Politics is pivotal to ending gender-based violence

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Politics is pivotal to ending gender-based violence

November 20th, 2019

By Shannon O’Connell, Senior Gender & Politics Adviser

Looking to help make the world a more peaceful and less conflict-affected place? Here’s a great opportunity: November 25th is International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and the beginning of 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence (GBV), which runs through International Human Rights Day on December 10th.

Gender-based violence remains a deeply painful and infuriating societal issue. The impact on human well-being – as well as on families, communities and economies – is crippling. No nation is untouched. The United Nations describes it as a pandemic – an epidemic that has reached all corners of the globe.

Gender-based violence is used as a weapon in war but it is also used as a weapon in daily life. It is based in a complex and toxic set of beliefs around power and control. It takes many forms and doesn’t always show up as a physical act but, as the rise of digital GBV has illustrated, can involve public shaming, coercive control and economic violence. Moving away from these behaviours requires a lot of questioning and reflection around relationships in our societies and how we really want to live together. Peace is not simply the absence of war – it is far more than that.

There are many ways to make a difference in transitioning away from normalised conflict and violence. For the next two years, the UN will be focusing on rape – ensuring that legal frameworks and justice systems fully criminalise rape, prosecute offenders and support survivors. The 16 Days of Activism campaign will be driving progress on the recent International Labour Organization Convention to end violence and harassment in the workplace. The UK government has been a global leader on ending sexual violence in conflict and will (hopefully) take up the mantel in the new year, committing states to take action against this practice and to ensure support and protection for survivors, including men. The White Ribbon Campaign continues its important work to end male violence against women.

We can join any of these efforts, but those of us who work with political and public institutions have a unique and vital role to play in supporting those actors to make a real difference in challenging this painfully normalised behaviour. Where can we focus our attention and expertise? To take meaningful action and adapt our programmes and activities towards transformative change, these are some of the key considerations to bear in mind:

  1. At the core of all political decision-making are political actors and political parties. Do political leaders and their organisations fully understand the issue? Have political parties prioritised this and do they know how to develop good policy on ending GBV? Have they committed to ensuring that their candidates and leaders have not been involved in GBV and that they will not endorse or support anyone who has?
  2. The legal framework is the next consideration. Is it strong enough? There is plenty of guidance on what makes good legislation for ending GBV. The Istanbul Convention, the Inter-American Convention, and the Arab Convention on ending violence against women all offer solid models of what domestic legislation should contain.
  3. We all know well that what a law or regulation says isn’t what’s most important; what’s most important is what is implemented in practice. Are the bodies responsible for implementation fulfilling this task? Has enough suitable guidance been provided by the relevant authorities or ministries? Is the degree and quality of implementation being tracked by those responsible for oversight? Have sufficient funds been committed and released?
  4. There are also public agencies and services to consider. Are the policing and justice institutions up to the task? Do they understand the legal framework and are they committed to its enforcement? Do they know how to gather evidence that leads to prosecution and how to support survivors in a way that can lead to recovery? Have services for survivors been fully developed and funded?
  5. What about parliaments, government departments, agencies and political parties as places of work? Have issues of bullying, harassment or historical abuse been addressed? Is there a code of conduct in place, a mechanism for oversight and a credible complaints and investigation process? Are employees vetted for any past incidents of violence before they are hired or contracted?

Asking these questions gives us an important place to start, but the conversation doesn’t end here.

Halfway through the 16 Days of Activism – December 3rd – is International Day for Persons with Disabilities. People with disabilities are more likely to be subjected to violent crime, and research suggests that the rate of incidence can be significantly higher for women with disabilities. Are their voices an equal part of the discussions around ending GBV?

Moreover, are political actors and institutions ready to have a meaningful conversation about GBV that goes beyond a binary understanding of gender (i.e., just women and men) and looks at the level of hostility, violence and criminalisation directed towards lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, intersex and other citizens whose gender expression, identity or sexual orientation may not fit within more rigid definitions of sex and gender?

Clearly, there are a lot of starting points for making a real difference in our societal journey away from conflict and violence. This November, choose one and dive in. Wear orange if you like (the identifying colour of the 16 Days of Activism campaign) but don’t stop there. Meaningful change comes from going beyond awareness to action. Sometimes, the way to wise action starts with a difficult conversation, a probing question, about where change needs to happen most.

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