Physical injuries are some of the more visible, and at times most deadly, consequences of gender-based violence (GBV). But the long-term mental health consequences are often invisible and left untreated. Similarly, the reproductive and sexual health needs of survivors from rape and sexual violence – to reduce the risk of HIV and STIs, unwanted pregnancies and unsafe terminations, and long-term reproductive complications – are often unmet, stigmatized and under-reported.
But it is not only health needs which must be met. GBV is a consequence and reflection of structural inequalities that threaten sustainable development, undermine democratic governance, deepen social fragmentation and threaten peace and security. This week, UNDP and the Republic of Korea hosted an event at the 61st session of the Commission on the Status of Women on “Gender-based violence, health and well-being: Addressing the needs of women and girls living in crisis-affected context” bringing together government officials, practitioners, and academics.
A common message emerged: survivors need dignity for themselves and their families, they need immediate health services and legal services, livelihood support and economic empowerment. Multi-sectoral approaches which can meet these distinct, but interconnected, needs are often the most effective. Research has demonstrated co-benefits of combining economic and health interventions, including for the reduction of intimate partner violence. However, even where services are available, serious barriers to accessing them exist. As Ambassador Oh Youngju of Korea stressed: “survivors of violence are often deterred from seeking help or reporting the incidents due to stigma and a lack of accessible services or ways to report safely, receive help and be treated with dignity”.
And the data can be daunting. Deputy Minister Wardak of Afghanistan shared some sobering statistics from her country: almost one in two women age 15-49 reporting physical violence in the last 12 months, with the majority who have experienced physical or sexual violence (61%) not seeking help or telling anyone about the violence.
So is there any room for optimism?
Kelly, director of the Women and War program of Harvard’s Humanitarian Initiative, stressed that while conflict is a time of trauma, it is also a time of potential transformation. Changing social norms which perpetuate violence can be linked to peace and recovery processes. And successful initiatives can be scaled up. UNDP’s Dhaliwal, shared some good practices. In South Sudan, UNDP is working in partnership with the Government, the Global Fund and the International Organization for Migration to address gender-based violence as part of mental health and psychosocial support programs. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, UNDP supported the establishment of multipurpose community centers, where survivors of GBV are provided with legal assistance and offered livelihoods training, after medical and psychosocial treatment is given by other partners. And in Afghanistan, efforts to increase the number of female healthcare workers, while not directly focused on survivors of violence, can offer culturally appropriate services and safe-spaces.
Tatsi, Executive Director in the Office for the Development of Women in Papua New Guinea shared both successes – strong alignment across civil society and government in bringing about a coherent strategy to end GBV, and challenges – the need for additional financial and technical support and called on donors to work with government for long-term, sustainable, and transformational change. And Devi of UNFPA stressed how a “continuum approach” is necessary across prevention and response efforts, as well as across the humanitarian-development nexus.
Ending GBV, and particularly violence against women and girls is an important end itself. It is also critical for the achievement of all the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly SDG 3 -Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages, and the commitment to ‘leave no one behind.’ While more evidence on preventing violence and supporting survivors is needed, the time for action is now.