Standing Up to Fight Gender-Based Violence in South Asia

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Gender-based violence is a worldwide pandemic today: an estimated 27% of women experience physical or sexual abuse in their lifetimes. In South Asia specifically, the prevalence of lifetime intimate partner violence is 35% higher than the global average. The reasons are complex and include a combination of socio-economic structures, patriarchal attitudes, and prevalent social norms that define gender roles. 

We know that violence against women and girls leaves deep emotional scars and disrupts the social, economic, physical, mental, and emotional needs of the survivors. But it is also a tragic loss of human potential—girls and women who suffer violence often miss out on the chance to access education, healthcare, and employment, as well as participate meaningfully in society. Global economic costs of violence against women are estimated to be 2% of global GDP, or US$1.5 trillion. 

Gender-based violence is a critical challenge to development and prosperity

The World Bank’s approach to gender-based violence has evolved through the years, influenced by the global movement to elevate women’s rights and gain a deeper understanding of the devastating impact of violence.   Over the past ten years, the World Bank has increasingly integrated the fight against gender-based violence as a core area of engagement across multiple sectors and programs in South Asia—from agriculture and food to water and transportation. As we mark the 2022 16 Days of Activism against gender-based violence, the World Bank is more committed than ever to supporting countries with context-specific policies and solutions to help prevent it. 

Supporting the Fight Against Gender-Based Violence

Gender-based violence is a complex multi-sectoral challenge. Our approach prioritizes the delivery of services that promote the health, well-being, and safety of women and girls. It includes the creation of safe spaces, providing access to economic opportunities, and building infrastructure and systems that safeguard women and girls. 

In Nagaland, India, around 2,000 government-run schools will benefit from gender-based violence interventions via the World Bank-supported Enhancing Classroom Teaching and Resources project. About 64% of women in Nagaland have neither sought help nor reported the violence perpetrated against them. Childline Kohima, a civil society organization, recorded 500 “child protection risk” cases between 2015-2019 based on its helpline initiative.  The project is committed to making the learning environment in schools free from violence—from building separate bathrooms for girls; working with parents, teachers, students, and the community to help them understand what violence against children is; and ensuring that schools have well-established procedures to deal with instances of violence. 

In Tamil Nadu, the Chennai City Partnership: Sustainable Urban Services Program strives to make public transportation safe from violence and/or sexual harassment for women and girls by paying particular attention to safety needs such as location of bus stops, adequate lighting, and sidewalks in addition to establishing a solid system to track and manage gender-based violence cases that are reported. With over 70% of women reporting feeling unsafe while using public transport, such efforts are geared to boost women’s mobility and participation in the urban workforce. They will also help remove structural barriers to women participating in the labor force.  

bus girls
Safe public transport can boost women's mobility and participation in the work force. Stephen Bridger /

Gender-based violence intensifies in the context of conflict, disaster, and other shocks. In Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, where around one million Rohingya who fled violence and persecution in Myanmar’s Rakhine State currently reside, the Government of Bangladesh’s Health and Gender Support Project for Cox’s Bazar District, which is supported by the World Bank, provides female survivors of violence access to safe spaces where they can be in the company of other women, bring their children for nutrition services, and get mental health support. Currently, more than 400,000 girls and women—among both the displaced Rohingya population and the larger host community of Cox’s Bazar—are using these services within the camps and in the localities outside the camps respectively.

The Road Toward Prosperity and Empowerment

So, what can policy makers and international development institutions do to keep women and girls safe from violence?

First, it is important to continue to support legislative and policy reform. Developing policies to establish gender equality is a must, since gender-based violence both stems from gender inequality and reinforces it. For example, we worked with the Government of Bhutan to develop a National Gender Equality Policy, a key goal of which is to prevent violence against women and girls. We also supported the Government of Bangladesh to develop systems to help survivors file grievances on sexual harassment and incidents of gender-based violence in the workplace through the Bangladesh Jobs Development Policy Credit

Second, it is crucial to spread awareness of existing laws against domestic abuse and gender-based violence. In recent years, many South Asian countries, including Nepal, Pakistan, and the Maldives have reformed laws regarding sexual harassment and sexual violence. However, implementation is partly hindered by limited public awareness of women’s rights. We must continue to work with governments to build the capacity of officials to apply, enforce, and raise visibility for these laws. 

girls class
Fighting gender-based violence involves creating safe spaces, providing access to economic opportunities, and building infrastructure and systems that safeguard women and girls. Credit: gorkhe1980 /

Third, fighting gender-based violence also requires filling the gaps in services in fragile or conflict-affected settings. Past experiences have shown that the reach of state services in conflict zones is limited.  It is imperative that programs in these contexts include life-line services for survivors of gender-based violence. International financing institutions like the World Bank can play a critical role in partnering with specialized organizations such as UN agencies and non-governmental organizations to ensure that essential healthcare and mental health support are available. This often requires working closely with grassroots women’s organizations to be able to reach survivors in conflict-affected communities.

By destroying lives, gender-based violence impedes a society’s ability to overcome poverty and inequality, and to prosper . Let’s work together to drive change for a world free of violence against women. 


Martin Raiser

Vice President for the South Asia Region, World Bank Group

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