It’s close to 24 years since United Nations started a campaign to ensure Elimination of Violence against Women. Once more, we commemorate these days with great sadness but also with hope. There are more women today in positions of power than at any other moment in history, with currently 28 women in leadership position on the political scene and countless more as heads of international organizations, charitable foundations and businesses.
In poor and rural communities, change has also started to take place. We have come a long way since the first World Conference on Women in 1975 when the international community officially acknowledged the role of women in development. Most development projects are now designed to encourage, if not ensure, the equal participation of women in all their activities. The development community has worked hard to create the social and economic conditions for women to be treated as valued participants in the development of their own communities. We have designed gender equality programs that involve all family members to establish a fair distribution of work, we have put in place gender quotas for project activities and provided childcare services during training sessions to allow women to participate, we have worked with traditional leadership structures that marginalize women and we have created support groups, media campaigns and law enforcement mechanisms to ensure that the changes will be long lasting. We have promoted empowerment from the base, while working to secure a more balanced representation at the top. Finally, in many parts of the world, girls are catching up on access to education and tend to stay in school longer than boys.
Much of that work, however, has not translated into equal treatment of women. Violence against women takes many forms – physical, psychological, political, economic-and is so widespread that it touches nearly every country of the world. Unsurprisingly, it has an impact on the economic and social development of entire countries. In the workplace, it diminishes the status and self-esteem of women, effectively preventing women from performing at their best and jeopardizing their chances for success. On the streets and in the fields, it prevents them from safely and freely leaving their homes to community meetings, supermarkets, school, training opportunities, and political and social events. Victims of physical violence are also prone to more health issues and psychological damage as a direct result of that violence.
In rural areas, women contribute to rural economies in many ways: they work in the fields and tend to small cattle and poultry. They participate in the storage, processing, packaging and marketing of goods, and they own small businesses such as sewing shops, market stalls, local hotels, restaurants and breweries. In the household, they care for the children and the elderly, buy food for the household, fetch drinking water and prepare the meals. Their contribution does not end there. The more women are allowed to work, the faster economies grow, and the incomes that they make primarily benefit their children and families. Women who access credit are known to have very high repayment rates. Yet, women have often more limited access to credit or to business development service and are generally paid lower wages and work more than men. They bear most of the unpaid care work, and are more likely to work in informal employment and low-paid, undervalued jobs. With reduced purchasing power and less time on their hands, women are less likely to spend their hard-earned money on non-essential goods and services. In addition, UN Women estimates that companies with three or more women executives score higher in organizational effectiveness.
In contrast, violence and discrimination against women poisons entire societies for generations to come, effectively preventing growth and prosperity. In the household, it creates a model that children will learn to accept and replicate. It creates unhappy environments for children to grow up in, where fear, humiliation, mistreatment and pain become the norm.
Failing to prevent violence is equivalent to tacitly approving the inequality it creates. As a global community, we should start by shaming the use of violence and discrimination in all its forms and establish strict rules against physical and psychological abuse. We need to create the conditions for women to be able to openly talk about violence and discrimination by ensuring that they receive protection and legal support. We need to include the elimination of violence against women and girls as a standard against which progress in countries will be measured and for which there will be tangible benefits for complying.
Violence against women and girls is not only inhumane. It works against economic development, hurting men, women and children alike. To put an end to it requires that we deal with its causes and fight its social acceptance. We owe it to our mothers and grandmothers, aunts and sisters. We owe to our daughters and to our sons. We owe it to ourselves.