Violence against Women is More Than a “Women’s Issue”

ICRW’s Mary Ellsberg discusses keys to eliminate violence against women
Wed, 11/23/2011

Mary Ellsberg, ICRW’s vice president of research and programs, has worked to prevent violence against women for more than two decades. Below, she reflects on how the field has evolved and what she believes the keys are to ultimately eliminating violence against women. We thought her insights would be a timely way to kick off the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence campaign, which runs from Nov. 25 to Dec. 10.         Ellsberg responded to questions by e-mail.      

ICRW: There seems to be quite a bit of buzz globally in the last few years about preventing violence against women. You have been working in this space for more than two decades now – how are the conversations different today? 

Mary Ellsberg

Ellsberg: When I first became aware of violence against women in the early 90’s, no one was talking about it as a public health issue, let alone a human rights or development concern. In Nicaragua, where I was living and working in public health programs, most women who experienced domestic violence or rape didn’t tell anyone, either because of fear of the abuser or shame. Domestic violence was seen as a private family matter, and women were expected to suffer in silence and not dishonor their family by airing dirty laundry. Violence was rarely reported to the police, and the few women who did seek help were often treated with scorn. They were told to go home and learn how to be a good wife. As a result, most Nicaraguans assumed that rape and domestic violence were fairly rare in Nicaragua – certainly nothing that required special policies or programs. 

I realized how mistaken that view was when I became involved with several community-based organizations that provided support to survivors of violence. I also later joined a large coalition of grassroots groups that conducted public awareness campaigns on the issue. That network drafted a law to criminalize domestic violence and protect survivors. However, we were told that without “hard numbers” showing that domestic violence was a problem in Nicaragua, no parliamentarian would ever support such a law. In response, the network partnered with a group of epidemiologists and conducted a study that ultimately revealed the breadth and frequency of domestic violence in Nicaragua. Armed with this evidence, the law we had proposed eventually passed unanimously. 

Over the last 20 years, joint efforts such as these between women’s rights advocates and researchers worldwide have completely changed the conversation around violence against women. We now have hundreds of studies demonstrating that violence against women, from domestic violence to trafficking to sexual assault, are common in every society, with devastating effects on the lives of women and their families. Violence against women is finally receiving the attention it deserves as a critical human rights, health and development, issue. That is a huge change over a relatively short period of time. 

ICRW: What aren’t people talking about and why?

Ellsberg: Although we have made incredible strides in terms of public awareness around violence against women, we have yet to see much of a difference in the lives of women on the ground. Initiatives such as the United Nations’ Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, and legislative reforms in many countries have demonstrated international commitment to ending violence against women. But in most parts of the world, women and girls are no safer than they were 20 years ago. They are just as likely to be beaten or raped, to be mistreated or ignored by the justice and health systems. This is because laws are not being implemented, services for survivors are insufficient and of poor quality, and little has been done to change social norms that promote violence and discrimination against women. 

ICRW: You’ve said violence against women is more than just a “women’s issue.” How so, and what can we learn from looking at it beyond this narrow frame?

Ellsberg: Because women and girls are the most common target of domestic and sexual violence, people often think of violence as a “women’s issue.”  But violence against women and girls affects all members of society. For instance, studies have shown that not addressing the issue can take a toll on economies because of the costs incurred by the health and justice systems dealing with the consequences of violence. 

Also, ending violence against women has been called the “missing target” in the Millennium Development Goals. It is most often viewed in the context of MDG3, which promotes gender equality and women’s empowerment. But violence undercuts every other development issue. The reality is that we cannot hope to make significant progress in achieving the ambitious goals of ending poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education, improving maternal and child health and combating AIDS and other infectious diseases, unless we end violence against women and girls. After all, if we can’t keep women and girls safe, how will they be able to successfully achieve and education, protect themselves from HIV or soar in the workplace? 

ICRW: What are – and have been – the major challenges to addressing violence against women in a sustainable way, and why?

Ellsberg: In recent years, there have been hundreds, if not thousands, of innovative efforts to address violence against women that have shown promising results. But they tend to be small scale, underfunded and often poorly evaluated. Even when great results are achieved, very few of these are brought to a scale large enough to make a real difference. I’m not saying that ending violence against women is an easy task – there are no technological solutions, such as vaccines, that will solve the problem. Instead, it involves changing deeply entrenched values and behaviors, and this type of social change is never easy or fast. That said, the primary barriers to success are not technical. What we need is the political will on the part of governments to ensure that policies and laws are actually implemented, as well as a major and sustained financial investment on the part of governments and donors in order to make a difference. At the same time, we need to invest in rigorous evaluations, so that we can find out what works and what doesn’t, and make sure that our investments are achieving results. 

ICRW: Are there a few key, universal approaches to eliminating violence against women in all its forms, whether it takes place in the home or in a war zone?

Ellsberg: Unfortunately, there is no “one size fits all” approach to ending violence against women. However, experiences from around the world have showed us a few key principles that should be considered in all efforts to address violence against women: 

Women and girls need to be at the center of any strategy. Too often, women and girls are treated as victims who have to be told what to do. In fact, most survivors of violence are incredibly resilient and know better than anyone else what they need to be safe and healthy. Respect for the autonomy of survivors is a key principle for all programs addressing violence against women. 

Integrated approaches work best. Evidence shows that projects that only address one sector or group of stakeholders, such as trainings for police or health providers, are rarely successful.  All efforts, whether in communities or at the government level, can only work if they include all stakeholders. They must also encourage coordination between sectors, and between government and civil society. By civil society, I don’t just mean women’s activists, but also religious groups, private businesses and anyone who has a stake in local development.

Prevent violence before it happens. While it is important to ensure that women have access to justice and services for survivors of abuse, these approaches alone will never end violence against women. The most successful programs use positive approaches that emphasize how communities and families benefit by not using violence. They challenge prevailing social norms that encourage men to use violence to “control” or punish their wives, and engage men and boys as potential allies in ending violence against women.

Ultimately, we need to convince people that violence against women and girls is never acceptable, no matter the circumstances, and that it is in all our interest to ensure the safety and well-being of half our population.

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