Published on Voices

#TakeOn Violence Against Women, Take a Walk in Their Shoes

Your name is Sarah. You live in New York, or perhaps Nairobi, where you divide your time between caring for your young family and building a small business. Your life is more comfortable than your mother’s, and your children’s prospects are brighter than you might have hoped. Until your husband’s simmering resentment of your growing business turns violent, and he beats you badly.

Soon he’s monitoring your phone calls and movements, belittling and bruising you. He sometimes apologizes, and you hope things will improve. But when he learns you plan to open a bank account in your own name, he burns down your shop—destroying your only path to independence. Where can you turn, when friends and family tell you you’re fortunate to have a husband who works and police, clergy, and legal services offer no shelter or support? Your options are few and risky, for you as well as your children.

Sarah, a composite based on real women, is part of a learning module, "In Her Shoes," developed by the Washington State Coalition on Domestic Violence and later adapted for Latin America and East Africa. "In Her Shoes" was designed as a role-playing exercise to sensitize service providers, aid and development workers, and others to the grim reality of women subjected to violence, who number more than 800 million globally.

Violence against women and girls is a global epidemic and leading cause of death and serious injury among women aged 19-44. The World Health Organization (WHO) last year released an unprecedented survey that found more than one in three women worldwide will experience violence at the hands of a partner over the course of their lives. Most never seek help or tell anyone.

One of the most oppressive forms of inequality, violence against women (VAW) can denote child marriage, genital cutting, honor killings, domestic abuse, rape, and economic deprivation. It prevents women and girls from participating equally in social, economic, and political life and perpetuates the cycle of poverty. Its impact is felt across development projects, from mining to infrastructure, transport, technology, education, sanitation, and health.

Beyond enormous personal suffering, its associated costs have broad implications for efforts to end poverty and boost shared prosperity. Estimated economic costs associated with domestic violence are as high as 5 percent of GDP globally—more than double what most governments spend on primary education.

That’s a huge figure, and one reason development organizations, donors, international financial institutions, and increasingly the private sector are scaling up efforts to address violence. With their global reach, capacity to generate and share knowledge, financing, partnerships, and convening power, organizations like the World Bank Group are uniquely positioned to pilot and promote evidence-based responses.

In recent years the Bank has identified violence against women as a frontier area in which our greater involvement might achieve transformational impact—and we are changing how we do business as a result. To cite a few recent examples:

In Papua New Guinea, we consulted local women early in a new mining project and found they feared an influx of labor would prompt an upsurge in violence. The women sent a representative to the negotiating table, where it was agreed 10 percent of funds from mining operations would go toward programs supporting women and children. That share later rose to more than 18 percent.

In Brazil, we are providing a US$500 million Development Policy Loan for a major infrastructure project to update Rio de Janeiro’s urban transport system. The project takes gender-based violence considerations into account and piggybacks on the urban network to deliver a range of economic and legal resources to women. Now all stations will have women’s restrooms and improved lighting. Five major stations will have centers offering legal, medical, and counseling support to those affected by violence as well as 107 electronic information terminals. A similar transport-led initiative, with a US$205 million loan, is under way in Ecuador.

We are also providing US$107 million in financial grants to Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and Rwanda to provide integrated health and counseling services, legal aid, and economic opportunities to survivors of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). The Great Lakes Emergency SGBV and Women’s Health Project is the first World Bank Group project in Africa with a major focus on offering integrated services to SGBV survivors.

We still need to deepen our knowledge of how precisely violence holds back women and girls, how projects can better meet the needs of those who have experienced it, how to avoid introducing undue risk to those who are already vulnerable, and how we can embed efforts to prevent and address violence in all our projects.

Mary Ellsberg, a leading authority on gender-based violence and founding director of the George Washington University Global Women’s Institute (GWI), recently moderated a session of “In Her Shoes” in a conference room filled to capacity with World Bank Group staff. Many only recently began considering gender equality and gender-based violence in designing and implementing projects, and they found the exercise affecting and eye-opening.

On this 15th International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, let’s hope development professionals everywhere will spend some time in the shoes of women like Sarah—and think hard about how we can help free them from violence so they can reach their potential. Toward this end, the World Bank Group, in partnership with GWI and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), will on Dec. 3 launch a new online resource guide distilling best practices and lessons learned from interventions aimed at tackling violence against women and girls across a range of sectors.

Proposed development targets to succeed the anti-poverty Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) after 2015 would sharply scale up efforts to end violence again women and girls for good. Promising new research, along with high-level engagement and advocacy around this urgent challenge, suggest this is a goal within reach.

Caren Grown is Senior Director for Gender at the World Bank Group.


Caren Grown

Former Global Director, Gender

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