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A preventable evil: violence against women and girls must end

Julia Purcell, Wilton Park Programme Director for Human Rights, writes on the challenges of ending violence against women and girls.

Violence against women and girls is preventable. The evidence shows this, yet there are significant challenges to the work of ending that violence.

November 25 marked International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (IDEVAW) and the start of 16 days of activism on ending violence against women and girls (VAWG). During this period we’ll be supporting the UK-hosted International Ministerial Conference on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative (PSVI), marking ten years since we hosted the first PSVI dialogue at Wilton Park in 2012 and nine since the launch of the G8 Declaration on Preventing Sexual Violence.

The emergence of new initiatives and greater use of evidence to inform policy making has helped efforts to end violence against women and girls in recent years, but significant challenges remain.

All forms of gender-based violence are driven by gender inequality, power imbalances, patriarchy and misogyny, which are damaging to men and boys as well as women and girls, and the work of changing these deep-rooted structural issues is hampered by the current global climate of increased instability and conflict. This climate, combined with COVID-19, has slowed or in some cases reversed progress.

Global estimates indicate that 35% of women worldwide have experienced physical and/or sexual partner violence or non-partner sexual violence. Gender-based violence has also expanded into the digital sphere, with 85% of women worldwide having witnessed or experienced online violence against women.

Wilton Park’s role

At Wilton Park, we’ve been supporting the case that violence against women and girls is preventable and that this knowledge needs to be shared. We convene policy makers, international organisations and front-line practitioners to test out thinking, challenge assumptions and develop more robust policy.

The driver of this year’s international PSVI conference is ‘For Survivors, With Survivors’ and this is fundamental to our ethos in creating a safe and honest space that enables all voices to be heard. Our survivor-led dialogues have included work on tackling the stigma suffered by survivors of sexual violence, which includes men and boys as well as women and girls, and children born of rape.

Our dialogue on building a shared agenda on prevention of violence against women and girls brought together diverse actors to understand the current evidence on what works to prevent VAWG, and what key elements of interventions should be scaled up in future programming. Our 2019 event on sexual violence in conflict focused on strengthening the evidence base needed to deliver justice for survivors and  hold perpetrators to account.

Earlier this year we hosted an event on strengthening the international response to conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) which produced recommendations that will feed into next week’s PSVI conference. Further Wilton Park events on Conflict Related Sexual Violence are planned for early 2023, including an event on how to leverage the evidence on violence against women to generate new partnerships to trigger global action at scale.

Strengthening the international justice system

All these dialogues build towards both preventing violence against women and girls and creating a stronger justice system for survivors. At the launch of the G8 declaration in 2013, then Foreign Secretary William Hague said:

“Our goal must be a world in which it is inconceivable that thousands of women, children and men can be raped in the course of a conflict – because an international framework of deterrence and accountability makes it impossible.”

Yet nine years on, it’s still rare for international courts to consider rape, even though it is one of the most commonly perpetrated war crimes.

Special Envoy to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Angelina Jolie, described survivors of sexual violence in conflict as “the forgotten victims of war: responsible for none of the harm but bearing the worst of the pain.”

We must not allow global instability to make us forget them, or neglect the painstaking, long-term work of changing societal structures so that ending violence against women truly becomes and remains a priority.

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