Violence against women must be framed as the human rights violation that it is

Violence against women must be framed as the human rights violation that it is

Violence against women and girls is a global pandemic that destroys lives, fractures communities and holds back development - United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

March is a key period for scrutiny of progress towards achieving women’s rights, every year.

We do this at the community and national level through our programs to celebrate International Women’s Day. Globally, the annual UN Commission on the Status of Women brings together leaders and experts on the rights of women to review international efforts, achievements and challenges. This year, the review process commands particular attention as we mark the twentieth anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action on gender equality.

While ongoing commitments and efforts to secure the rights of the world’s women and girls are commendable, on no measure can we say that our work is done. Women continue to be outnumbered in parliaments globally – five to one – by male counterparts, women make up two thirds of the world’s illiterate and women are paid 10 to 30 per cent less than men.

In my roles as Chair of Our Watch and Australia’s Ambassador for Women and Girls, another area of particular concern is gender-based violence.

Globally, at least one in three women is beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise violently abused in their lifetime. In some parts of the Pacific, as many as two in three surveyed women report having experienced violence. The World Health Organisation has called Violence Against Women an epidemic. It is a national emergency.

In the first two months of 2015, 14 women have been murdered allegedly by a former or current partner. Previously, we talked about ‘one woman a week,’ but now it is closer to two. Prevalence studies reveal 27 per cent of Australian women have reported experiencing physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence over their lifetime.

Supported by the Australian Government, Partners for Prevention (P4P) undertook a recent study interviewing more than 10,000 men and 3,000 women in six countries to identify what drives some men to use violence against women, and recommending prevention measures. The proportion of men who reported being physically or sexually violent to their partner in the surveyed countries ranged from 26 to 80 per cent. The study found that the primary motivation for men to commit rape was their sense of sexual entitlement.

The sense of entitlement among some, and broader social attitudes that sustain gender inequality and underpin men’s use of violence, remain pervasive. It is what gives violence against women it’s essentially normative character and makes it a public issue of human rights. Violence against women is not a private matter. Effective violence prevention and response requires a systematic focus on transforming social norms, attitudes and behaviours that support gender inequality and the empowerment of women and girls.

A focus on primary prevention is a key part of the Australian Federal Government’s National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010-2022 (the National Plan), released in February 2011. It brings together the efforts of all Australian governments to make a significant and sustained reduction to violence against women and their children over a twelve-year timeframe. The Second Plan, Moving Ahead 2013-2016, was released mid-last year (June 2014). The National Plan and the Second Action Plan clearly recognise that gender equality must underpin primary prevention efforts.

Side by side with domestic initiatives, Australia actively partners with countries across the Indo-Pacific on programs to end violence. We are working with Women’s Crisis Centres in Fiji, Tonga and Vanuatu to provide essential services to survivors.  In Papua New Guinea, we have supported the training of women village magistrates and the establishment of Family and Sexual Violence Units in police stations. Through the Channels of Hope program in Solomon Islands, we are working with community and faith leaders to change attitudes to the roles of women and men. In Afghanistan, Australia is supporting national efforts to improve access to services and justice for women and girls.

At the Beijing Conference on Women in 1995, Hillary Rodham Clinton pronounced that ‘women’s rights are human rights’ – a catchcry that has shaped approaches to gender equality in the 20 years since. Still, for many, violence is cast as a private affair. This must change.

Momentum is building. On the eve of the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women last year, I joined Chiefs of Police from across Australia and New Zealand, along with our Governor-General, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, to condemn the shocking reality of violence against women in Australia. The inspirational Rosie Batty, Australian of the Year 2015, has given voice to many thousands of victims and survivors of domestic and family violence. Her courage, work and dedication is helping ensure domestic and family violence is on the policy agenda.

For generations, women’s rights lawyers, human rights defenders and feminists have worked to bring gender-based violence into the public domain and, with varying degrees of success, into legal systems. The hurdles faced by domestic violence campaigners are illustrative of how deeply gender inequality and violence against women are embedded in our community.

To be effectively addressed, human rights issues must be firmly fixed in the public eye and violence against women must be framed as the human rights violation that it is. The good news: violence against women is preventable.

Natasha Stott Despoja is the Australian Ambassador for Women and Girls. You can follow her on Twitter @AusAWG.