Published on Eurasian Perspectives

Reducing the prevalence of gender-based violence in Europe and Central Asia requires changing the norms that support it

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Even before the COVID-19 pandemic intensified risk factors for Gender-based Violence (GBV), Central Asian countries reported some of the highest GBV rates in the world, with over 20% of women reporting that they had experienced intimate partner violence (IPV), the most common form of GBV, at least once in their lifetime. This is double the average rate in OECD countries and more than in Eastern Europe (17%) and the South Caucasus (11%).

Women from ethnic minorities, such as Roma, are more likely to experience GBV and marry early, as illustrated by a survey in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia, published in a 2019 UN Women report, that revealed the staggering extent of the abuse: in Serbia, over 92% of Roma women have experienced some type of physical or sexual violence since the age of 18. In Montenegro and Serbia, 18% and 17% of Roma girls, respectively, are married before the age of 15 and over 55% are married before 18. Similarly, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 5 out of 10 Roma women marry before turning 18.

Regressive Gender Norms Underpin Discrimination Against Women and Girls

IPV is prevalent across the region in part because many men and women think that domestic violence is acceptable under certain circumstances, for instance when a wife burns a meal; when she goes out without her husband’s permission; and/or when she neglects the children. In many ECA countries, women are as likely as men—and sometimes even more likely—to believe that a husband is justified in beating his wife (see figure below).

Women aged 15-49 who believe a husband is justified in beating his wife (%), for any of 5 reasons

Source: Gender Data Portal based on Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS), Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys (MICS), and other surveys. 

GBV not only affects women’s physical and mental wellbeing, it also prevents them from reaching their full life potential. Multiple studies have demonstrated that experiencing GBV leads to severe mental health problems such as depression, suicide ideation and post-traumatic stress disorder as well as reproductive and other related problems affecting maternal and neo-natal health, physical injuries and other chronic health conditions. These impacts often last for years and affect survivors’ families as well.

Moreover, GBV carries a heavy economic cost for society, resulting for example in women and girls’ underachievement in education, work and productivity. According to some studies, this cost can range from 1% to 3% of a country’s GDP—on par with the average amount allocated to primary education. 

Despite this heavy toll, less than 40% of women globally who experience GBV seek help or report a crime, while less than 10% go to the police, who sometimes lack the capacity or willingness to help. This fuels impunity for the perpetrators; moreover, the survivors do not receive the help they need, such as clinical management of rape and psycho-social and mental health support.

A review of the police response to GBV in Kosovo between 2009 and 2017 found that reported sexual assault cases were not only low, but also declined during this period. Similarly, in Armenia, the 2021 Survey on Domestic Violence against Women in Armenia revealed that only 5% of those who experienced violence sought help from the police, while 53.5% stated that they did not expect any help.

Supporting Survivors and Exposing the Norm

Coordination is key for identifying GBV survivors, enabling successful referrals to service providers, and implementing interventions to prevent GBV. The World Bank Group and its partners in civil society and elsewhere are helping governments and other stakeholders in ECA tackle GBV in a meaningful way through multisectoral efforts involving actors in health, social services, the law, security, and local communities to support GBV survivors and challenge harmful, regressive gender norms. 

Providing and raising awareness of services to survivors is key. To do this, we have focused on building institutional capacities of our clients to both improve access to and delivery of GBV services.  For example, in Armenia, the Fourth Public Sector Modernization Project supports a dedicated phone line to report GBV and improved access to services for GBV survivors. In Kosovo, the Emergency COVID-19 Project trains healthcare workers to identify and handle GBV cases, promotes the employment of mental health workers, and raises awareness of GBV service availability. In Albania, the Emergency COVID-19 Response Project supports special social care services to prevent and respond to GBV and violence against children. And in Tajikistan, the World Bank is working with the government to improve service provision for GBV survivors, while a project on socioeconomic resilience aims to address GBV indirectly by promoting healthy lifestyles and principles of equality in the division of household and care responsibilities.

Further, establishing strong judicial awareness and policies is essential to improving prevention of GBV. To achieve this, we have focused our support on policies that build judicial capacities and prevent exploitation and abuse.

For example, in Azerbaijan, the Judicial Services & Smart Infrastructure Project supports the implementation of the Justice Sector Gender Strategy, which seeks to prevent sexual harassment among public servants. In Kazakhstan, the South-West Roads project has taken concrete steps to prevent exploitation and abuse. In Romania, the Justice Service Improvement Project provides training to justice system service providers to improve the judicial response to GBV. And in Uzbekistan, we are supporting the government’s program to establish referral pathways for survivors of GBV.

Together with our partners, the World Bank stands ready to support countries in the ECA region to address GBV. It is the right thing to do and makes economic sense.


Anna Bjerde

World Bank Managing Director of Operations

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