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Raising awareness to root out violence against women and girls

Paula Tavares's picture
A Girl Entering a High school Courtyard © Charlotte Kesl / World Bank
A student leader in her school's anti-violence and coexistence project entering the school's courtyard     © Charlotte Kesl / World Bank

We live in a world where one in every three women has suffered some form of gender-based violence in her lifetime. This statistic translates to a staggering 1 billion women globally who have been abused, beaten or sexually violated because of their gender. 
 
Every November 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, we are reminded that gender-based violence continues to be a global epidemic with dire consequences for women, their families and entire communities. It leads to negative mental and physical health consequences for women and limits their decision-making ability and mobility, thereby reducing productivity and earnings. Beyond the individual harm, it also has substantial economic costs. Global estimates suggest the cost of gender-based violence to be as high as 3.7 percent of GDP – or $1.5 trillion a year.


The risk of violence starts early for many women and girls. Each year, millions of girls around the world are married before they turn 18. Child marriage results in greater risk of domestic violence and sexual abuse, as well as a number of health issues, lower educational attainment, and lower lifetime earnings. Where girls escape child marriage, they may still face violence at the hands of an intimate partner or family member. Indeed, domestic violence is the most common form of gender-based violence, with not a single country in the world reporting prevalence rates of domestic violence lower than 5 percent. In fact, as many as 47 percent of murders of women are committed by an intimate partner or family member.
 
Outside the home, sexual harassment and assault is not only common but widespread. The ‘Me too’ campaign, the viral social media movement sparked by the sexual assault allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, is a stark reminder  that sexual violence affects millions of women and girls at work, in school and on the streets. In the European Union, 40 to 50 percent of women have experienced unwanted sexual advances, physical contact or other forms of sexual harassment at work. The numbers are similar or higher in other countries or regions.
 
Harmful social and gender norms, unbalanced power relations, low education, poverty and conflict are all either root causes or accentuate the risk of gender-based violence. Once viewed as a private matter, domestic violence is now a matter of public health and global concern. Increased awareness has also led to significant changes in the legal framework of countries to step up protection for women and girls.
 
In 2013, the World Bank’s Women, Business and the Law initiative – which I work for – started tracking the existence of laws protecting women from violence. What started as a pilot dataset has been expanded to measure a variety of laws covering domestic violence, sexual harassment, marital rape and child marriage, with the aim of shedding light on where laws exist or otherwise still fail to protect women from violence around the world.
 
We have found that in 46 countries women still have no legal protection from domestic violence, while in 41 countries they lack protection from sexual harassment. Even where domestic violence laws exist, 1 in 4 do not protect women from physical and sexual violence. Economic abuse – a particularly prevalent form of domestic violence which can prevent women from escaping abusive relationships – is not covered by law in about half the countries around the world. And in 1 in 7 countries, women who are raped by their husbands cannot legally pursue criminal charges. In a further 11 countries, rapists can escape prison by marrying the victim.
 
The good news is that over the last 5 years, we have seen great progress. A number of countries – such as Saudi Arabia, Belarus, Lebanon, Tonga and Latvia—recently adopted domestic violence laws for the first time in history. And due to the growing availability of data, the case for enacting comprehensive domestic violence legislation has been strengthened. Our 2016 report noted that where women are legally protected from domestic violence, their life expectancy is higher and mortality rates are lower for women and children.
 
To ensure that women are capable of fully enjoying their rights and achieving their full potential, legal protection from violence is crucial. However, laws alone are not sufficient. Concerted action is needed to end violence against women and girls.
 
Campaigns like the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, for instance, are critical in helping raise awareness of the issue. Globally, less than 40 percent of women who experience violence seek help. With increased awareness, we hope that number will change.
 
Local, regional and international commitments can also pave the way for change. French President Emmanuel Macron’s speech on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women admitting that ‘domestic violence is France’s shame’ and the South African government’s campaign “Count Me In: Together Moving a Non-Violent South Africa Forward” are examples of the international movement’s global reach. Just this week, numerous governments have lit up and decorated some of their buildings and landmarks in orange to bring global attention to the issue. Orange symbolizes a brighter future free from violence against women and girls.
 
Let’s #OrangeTheWorld and make a difference in ending violence against women and girls everywhere.

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