Violence against women holds everyone back

The connection between gender violence and the Sustainable Development Goals

UNDP is working to approach an age-old wrong with fresh new ideas. The Ending Gender-based Violence and Achieving the SDGs (2018–2022) is testing new approaches in seven countries to reduce gender-based violence and accelerate progress towards other development goals. Photo: UNDP Peru

Sometimes the first step towards change is a small one. Quite literally.

Like for the dance teacher Chado Namgyel, Founding Member of Gokab Studio and Community Center in Bhutan, who changed his teaching methods after learning that the damaging social norms he had previously taken for granted were limiting his female students.

“I wouldn’t allow or encourage girls in the studio to learn all those dynamic moves thinking that girls are weaker than the boys, and I don’t feel comfortable with boys doing the girlish type of dance forms,” he says. “However, now I respect individuals. Now we are open for everyone. They can come and learn whatever they’re interested in.”

Traditional Bhutanese woman dancers during Thimphu Tshechu. Women and girls gained improved equality and inclusion when they were no longer seen as weaker than men. Photo: Shutterstock

Or the husband in Uganda who, after 25 years of abusing his wife, hoarding household resources, and hiding money from her, walked home, got down and one knee and begged her forgiveness after taking part in a programme that outlined how gender-based violence is not ‘normal’.

Once a year, the international community highlights violence against women and girls through the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence campaign. But for too many women, violence is a fact of life for all 365 days.

And it’s deeply damaging, not just to them, but also to the people and communities around them.

Female family members pose for a picture with the bride during a wedding in Uganda. While gender-based violence often comes from known, close individuals such as partners, it can take multiple generations to change the cycle. UNDP is working with communities to end it. Photo: Shutterstock

“I would like everyone to look at violence against women as that silent epidemic that is eating up first women and girls, and then eating up the whole world,” says Tina Musuya, Executive Director of the Center for Domestic Violence Prevention who for the last 16 years has worked to stem the rates of this violence in Uganda and challenge the cultural norms that permit it.

There is no society untouched by gender-based violence, which affects about one in three women. The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened risk factors, creating a ‘shadow pandemic’.

A southeast Asian woman protests against gender-based violence with messages written across her face. No society is untouched by it, with approximately one in three women affected. Photo: Shutterstock

UNDP has ramped up efforts to support more than 80 countries to address gender-based violence. This includes the 26 in the Spotlight Initiative, a European Union-UN partnership to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls. In Yemen UNDP has launched a mobile application that maps out protection and aid services and provides guidance to gender-based violence survivors. In Malawi UNDP identified and fast-tracked the prosecution of sexual and gender-based violence cases through mobile courts in remote areas.

This year’s 16 Days of Activism UN theme, “Orange the world: end violence against women now!” is supported by the UN Secretary-General’s UNiTE campaign, which works to increase awareness and galvanize advocacy.

The UNDP 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence campaign video on #OrangeTheWorld, to “end violence against women and girls now!” Video: UNDP

Gender violence is not only a global scourge, it’s also a huge barrier to the Sustainable Development Goals.

“Just as the negative impacts of gender-based violence cut across health, livelihoods and even climate change — the positive impacts of reducing gender-based violence drive progress towards multiple Global Goals,” says Jessica Zimerman, Project Specialist, Gender-based Violence, UNDP. “Different development sectors each have an important part to play in putting an end to one of the most pervasive human rights abuses in the world.”

That’s why with the Republic of Korea, UNDP is working to approach an age-old wrong with fresh new ideas. The Ending Gender-based Violence and Achieving the SDGs (2018–2022) is testing new approaches in seven countries to reduce gender-based violence and accelerate progress towards other development goals.

The negative impacts of gender-based violence cut across health, livelihoods and even climate change. Photo: UNDP Zambia (left), UNDP Jordan (right)

“The evidence demonstrates that gender-based violence is not only preventable but that its prevention is a crucial element for advancing in any other aspects of life,” says Diego Antoni, Policy Specialist Gender, Governance and Recovery, UNDP.

As part of the project, UNDP Uganda is changing the status quo by introducing gender violence prevention into non-traditional areas such as wetlands restoration and is examining how it’s connected to the economic stressors resulting from climate change.

UNDP partnered with Bhutan’s National Commission for Women and Children and began working with adolescents to promote healthy relationships and gender equitable attitudes. The project, which is being scaled-up to three additional schools, didn’t just change the lives of the young people involved, but also their facilitators.

Before he began working with the young people, Chado Namgyel thought that women were ‘happy’ to do all the cooking and housework, and it was unnatural for boys to wear pink.

Now he sees these ideas as constructs that deny women — and men — their rights and freedoms. And more importantly, he sees that these biases and discrimination can, and should, be changed.

“If we put our adolescents in a [discriminatory] environment, I think there will be violence because there is no equality, and if there’s no equality, we can’t have happy or healthy societies,” he says.

Bias and discrimination based on gender, from an early age, only promotes inequality in society. Rights and freedoms are slowly opening up to women where they did not exist previously, and with it empowerment is creating healthier communities. Photo: UNDP Lebanon (left), UNDP Pakistan (right)

Women’s equality and rights are the heart of the Sustainable Development Goals. Gender-based violence encourages intergenerational cycles of violence, undermines the social fabric and severely weakens communities’ abilities bounce back from shocks. It costs not just in personal terms, but also in justice, health and social services. The annual cost of violence against women, according to 2016 research, could amount to around two percent of global GDP, equivalent to US$1.5 trillion.

Tina Musuya, of Uganda’s Center for Domestic Violence Prevention, is confident that truly transformative gender work has the potential to enable women and girls to lead lives in dignity, free of violence.

To the benefit of everybody.

“If you want to enjoy life… you need to use your power with others. In my view that’s how you feel safe, that’s how the world is meaningful, and that’s how you enjoy living with people.”