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The Decline of Women’s Rights Is Inciting More Gender-Based Violence. Solutions Exist.


representative at the 145th Inter-Parliamentary Union Assembly
A new study shows that women’s representation in national parliaments can have significant effects in combating gender-based violence. Here, a representative at the 145th Inter-Parliamentary Union Assembly, October 2022. IPU

The deterioration of women’s rights across the world is enabling more gender-based violence. Even those who strive to defend and even expand their privileges at the exclusion of others recognize that half the global population suffers inequalities and injustice. This reality was recognized 27 years ago by the 189 countries that signed the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.

As we know, this auspicious declaration of intent has not been followed up with actions, for the most part. Not only has implementation of policies promoting gender equality through legal frameworks and labor regulations lagged significantly, but backward decisions are also being made with different excuses. We sadly witness today the feminist foreign policy of Sweden being dropped, for example.

Yet a glimmer of hope in tackling gender-based violence exists in women’s representation in national parliaments.

The spread of authoritarianism across the world, under the guise of democracy and often through co-opting the press and judiciary systems, has led to confusing terminology. Such deliberate confusion muddles legitimate claims and disregards if not reverses the rights of women by people who consider such progress a challenge to their entitlements.

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The severity of this crisis is most evident and perhaps most devastating in gender-based violence. Of course, in this environment, it becomes difficult to collect data about what is happening to women across the world. However, recently, and thanks mostly to the work done by UN Women, information gathering is improving. We can now estimate that “736 million women — almost one in three — have been subjected to physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence, non-partner sexual violence, or both at least once in their life (30 per cent of women aged 15 and older).”

We also know that “globally 81,000 women and girls were killed in 2020, around 47,000 of them (58 per cent) died at the hands of an intimate partner or a family member, which equals to a woman or girl being killed every 11 minutes in their home.” The Covid-19 pandemic, which persists globally, has showed the fragility of women locked in with their persecutors. The full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia this year continues to shed light on violence against women and their families enduring a war.

Although the visibility of gender-based violence is becoming less socially acceptable, it is a complex phenomenon that requires an approach from legal, educational and social perspectives. Eradicating all forms of GBV, as it’s called, is a global responsibility. The role of governments in creating and carrying out legal frameworks and commitments to reduce such violence is essential to building a safety net for survivors and victims. Although most governments have policies and regulations against the different forms of GBV, the frameworks vary across countries, offering a range of responses to a universal problem.

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The masculinization of leadership roles in governments and international organizations and the uneven level of responses and policies to stop and reduce GBV raise the issue of how relevant and useful political leadership is in stopping violence against women. Which is why we at Global Women Leaders’ Voices for Change and Inclusion commissioned a study to address links between women’s political leadership and the relevance of international and national legal frameworks to reduce gender-based violence.

In our report, we found that the implementation of gender-based violence legislation is positively influenced by women’s political leadership, especially by their presence in parliaments. While data show limited effects by sole women political leaders, or the number of women as heads of governments in countries, it is clear that effectiveness is largely dependent on how much focus is made on gender equality in parliaments and their power to include gender equality measures in a political agenda.

The most relevant conclusions:

• The presence of women in parliaments is essential to strengthening democracies and fighting GBV.

• The presence of women leaders in national and international political arenas improves and promotes policies against GBV.

• The higher the presence of women in parliaments — or the more gender-equal parliaments are — the more legislation is passed against GBV and the lower the occurrence of GBV, especially physical violence.

• GBV laws are more prevalent in high-income countries. Many emerging economies have no laws on certain forms of GBV, and when they do, they are implemented poorly. By contrast, some low- and middle-income countries show complete and advanced legislation on GBV.

• The presence of women in national and international political leadership positions seems to be an antecedent for carrying out legislation against GBV. However, contrary to our expectations, the strongest correlations with the different forms of GBV (domestic violence, child marriage and sexual violence) have no bearing on the presence of women political heads of governments.

• The strongest relationship with carrying out legislation to prevent and stop GBV is based on the presence of women in parliaments, so there are more laws passed in high-income and upper-middle-income countries than in lower-income countries.

Our main recommendations:

• Gender-based violence is still underreported and underestimated. There is a strong need to collect data on this form of violence.

• The role of parliaments and the equal representation of women in these bodies have a direct impact on how well GBV laws are monitored and carried out. Hence the need to enact all forms of positive measures to enable equal representation in legislatures.

Our organization is looking beyond this study to help close the gap between the adoption of good laws and actual public policies that focus on GBV. This leads us to the matter of accountability regarding perpetrators and the need to ensure a feminist perspective in all judiciary systems and their processes. We don’t have the data to support the claim yet, but we are convinced that having equal representation in the judiciary branches of government, from top to bottom, will raise the level of assurance and compliance with GBV laws.

Until we go to the last step of ensuring that the guilty party pays its dues, the vicious cycle of gender-based violence will not end. The much-needed cultural changes to stop the violence will take longer as well. We need a holistic approach to tackle this violence, a plan that goes from parliaments passing the right laws, as our study shows, to executives carrying out the right procedures to a judicial system that applies the necessary sanctions.

All these steps will not be possible without equal representation of women in all three branches of governments, providing a gender lens that will ensure GBV is eliminated. Yet we know that even normative and policy changes are not enough. A profound cultural change is also needed in our societies, where the rights of women and girls to an education is honored at home and at school.

This is an opinion essay.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts on combating gender-based violence?

Susana Malcorra, who was minister of foreign affairs of Argentina from 2015 to 2017, is a founder of Global Women Leaders.

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The Decline of Women’s Rights Is Inciting More Gender-Based Violence. Solutions Exist.
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