A non-partisan journal of the left.

Is Gender-based Violence the Greatest Barrier to Equality?

Fri 13th Jun 2008

"As long as violence against women continues, we cannot claim to be making real progress towards equality, development and peace" (Kofi Annan). The aspiration that men and women are born with equal status and access to rights remains elusive even in the 21st century.

In every country of the world, albeit to differing degrees, women do not enjoy the same privileges as men. They face discrimination in their homes, in places of education, in the workplace and in the wider community. For over 45 years Amnesty International has campaigned for the human rights of all people. We recognise that violence against women violates a range of fundamental human rights. At the forthcoming Compass National Conference, Amnesty International will be hosting a debate to consider how violence against women is a consequence of profound inequality and prevents women from participating fully in society as equals.

Gender based violence includes any act that results in or is likely to result in physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts. One in three women has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime. Gender based violence happens because of the underlying inequalities in society between men and women, because of the lower value placed on women and girl's lives; because of the cultural prejudices that determine how women and girls should behave; and because governments often do not have the political will to address structural inequalities - or to even recognise them as such.

Gender based violence reinforces discrimination and prevents girls and women from participating on an equal basis with men in many different ways. Certain forms of gender based violence are targeted at young girls of school age and result in them being denied an education; forced marriage, early marriage and female genital mutilation. It has a direct impact women's short term and long term health, for example a report on trafficking found that women's psychological reactions compared to or exceeded symptoms experienced by torture victims. In the most extreme cases, it threatens women's very right to life; here in the UK on average two women a week are killed by a partner or former partner.

In addition to loss of life gender based violence can also result in physical injury, mental health problems, self-harm and suicide, poverty and social exclusion. The impact however is not just restricted to women's lives. It places children at risk, devastates families and communities, and brings an estimated heavy financial cost of £40 billion a year; taking into consideration costs such as healthcare, policing and the lost economic output from women who are abused.

The British Crime Survey shows that just under half of women in the UK experience domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking at some point in their lives. 3 million women across the UK experience rape, domestic violence, forced marriage, sexual exploitation or another form of violence each year. Many more are living with the legacies of abuse experienced in the past.

Equally shocking, is the degree to which perpetrators of violence against women are rarely held accountable for their acts. A recent report found that only 5.6% of rape allegations lead to a conviction in England, Wales and Scotland. Women who are victims of gender based violence often have little recourse because many agencies or authorities there to help are themselves guilty of gender bias and discriminatory practices. Many women opt not to report cases of violence because they fear the reaction, fearing whether they will be believed or whether they will be blamed or ostracised by communities that are too often quick to blame victims of violence for the abuses they have suffered. When women do challenge their abusers, it can often only be accomplished by long and difficult court battles.

Gender based violence is not inevitable. We can take steps to tackle it. It took many years for gender based violence to be understood as one of the most pervasive global human rights challenges. Much progress has been made in understanding that governments have a clear responsibility to address this challenge. All Governments, including the UK government should strive to eliminate violence against women by providing firm leadership and commitment in implementing comprehensive strategies that cut across different sectors and at different levels. Strategies that address education and prevention, that provide protection and support for victims and their families, together with resources and systematic training for officials who monitor and enforce them, including police, judiciary, health and social service providers. In the UK, progress has been made in the last decade to respond to gender based violence. A number of initiatives have been developed to improve services, legislation and protection for women, including the Domestic Violence Rule, Domestic Violence Courts, Sexual Assault Referral Centres and the signing of the European Convention against Trafficking. However despite these welcome initiatives vulnerable women are falling through the gaps. The UK government need must commit to an integrated strategy to tackle violence against women and importantly to take concrete steps to design and implement it immediately.

Ending violence against women also requires changing public perceptions. One third of Britons believe women who act flirtatiously, wear revealing clothes or are drunk are at least partly to blame if they are raped. We need to breakthrough the barriers of culture and tradition that tolerate or justify these attitudes. Everyone has a responsibility to put a stop to it and to redress the suffering it causes. It requires governments to address inequality in both the short term and long term, ensuring that women's human rights are protected and upheld at all levels so that they can enjoy access to their rights and freedoms on an equal footing with men. Violence against women is never normal, legal or acceptable and we all must strive to ensure it is never tolerated or justified.

Lucy Wake works for Amnesty International.

This article first appeared on Compass.
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