Each year starting on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women on 25 November, global advocates work tirelessly for 16 days of activism to draw attention to the high levels of violence against women and girls around the world. For the next two weeks, activists will wear orange, light up buildings, convene gatherings, and write articles like this one to raise the alarm bells to the rising scourge of violence women face in their homes, on the streets, at schools, in the workplace, in the public sphere and even in politics. They will also call for far more to be done to address it.
These efforts are even more urgent in light of the COVID-19 crisis, which has come with a shadow pandemic - the already unacceptable rates of violence against women have surged around the world with the crisis, and there seems little hope of it abating. In some countries, calls to domestic violence helplines alone increased fivefold, as restricted movement, social isolation, and economic insecurity have increased women’s vulnerabilities, especially in their own homes.
Over the past decade encouragingly we have seen gains in our global awareness of the scale of violence against women and we know much more about the root causes and strategies to prevent and address it. Powerful movements such as #MeToo and #BalanceTonPorc are also chipping away at the stigma faced by survivors and putting the responsibility squarely where it belongs – on the perpetrators. Nonetheless, despite the global prevalence and pernicious impacts of violence against women and girls, efforts to prevent and address it remain woefully inadequate, haphazard, and underfunded. In fact, in some country’s resources have been diverted from addressing violence against women to pandemic recovery efforts.
Even before the pandemic hit, globally 1 in 3 women reported having experienced physical or sexual violence. For young women 15–24-years-old who have been in a relationship, one quarter of them will have already experienced violence by an intimate partner by the time they reach their mid-20s. In crisis settings, the proportion of women who experience violence is above 70%, with violence against women being an enduring tactic of war. Even women in settings with natural disasters experience a higher likelihood of rape, sexual exploitation, and other forms of violence. Alarmingly, UNICEF estimates that over the next decade up to 10 million more girls will be at risk of becoming child brides because of the pandemic. If those statistics weren’t shocking enough, imagine that women and girls with disabilities suffer up to three times greater risk of rape, are twice as likely to be survivors of domestic violence and other forms of violence, and are likely to experience abuse over longer periods of time.
In almost no other sphere of public policy do we find such a consensus and alarm around an issue such as violence against women and girls. Let’s face it – nobody condones violence against women outright. Few politicians will stand up and publicly say it’s OK to beat your wife or use rape as a weapon of war. Incredibly though, most violent crimes against women remain unpunished even when reported. And the reality is that until we end impunity for perpetrators, little will change.
Globally we may be slowly inching in the right direction, with some notable efforts such as the European Union-UN Spotlight Initiative to eliminate violence against women and girls, of which UNDP is a partner. Along with our sister agencies, UNDP programmes around the world are working to strengthen gender based violence legislation and supporting police and judicial capacity to ensure women feel comfortable to report violations believing that something will be done about it. Unfortunately, there is still much more to be done.
Ultimately, violence against women and girls maintains the status quo of gender inequality and ensures that women will never catch up by keeping women in unequal social, economic and political status. As we hopefully turn a corner on the COVID-19 pandemic, lets unmask the hidden pandemic facing women and girls everywhere and attack it with the same vigour and investment.
 World Health Organization, on behalf of the United Nations Inter-Agency Working Group on Violence Against Women Estimation and Data (VAW-IAWGED), Violence Against Women Prevalence Estimates, 2018 (Geneva, 2021)