‘Violence against women is a choice’

In their own words: Women’s rights activists in the Middle East/North Africa region speak out on what is needed to build a safer world.

Women living in crisis settings are particularly vulnerable to gender-based violence. Photo: UNDP Iraq/Claire Thomas

In crisis, as many as 70 percent — more than two in three women — experience some form of gender-based violence. This shocking statistic is not new. But Samah Krichah wants everyone to know it’s not inevitable.

“Violence against women is not indigenous to any culture,” says Krichah, programme officer at women’s rights organization Kvinna Kvinna in Turnisia. “It’s a choice, a decision made by a small group of powerful men.”

Violent conflict and humanitarian crises have a disproportionate impact on women and girls, exacerbating risk factors for violence. This has been further compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused a rise in incidences of sexual and gender-based violence around the world.

In 2020, there were more than 2,500 UN-verified cases of conflict-related sexual violence across 18 countries; 96 percent of these incidents targeted women and girls.

In northern Lebanon, the Al Mina municipal police recruit women officers as part of a push to put people’s rights at the centre of policing. Photo: UNDP Lebanon

Systemic and cultural norms are major drivers of gender-based violence (GBV) in all contexts. But the lack of access to justice prevalent in many crisis contexts means that even when those affected seek redress, there are no or few channels open to them, heightening their vulnerability.

For women’s rights activists in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, the key to tackling GBV lies in dismantling these norms that allow for it to happen. This, coupled with a concerted and coordinated effort by women and men living in crisis to speak out against GBV, is one of the most effective ways to bring about real, lasting change.

“Each and every individual can help break social norms and harmful beliefs that perpetuate violence against women,” says Ghida Anani, founder and director of Abaad, Lebanon.

Anani, who started out as a social worker at the Lebanese Council to Resist Violence Against Women, has built a career of fighting for women’s rights. Ten years ago she founded her own organization, Abaad, which advocates for gender justice and elimination of GBV in Lebanon.

Anani says in Lebanon, which is facing a multidimensional crisis including political instability, economic collapse and regional tensions, “women are fighting on different fronts”.

Despite the challenges, she says that speaking out can bring strength and move the needle on issues that matter most.

“From national discriminatory laws to gender-based violence — which in fact increases during conflict and socio-economic crises — we’ve seen how these challenges have brought strength to women in Lebanon, who broke stereotypes by taking to the streets during the demonstrations in the past years and demanding equality.”

In Tunisia, Samah Krichah from Kvinna Kvinna agrees that systemic change is needed to improve the lives of women and reduce the prevalence of GBV in crisis contexts. Krichah says every person has a role to play in breaking these cycles of violence — in particular, young men and women.

“Women, especially young women standing next to young men, can learn to call out the lies and resist being trapped by them in the future,” Krichah says.

Krichah is hopeful that such change will come.

“The future that I want for myself and my sisters in my country and region is one in which we do not have to fight to access our basic rights, where we are not afraid to walk on the streets and where it is common that women are in positions of power and implementing feminist policies for the good of the community, the nation and the region.”

In all countries where UNDP has a presence, it is working to prevent gender-based violence. And since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, UNDP has worked with its partners to support over 80 countries to counter this “shadow pandemic”, including through adapting dedicated GBV services and widely integrating a GBV lens into COVID-19 responses.

Conflict and humanitarian crises have a disproportionate impact on women and girls. Photo: UNDP PAPP/Abed Zagout

Nowhere is this support more needed than in countries already facing crisis. The ability for women to live lives free from violence in any form is crucial to achieving peace, stability and prosperity. Without it, achieving the Sustainable Development Goals will not be possible.

“I strongly believe in the power of working together to face the challenges of today and tomorrow,” says Anani.

“In the end, improving the lives of women is not just about women. It’s about achieving a prosperous society.”

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