Published on Arab Voices

Treating a silent cancer: How to tackle gender-based violence in MENA

???????? ????????? ??????? ?????? ?? ?????? ?? ?????? ?????? ??? ??????? ?????????? ??? ??? ????. والإقرار بإشكاليات المتصلة بالعنف ضد المرأة هو الخطوة الأولى نحو الوقاية والاستجابة على نحو فاعل.

Gender-Based Violence (GBV) or violence against women and girls (VAWG), is a global pandemic that affects 1 in 3 women in their lifetime. In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region this silent cancer often goes undetected yet leaves its marks on the victims for years if not a lifetime. Recently, various allegations against individuals related to rape, assault and sexually harassment prompted outrage and encouraged sways of women and girls to speak out about their own experiences of violence. This led to unprecedented attention from the public, demonstrating an urgent need for a systematic approach to prevention and response.

GBV not only negatively impacts women and girls’ well-being and affects the long-term human capital potential of survivors, it eventually reduces labor market participation and civic activities and bears a high cost to communities. Globally, violence against women is estimated to cost countries up to 3.7% of their GDP — more than double what most governments spend on education. Acknowledging issues related to GBV is the first step to an effective prevention and response. More MENA countries are adopting laws against sexual assault and other forms of GBV, yet challenges remain in implementing and enforcing these laws, building institutional capacity and awareness, and providing adequate protection and services.

Successfully tackling GBV in MENA therefore requires action along five interlined axes:

  1. Legal reform: Legal protection remains weak for sexual violence as a form of domestic violence, where laws are lacking in more than 1 in 3 countries. Gaps in legislation are most common in the MENA region and sub-Saharan Africa. While laws alone are not enough to end abuses, they are critical in helping end violence against women and girls. Laws should include a comprehensive definition of domestic violence, including physical, sexual, psychological and economic violence.
  2. Clear institutional capacities and accountabilities: Institutional capacity, training and awareness of public officials and service providers, and reporting mechanisms must be strengthened. On the national level, strategies and action plans that include accountability mechanisms and provide adequate budget allocations should underpin the policy framework on GBV. Codes of conduct are also found to be effective in preventing sexual harassment and other forms of GBV in a broad range of sectors.
  3. Safe and confidential access to justice: Law enforcement authorities do not always take adequate measures to ensure the confidentiality and safety of GBV survivors and witnesses, discouraging others from reporting incidents and undermining trust in the legal system. Training modules and interventions in law enforcement and the judicial sector should be developed with the objective of GBV awareness and sensitization, as well as improving responses to incidents. Procedures and protocols need to be strengthened, such as codes of conduct for security personnel, guidelines for medical forensic examination and respective trainings for health care personnel and law enforcement officials, standardized protocols for filing police reports to avoid revictimization, as well as policies for follow-ups after reports of violent incidents. Through standardized indicators and a common registry for reporting and tracking cases, data collection and monitoring of GBV-related crimes could be systematized. In the longer term, a more inclusive justice system with higher representation of women at all levels should be a priority.
  4. Survivor-centered service delivery: Improving the overall protection system and service provision requires access to legal aid, medical and psychological treatment for survivors, safe spaces and shelters, as well as livelihood support and reintegration measures. Accessibility, quality and inter-sectoral coordination to support survivors should be reinforced through one-stop shops, development of inter-sectoral referral systems and interlinked training of all involved in the survivor-centered case management.
  5. Social norms and behavioral change: Surveys on people’s attitudes on sexual harassment in MENA found high tolerance of certain types of GBV, including among young respondents. Therefore, it is critical to raise awareness and hold campaigns that advocate support for survivors such as hotlines, reporting mechanisms, shelters and display messages aimed at changing norms and behaviors that perpetuate GBV. As one of the most important environments for children’s socialization, schools should be at the forefront of reducing all forms of discrimination contributing to GBV — in the school setting and promoting non-violence outside the school in families and communities. Teachers and staff should be trained to address GBV and made aware of institutional codes of conduct, as well as appropriate response mechanisms. Capacity-building activities should include Parent Teacher Associations and a wider outreach in communities.

Gender-based violence is rightfully defined as the single most widespread and devastating human rights violation in our world today. The World Bank is currently developing its first Regional Action Plan for MENA on GBV. Our efforts are geared towards defining priority legal and institutional reforms, survivor-centered protection and services, as well as long-term social norm and behavioral change. We are also working closely with national counterparts, international partners and other stakeholders to provide actionable recommendations.

Preventing and addressing GBV is a prerequisite for inclusive sustainable development. In the MENA region, it is a silent cancer and the time to act is now. 


Ayat Soliman

Director for Strategy and Operations, Latin America and Caribbean

Mirjam Kalle

Social Development Specialist

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