Paper is not enough to end violence against women

Today is International Day for Elimination of Violence Against Women and I am angry. Why? It feels as if we have spent the last fifty years – and beyond – fighting Hydra – the many-headed serpent. Each time its opponents cut off a head, two more grow in its place.

We have had clear international agreements to end violence against women and girls for over twenty years. In particular, the 1993 Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women. There is now very little that we do not have locked down within the international frameworks with recent positive developments including seven Security Council Resolutions on women in conflict.

This year has seen an unprecedented international focus on violence against women and girls. We had the high-profile Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict led by the UK government and a UK focus on ending female genital mutilation. The Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (Istanbul Convention) came into force in August and the United Nations launched the He for She initiative with Emma Watson.

2015 will be another year of national and international focus on this issue. Hopefully the Istanbul Convention will be ratified by the UK. The largest annual meeting on women’s rights at the UN, next March, will look at the progress made on women’s rights, and I hope that the new post-2015 development framework will include a target on ending violence against women.

In terms of our battle with the many-headed serpent of violence against women this should represent – if not the loss of several heads - at least an unbreakable web with which to stop the monster in its tracks.

But unfortunately this web, has been woven within the wearying context of an ongoing escalation in violence against women and girls and new sites of conflict. And the data makes for depressing reading.

According to a 2013 global review, 35% of women worldwide have experienced physical or sexual violence with up to 70 per cent in some national studies. Around 120 million girls worldwide (slightly more than 1 in 10) have been raped or experienced other forced sexual acts at some point in their lives. More than 133 million girls and women have experienced some form of female genital mutilation (FGM).

In the UK, the latest figures from 2012 to 2013 estimate that around 1.2 million women experienced domestic abuse and over 330,000 women were sexually assaulted. In 2014 alone 131 women have been murdered by men. This is set alongside seemingly endless revelations of historic and systematic sexual abuse.

Violence against women, from domestic violence to sexual assault and rape, are all part of the same problem and the solutions are similar.

But the international policy web we have woven is not strong enough to end violence on its own. We know what the problem is. We know what the solutions are. Women’s organisations and individual women have been working to end violence for decades and their voices are now supported by an increasingly strong body of evidence. Research launched just this week confirms that violence is preventable.

However over and above the important policy frameworks and legislation, we need sustained political leadership, long-term funding and training for both prevention and support services. Most importantly we need a focus on work to change the underlying gender inequality which is the root cause of all violence against women.

Many women around the world have been fighting to tackle this inequality for decades and are creating communities founded on greater equality.  For example, innovative work to end FGM carried out by Amnesty International and the Advocacy Movement Network (AMNET) in Sierra Leone

If there was the will we could end all violence against women within a decade. It is achievable. We know how to get there. The net of international policy which we have woven is a start – but now the really hard battles must be won. Paper is not enough.

We need wholesale change in women’s rights and lives. Only when women are equal, when men stop hurting women, when governments truly make this their central priority. Only then will the violence stop.

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