Everyone has a fundamental right to live free of violence. Yet violence against women and girls is a health epidemic and a leading cause of injury and disability for women across the globe. In many regions, it kills as many women and girls from ages 15 to 44 as cancer and surpasses injury from traffic accidents.
Examples of violence against women and girls include sexual harassment, intimate-partner violence, female genital mutilation, forced marriage, psychological violence and human trafficking. More than 35 percent of all women experience violence in their lifetime, yet fewer than half seek help. Even if they do, there are often few mechanisms available to support them. Recent policy changes by the United States administration signal a downward trend in providing support for prevention programs domestically and abroad.
The United Nations is an important partner in preventing violence against women, making worldwide progress in recognizing this global epidemic as a human-rights violation. The rights of women to live without abuse is upheld in the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw), the 1993 Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women and, more recently, Sustainable Development Goal 5.2, which aims to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls by 2030.
Many UN organizations target prevention: UN Women helps countries pass legal reforms and other institutional structures to protect women globally; Unicef works to protect children from gender-based violence; Unesco has produced a new global guide to address school-related gender-based violence; and the World Health Organization undertakes prevention interventions and backs relevant health-sector responses.
Instead of highlighting the long-term efforts of the UN, many media focus on the scandal of abuses perpetrated by UN peacekeeping forces against women and girls. In 2016, there were 103 allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation reported from UN field missions, 47 percent of which were related to incidents occurring before 2016. Other reports note accusations of thousands of cases of abuse. These are serious cases and merit addressing, of course, but not many news outlets mention the progress being made in this area.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres released an 82-page guideline addressing peacekeeping abuses in March, including securing more money for a victims trust, promising harsher penalties for those who perpetrate abuses and stronger background checks for new UN staff members. A new e-learning program for preventing sexual exploitation and abuse was also launched in late 2016, which will be translated into all official UN languages and the languages of top troop- and police-contributing countries. There is still a long way to go, however, to fully ending sex abuse by all peacekeeping personnel.
Guterres is making strides in his first months on the job. The International Center for Research on Women compiled a report card, titled “Holding the Secretary-General’s Feet to the Fire,” grading his response to the Feminist UN campaign, which pushed for concrete actions on women’s rights in the UN system and internationally. Guterres’s overall score is A-.
The center noted he has made “an unprecedented number of noteworthy statements in support of various women’s rights and feminist issues, an example that is unmatched by historical precedent. While he has not addressed every issue the campaign champions, Mr. Guterres has demonstrated a clear commitment to breaking new ground on women’s rights in the UN system, as well as to championing gender equality on the global stage. This is a strong foundation upon which to build future progress.”
By comparison, President Donald Trump is rolling back gains for women. On his fourth day in office, he reinstated the global gag rule. Historically, this means fewer family planning services are available internationally, which correlates to increased rates of unintended pregnancies, violence against women and girls and pregnancy-related injuries and deaths. Trump’s re-enactment of this policy has broad implications for all US-funded foreign public health assistance, including programs to stop abuse of women and girls.
Three days later, Trump issued Executive Order 1379, aimed at refugees and migrants. It was banned quickly by a federal judge as was a second iteration in March. Refugee women and girls are extremely vulnerable to all kinds of hostilities, as studies attest repeatedly, and Trump’s move perpetuated the sense that there are no protections or safe places for these populations anywhere they go.
On March 30, Trump invoked the Kemp-Kasten Amendment, which pulls US funding from the UN Population Fund (UNFPA). The US gave $75 million last year to UNFPA, which is less than 0.000025 percent of the US budget that goes to foreign aid. In 2015 alone, UNFPA spent $93 million to prevent and respond to gender-based violence. The Trump administration has reiterated the fiction that UNFPA participates in coercive Chinese family planning practices, even after a 2002 State Department investigation refuted this claim.
On the contrary, UNFPA work in China has decreased in recent years; it is focusing much more on programs preventing violence against women in such countries as Ukraine, Nigeria, Iraq, Fiji, Yemen, Myanmar and Nepal as well as with refugees.
Every woman I know, myself included, has a personal story related to gender abuse, ranging from sexual harassment to psychological and physical violence, so we are all hurt by Trump’s negative actions on women’s rights. According to the US Department of Justice, the rate of serious domestic violence and intimate-partner violence in America rose from 2014 to 2015. Similarly, violence against women is increasing in Britain, where gains for women have been both gaining and sliding. On Feb. 7, President Vladimir Putin signed a bill that seriously weakens protection against domestic violence. In Russia, domestic abuse is often fueled by high rates of alcoholism among men.
If the obvious health implications of abusing women aren’t enough, the global economic effect is staggering. Lakshmi Puri, the deputy executive director of UN Women, stated recently: “Annual costs of intimate partner violence were calculated at $5.8 billion in the United States of America and $1.16 billion in Canada. In Australia, violence against women and children costs an estimated $11.38 billion per year. Domestic violence alone costs approximately $32.9 billion in England and Wales.”
So why isn’t more being done to protect women and girls? There is no good answer.
But you can join this call to action. If you’re in the US, here are three simple steps you can take to advocate for better prevention programs fighting violence against women and girls:
Step 1 – Tell Congress to reject proposed budget cuts to the UN (here are five ways to do this!)
Step 2 – Wear orange on the 25th of each month to show support for fighting violence against women!
Step 3 – Make sure elected officials fight for our values. Register and rock the vote for upcoming special local and state elections. All House of Representatives seats and 34 Senate seats will be contested on Nov. 6, 2018.
Together, we can take a stand and push for the future we want, eliminating violence against women and girls.
We welcome your comments on this article. What are your thoughts?
Stephanie Asher is a United Nations Association of the National Capital Area graduate fellow and a program coordinator for International Medicine Programs at the School of Medicine and Health Sciences at George Washington University, where she is working on a master’s degree in public health. Her undergraduate degree, in Middle Eastern studies, is also from George Washington.