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Identifying innovative solutions to deep-seated drivers of gender-based violence

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Violence against women and girls has pervasive, long-lasting, and far-reaching effects. It impedes survivors’ full participation in society, limits access to education and economic participation, and undermines efforts to invest in people and build human capital. Addressing gender-based violence is pivotal to the World Bank Group’s mission of ending extreme poverty and building shared poverty.

The 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence get underway today. It is a good time to consider the drivers of violence, along with lessons we can draw from innovative, evidence-based research.

Gender-based violence has many drivers. Among the deepest-rooted are harmful gender norms and attitudes—the unspoken social rules of behavior maintained by the approval of a group.

Harmful norms sustaining gender-based violence include notions of a man’s authority over female behavior, as well as the acceptance of wife beating. These norms are upheld not only by men, but also by women themselves.

103 countries have data dating back to 2005 on how many ever-partnered women aged 15-49 believe a partner is justified in beating his wife for any number of reasons: if the wife argues with him, refuses to have sex, burns the food, goes out without telling him, or when she ‘neglects’ the children. Norms differ from country to country and among geographic and population groups within countries. The graphic depicts attitudes on intimate partner violence, drawing on data from the Demographics and Health Survey Program and Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys that are curated on the World Bank Gender Data Portal

Gender roles and norms that condone violence against women are deeply embedded throughout many societies. While norms are predictive of violence perpetration, they do not fully explain levels of gender-based violence. For example, even in countries where norms condemn violence against women (such as Colombia which has one of the lowest rates of condoning violence in this data set), prevalence of intimate partner violence can still be high (in Colombia, violence in the last 12 months was 37.4 percent as measured in 2010).

The Development Marketplace—our partnership with the Sexual Violence Research Initiative—is working to close evidence gaps and supporting researchers to study scalable, cost-effective interventions to address gender-based violence. This includes exciting examples where communities and countries are working to transform views about the acceptability of violence.

In Nepal, for example, Equal Access International and Emory University work off the hypothesis that ‘trendsetters’ can change views and behavior. Educational activities are selected and led by community-members themselves, with researchers literally mapping the transformation demonstrated visually as households put up flags to declare themselves ‘violence-free’.

In Lebanon, researchers from Queen’s University and the ABAAD Resource Center for Gender Equality worked with Syrian refugees to establish the attitudes of community members to child marriage. In addition to profound negative impacts on physical and psychological health, early and forced child marriage increases vulnerability to intimate partner violence. This ground-breaking study found Syrian women and men had different narratives related to the main causes of these marriages. Therefore, to address the practice, it may be most effective to use differentiated strategies targeted to men and women. Watch the lead researcher’s TEDx Talk to find out more.

Among the 2019 cohort of Development Marketplace research recipients, the University of Ibadan and the International Center for Research on Women are working with a community in Ibadan to measure changes in attitudes toward sexual coercion along with experiences of intimate partner violence, to track the effects of an intervention designed to increase women’s participation in household decision-making and foster more egalitarian relationships.

The International Food Policy Research Institute undertook the first rigorous quantitative research study on the impact of cash transfers on intimate partner violence in South Asia, looking not just at the effect during the program, but also at what happened afterward. The program provided cash or food transfers to poor rural women, in some areas with intensive behavior change communication focused on improving nutritional knowledge and in some areas without the communication intervention.

The researchers found clear evidence that only the combination of transfers and behavior change communication led to sustained reductions in intimate partner violence, with 26% less physical violence than in the control or transfers-only group at 6-10 months post-program. This suggests cash transfer programs can reduce intimate partner violence, and that these impacts can be sustained.

Over the next 16 Days, the WBG Gender Twitter handle will be highlighting even more innovative research approaches.

A challenge for development professionals is to incorporate evidence-based research on gender-based violence into all our work. A really good place to start is with the Violence Against Women and Girls Resource Guide, which offers guidance on how to integrate prevention and the provision of quality services to violence survivors within a range of development projects.


Diana J. Arango

Sr. Gender-Based Violence and Development Specialist, World Bank Group

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