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WHO: 1 in 3 women are affected by physical or sexual violence

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“35% of women will experience sexual or physical violence in their lifetime”. That was the shock findings of the first-ever global report on violence against women released by the World Health Organization last week. It was a report that made for grim reading.

It stated that 30% of violence perpetrated against women is at the hands of their ‘intimate’ partners. That a shocking 39% of murdered women are killed by their partners. And that, while levels of violence globally are high overall, the prevalence of intimate partner violence in South-East Asia and the Eastern Mediterranean is significantly greater than anywhere else.

The WHO report also shows that poverty and violence against women are statistically linked. In ‘high income’ countries the rate of violence against women is a reported 23.2%. This means in these countries almost a quarter of women will experience violence in their lifetime.

But this figure jumps up to over 36% in poorer areas and in countries experiencing armed violence. States such as Iran, Iraq, Palestine and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have rates of violence between 36.6% and 37%: some of the highest rates in the entire report.

The report gives, for the first time, concrete evidence of the ‘epidemic’ of physical and sexual violence against women. It makes important recommendations regarding how the health sector should react to its findings and, crucially, highlights the need for new initiatives and policy change surrounding violence towards women.

There already are initiatives, led both by NGOs and governments, fighting to stop violence against women, especially in war. Domestically, the UK government is one of the world’s leaders in promulgating a policy to end violence against women and girls. The UK policy focuses on prevention and early intervention in an attempt to comprehensively address the problem, both before it happens, and also to ensure that the victims can fully recover and be included in society as productive members. The British government has also attempted to improve the criminal justice system for victims of violence, in the hope that victims might be more likely to report violence, and that this in turn would result in a higher percentage of convictions.

Screen Shot 2013-06-25 at 15.51.45Internationally, sexual and gender-based violence impacts thousands of women during times of armed conflicts. The international community is making steps towards developing legal protection of victims of sexual violence. The UN Security Council in its Resolution 1325 urges States to specifically take women’s rights into consideration and to respect international law applicable to the rights and protection of women and girls.

The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia has also made landmark judgments on this issue. The Tribunal determined that rape can be a form of torture, that sexual enslavement is a crime against humanity and, importantly, that rape can be a crime against humanity. It also recognizes that sexual violence is a weapon of war, and should be prosecuted as such.

However, even though legal protection to prevent, protect and prosecute against sexual violence now exists at a international and domestic level, this does not often translate into protection on the ground.

Survivors of sexual violence continue to face double discrimination once a conflict has come to an end. They face discrimination due to their victim status and due to the fact that they are often women. The stigma associated with sexual violence compounds the difficulties faced by victims, making it much more difficult to recover and move on with their lives. A report by Amnesty International on justice for survivors of wartime rape in Bosnia and Herzegovina showed clearly that even if an adequate international legal order be in place, victims’ rights are often ignored on the ground.

The Amnesty report showed that many victims suffer from chronic health problems, yet adequate medical facilities and social security provisions do not exist to treat these properly. Reparation programmes, where they exist, are badly implemented, providing very limited compensation to victims. The rights of victims to justice, truth and reparation are not honoured, leaving them unable to rebuild their lives almost two decades after the conflict.

Other post conflict zones show similar difficulties. In Burundi, female ex-combatants remain unrecognized as such and do not have access to recovery or ‘Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration’ programmes. This limits their access to land, housing, training and health care.  Many female ex-combatants have suffered sexual violence, but again their rights as victims are rarely considered.

AOAV works with these survivors to give them access to peer support, a community-based form of psychosocial support, where we engage survivors to assist other survivors through recovery from trauma. In addition, AOAV is working with women survivors to educate them on their rights, advocacy and to support their campaign for Burundian ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, as well as to ensure their rights to basic literacy education.

A number of NGOs are campaigning to limit sexual and physical violence against women in armed conflict, and to ensure States recognise survivors’ rights should they become a victim of sexual or gender-based violence.

The International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict unites individuals, international organizations, and groups in their work to ensure survivors of rape are heard, and to ultimately prevent rape in conflict. The campaign, under its three pillar approach of ‘Prevent, Protect & Prosecute’, seeks action and political leadership to protect civilians and survivors, and to ensure justice.  It also calls for powerful leadership on all levels to stop rape and gender violence, an increase in resources for prevention through to psychosocial and physical healing for survivors and communities, and justice and reparation for survivors.

The WHO report is undeniably a very important publication. It unequivocally demonstrates the widespread nature of physical and sexual violence towards women, and the need for action to prevent this. This is especially true in situations of armed conflict, where rape and sexual violence are often widespread, and victims are often left with very little support once the conflict comes to an end.

Governments are beginning to realize that more has to be done to prevent sexual violence, and to support victims once it has occurred, and NGOs are campaigning for policy change as well as aiding victims on the ground.  However, more needs to be done.

Governments of countries affected by armed violence should build on the work currently being done by NGOs, such as AOAV, in order to ensure that victim’s rights are respected, and that they are given adequate medical, economic and social assistance.

Strong policies also need to be adopted to limit the incidences of sexual and physical violence, and to provide greater protection and rights to victims of such violence. The WHO report could prove to be a turning point in the discourse surrounding victims of sexual and physical violence, and certainly provides the impetus for action.