Gender-based violence: a crisis within crises


Gender-based violence: a crisis within crises

Within the framework of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence (GBV) campaign, the United Nations Rome-based Agencies (RBAs) once again joined efforts to reaffirm their strong commitment to end gender-based violence and other gender inequalities, with a focus on current global crises. A very dynamic and engaging panel of speakers talked about GBV from different perspectives, proposed actions to support women’s and girls’ roles as resilience builders and agents of change, and highlighted interventions to protect them against all forms of violence. 

“Women are heroic in everyday life. Their power is to stay strong even in circumstances where they are not allowed to open a book or touch a pen because they are viewed as the weaker sex,” voiced Asal Latifi, a 16-year-old Afghan student, at the opening event of the campaign.

Asal praised her mother Angela Ghayour for setting up a free-of-charge online school to Persian speakers who are deprived of education, an effort that has been recognized at international level. Motivated by her family’s activism, Asal – who now lives in the United Kingdom – joined her mother’s campaign for young women’s rights and education in their country of origin, Afghanistan, where adolescent girls are forbidden to attend school. “If you cannot hold a pen, you should just do it.”

Asal’s “powerful words” of “strength” and “courage” conveyed a “message of female solidarity” and inspired RBA representatives, panellists and a global audience attending the virtual event, as called by Katherine Wilson, the moderator of the event.

As done every year, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the International Fund for Agricultural Development and the World Food Programme reiterated the urgent need to overcome gender discrimination and inequalities. The focus of this year event was on acknowledging that during times of crises, women and girls are often more vulnerable to food shortages and scarcity because they have less access to resources, services, institutions, decent jobs, information and decision-making power.

“We saw the rates of GBV around the world rise dramatically, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Henry Swira, Director for Gender, Youth and Livelihoods at CARE USA. “The problem continues to worsen as a result of the compounding challenges of climate change, conflict, resource scarcity and increased commodity costs.”

Research demonstrates clear links between increased GBV with prolonged drought, extensive food insecurity and conflict over natural resources, as illustrated by Lora Forsythe, Associate Professor in Gender, Inequalities and Food Systems at the University of Greenwich, who leads a study on these aspects in northern Nigeria. “GBV risks are apparent during the collection of food and water, which is getting worse because of the increased distances people have to walk due to the pressure on those resources, increased incidences of child marriage and harmful coping strategies such as exchanging ‘sex for food’.”

In major crises like the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, which has dramatically affected the lives and livelihoods of millions of people, women can be at high risk of GBV and other effects of the conflict, such as food insecurity and malnutrition. This may significantly increase their mental burden.

Speaking from war-torn Kiev, Halyna Skipalska, Director of the Ukrainian Foundation for Public Health, shared the good practices adopted by her organization for providing psychosocial assistance during the current conflict. She highlighted how crucial virtual services can be to protect women amid such crises, when internet connection is accessible: “It is important to promote online services for survivors. Many women seek care and support through mobile phone”.

Panellists considered the role of discriminatory social norms as a major obstacle to achieve gender equality and women’s empowerment. Sanaz Javadi Farahzadi, Vice-President for Partnerships at the Organization of Women in International Trade, recognized the importance of supporting women’s economic empowerment through capacity development and mentorship programmes, and emphasized the need to “take a step back” to prioritize women’s basic freedoms and human rights. “How can a woman producer or entrepreneur be empowered when she cannot leave her home?” She added “We need to engage women. We also need to educate men and change their beliefs that are established based on the family and the society.”

The costs of GBV beyond human suffering

The global cost of violence against women is estimated to be USD 1.5 trillion or 2 percent of the global gross domestic product, according to data from UN Women, while the World Bank indicates that it can rise to almost 4 percent of GDP in some countries.

“Because of the recurring climate crises and rising costs, we are entering a food crisis of unprecedented proportions with 345 million people in 82 countries facing acute food insecurity,” stressed Joyce Luma, WFP Deputy Executive Director, citing data from the WFP Global Operational Response Plan. “As of last year, there are 150 million more women who are food insecure than men globally.”

Máximo Torero, FAO Chief Economist, reiterated the urgent need for crisis response mechanisms to explicitly address gender inequalities. “By impacting the health, productive capacity and wellbeing of individuals, GBV has been worsening global hunger and poverty, putting victims under life-threatening risks, and leading to massive costs to individuals, families, communities and beyond”.

Morten Aasland, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Norway to the United Nations organizations based in Rome, called for actions that effectively encompass women’s concerns in times of compounded hardships. “When the global community mobilizes against the climate and food crises, we should demand and ensure that they specifically address also the situation of women, and that they result in recommendations and actions that seriously consider women's situation”.

“We need sustained commitment 365 days of the year and we need resources allocated to match the level of our solidarity statements and tweets on this day,” pointed out Guoqi Wu, IFAD Associate Vice-President and Gender Champion, in his closing remarks. “Only when women flourish, families and communities do too.”