When the head of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK), was charged with sexual assaulting a housekeeper in a New York hotel, the entire world was in shock. More often than not perpetrators of violence against women (VAW) go unpunished, so it was hard to believe that a legal case involving one of the most powerful men on the planet was able to take center stage in international media.
Social media played an important role in turning the DSK scandal into global public discourse about sexual assault, the same way the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas sexual harassment case dominated American discussions exactly 20 years ago. But it is important to underscore the central role advocates of the human rights of women have played in breaking centuries of silence and bringing violence against women from the private spaces of women and girls lives to the fore of public consciousness.
Indeed, for the past 30 years, women’s human rights activists and organizations worldwide, like the International Planned Parenthood Federation/Western Hemisphere Region, have taken groundbreaking steps to move VAW from the private domain into the public sphere. They have been a driving force in advocating for international and regional legal and political frameworks that obligate and guide countries in the adoption of their own laws, policies, and programs to address violence against women. At the international level this includes the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, the Vienna Declaration on Human Rights, the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development, and the Beijing Platform for Action.
While the vision has always been to effect broad social change, response to violence against women has focused on legal and judicial reform, ending impunity for perpetrators, providing victims with legal aid to access justice, and improving services such as health care and shelters for abused women. It is undeniable that these strategies have improved the social and psychological condition of many women living with violence. It is also true that the justice system, especially in developing countries, continues to fail women. Although many countries have adopted punitive measures to hold perpetrators accountable, only a dismal portion of VAW survivors and victims have access to justice.
The service-focused model has been unable to simultaneously address the fundamental factors that foster VAW and make it socially acceptable across nations, and it has been rapidly outpaced by increasing demand. In order to effectively address VAW, a paradigm shift is needed from a focus on intervention and treatment to a culture of prevention while sustaining the field’s commitment to improving response. A shift must happen from an individual-focused strategy to approaches that can reshape the normative behaviors and attitudes of individuals, relationships, communities, and society at large.
Rooted in and reinforced by power imbalances between men and women, VAW is a human rights violation and a public health issue. VAW can have devastating health consequences, and it kills and disables more women between the ages of 15 and 44 than cancer, malaria, traffic accidents, and war combined.
The number of women who live with violence is staggering. The UN Women estimates that one in three women will be raped, beaten, or coerced into marriage by an intimate partner or a family member in her lifetime. With prevalence rates ranging from 20% to 61% in contexts as diverse as Tokyo and rural Peru, VAW is the expression of the subordinate status of women to men and the daily reality of hundreds of millions of women around the world.
There is growing awareness within the international community about the importance of prevention as a strategy in the fight against VAW; however, the lack of rigorous evidence to guide programming remains a challenge. The good news is that there is wide agreement on “good or promising practices” that have been successful in a variety of places around the world where the political will and the commitment of resources is present. These practices include the implementation of comprehensive approaches that foster collaboration among law enforcement, legal aid, health organizations, educational institutions, economic development organizations, and women’s rights; approaches where individuals and communities participate synergistically; and approaches that target young people, particularly ones that engage men and boys.
Ending VAW has gained global momentum in recent years thanks to advocates of women’s human rights, the publication of a landmark in-depth study on all forms of violence against women by the UN Secretary-General in 2006, the UN's launch of two high-profile global campaigns to end violence against women, and several resolutions, such as the 2008 UN General Assembly Resolution, calling on governments to intensify their efforts to eliminate all forms of violence against women. It is time for the development and implementation of adequately-funded action plans that focus on prevention as an essential strategy to end VAW.