Randi Davis

Each year starting on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women on November 25, 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 countries resources have been diverted from addressing violence against women to pandemic recovery efforts.

Even before the pandemic hit, globally one in three 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 per cent, 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.

If we monetised all the efforts put towards activism to end violence against women and converted the costs of such violence on society (estimated to be around $1.5 trillion) into investments in prevention, would we achieve more than our tireless efforts currently achieve? What if men were murdered at the scale and ferocity at which we seem to tolerate with respect to our women and girls?

If I sound angry and fed up, you are right – I am. I’m tired of hearing about countless cases of women being murdered in the heat of passion or young girls being raped on their way to school, while systems to prevent such crimes or end impunity for perpetrators continue to be low on priority list when budgets are allocated or agreements are struck.

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. But 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, let us unmask the hidden pandemic facing women and girls everywhere and attack it with the same vigour and investment.

Randi Davis is the UNDP’s Resident Representative for Trinidad and Tobago, Curacao, Aruba, and Sint Maarten. She was Director of UNDP’s Global Work on Gender Equality prior to joining UNDP in Trinidad and Tobago. Follow her on Twitter at @RandiDavisUNDP.

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