women. There is a diverse relationship between education and violence. Increasing women's educational status and economic independence does not guarantee elimination of violence. In some cases, this actually may increase women's chances of experiencing violence – at least initially.

Improved economic conditions may provide more opportunities to escape and avoid violence, but they are only part of completely eradicating violence against women. More education empowers women by giving them greater self-confidence, wider social networks and greater ability to use information and resources and attain economic independence. There is evidence that less-educated women generally are more likely to experience violence than those with higher education levels. Enrolling in and completing secondary education is also a critical area of concern, as it clearly is associated with employment opportunities and women's empowerment.

The relationship between educational attainment and its protective effect is complex. Some men may react violently to women's empowerment through education, particularly if educated women then challenge traditional gender roles. Thus, in some societies, there actually is increased risk of violence for some women until a sufficient number of them reach a high enough educational level and gender norms shift to allow its protective effects to operate.

Girls face many barriers to education, some of which involve violence or make them more vulnerable to it. For example, many families place little value on educating girls, preferring to keep them working at home or elsewhere for wages. Some poor families can afford to send only one child to school and the selected child usually is a boy. Poor girls who want to attend school but whose families cannot afford tuition fees or supplies can be exploited and abused for school fees, uniforms, books and lunches. For some girls, lack of safety in or around schools is the chief obstacle to getting an education, while early marriage also can cut short a girl's education.

Violence against women and gender inequality result from a complex array of interwoven factors. These include harmful gender norms and traditions and social acceptance of violence as a means of conflict resolution. Violence against women often is embedded in social customs allowing it to be perpetrated with impunity – in many cases, without even being considered as violence. In many parts of the world, women have no social or legal recourse against violence by their husband or partner.

Since violence against women so seriously impacts their lives, health, productivity and well-being, it must be addressed adequately. While the past two or three decades produced many lessons about violence against women, more research and data are needed to better: (a) understand its root causes, magnitude and consequences, (b) identify solutions and (c) galvanize social, legal and political change.

Combating violence against women is central to achieving Millennium Development Goals. A variety of tools and strategies are required to overcome deeply embedded gender norms and systemic discrimination against women. These include visible and sustained leadership by politicians and other key society figures; communication campaigns aimed at changing norms and attitudes; legal reform on issues such as divorce, property rights and political participation; and credit- and skills-building programs to increase women's economic independence.

Greater equality and empowerment will help many women avoid violence. But violence will never disappear unless men also change their attitudes and reject violence against women as acceptable behavior in any context, including the home.

A mix of comprehensive interventions specifically aimed at reducing violence and protecting women is required. These interventions should involve health, social and economic aspects of women's lives, including enacting and enforcing sanctions against men perpetrating violence against women; training judiciary, police and health care workers to recognize and deal appropriately with violence against women; and services for women experiencing violence such as shelters, telephone hotlines, support networks and psychological and legal advice. It is important to continuously monitor such initiatives. Humanitarian relief programs should be designed to protect women and girls in war and displacement situations and ensure that their basic needs are met.

The benefits of increasing women's security not only include reducing violence-based injury and death, but also give women independence to pursue economic and social activities. Environmental improvements, such as good lighting and designing streets and buildings to eliminate areas where assaults can occur without being seen or heard, also are relevant.

Various women's organizations (e.g. social, cultural and service-oriented) have played important parts in many development aspects, particularly those related to health, human rights and social justice. However, female leaders and groups representing women are relatively rare in most countries' national politics, resulting in few laws and policies challenging prevailing gender-related attitudes and practices.

Combating violence against women will succeed only if women's empowerment efforts address current norms and traditional social customs legitimizing violence against them, as well as legislation and enforcing laws discriminating against them.