Changing cultural norms: 'Rape, beat or kill a woman? Go to jail'

Nebiyou Mahari, a program coordinator, provides consultation to a victim of gender-based violence in Ethiopia. How can the international community address gender-based violence globally? Photo by: UNICEF Ethiopia / CC BY-NC-ND

International development agencies and donor governments have long acknowledged that gender-based violence diminishes women’s opportunities and undermines development. The World Bank reports that gender violence kills and disables more women and girls between 15 and 44 than cancer, traffic accidents, malaria and war combined.

The Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the United National General Assembly in September included elimination of all forms of violence against women and girls. The SDGs, similar to the Millennium Development Goals before them, are expected to drive billions of dollars of public and private investment in poor countries.

Those resources are desperately needed to combat violence against women and girls, but a new strategy is needed as well. The United States provides approximately $200 million annually to address gender-based violence globally, the bulk of it for rights awareness, “social norm change,” and women’s empowerment. But such programs by themselves have little impact on the real source of gender-based violence: that men who hurt women and children enjoy near total impunity in much of the world.

Changing that social norm requires that local criminal justice systems be equipped to do their job: investigating, apprehending, prosecuting and punishing perpetrators of violence against women and girls.

The U.S. Congress prohibited assistance to foreign police and prisons over 40 years ago in response to atrocities committed by recipients in Latin America Asia, and Africa. Today the prohibition exists in name only; the U.S. provides billions of dollars to international anti-narcotics and anti-terror efforts around the world. There is nothing comparable for building law enforcement capacity to restrain and deter gender-based violence.

The Sustainable Development Goals can and must be an impetus for the U.S. and other donors to develop and fund a criminal justice component to their GBV prevention programs. The first task for donors and international development institutions will be to help developing countries collect and analyze data on death and injury from sexual assault and domestic violence. The U.N.’s proposed SDG indicators for violence against women and children are limited to data on the proportion of the population experiencing physical, psychological or sexual violence in the previous 12 months.

Additional indicators would provide much-needed transparency about countries’ capacity to actually protect women and girls. For example, a government might collect and report on the proportion of police stations with GBV desks, or the percentage of hospitals and clinics that have one-stop centers for victims of sexual assault. Data about the proportion of reported cases of child abuse, domestic violence, and sexual assault that have been investigated by police and prosecuted in the courts will reveal the enormous gap between laws on the books and laws that are enforced.

It is time for the U.S. to help developing countries make the same transition that we did here at home: we stopped acting like domestic violence was a “cultural norm” and started treating it like the crime that it is. The Violence Against Women Act of 1994 strengthened penalties against abusers, resourced domestic violence shelters, established a national domestic violence hotline, and led to training for hundreds of thousands of judges and prosecutors every year. These and other targeted criminal justice strategies and investments have reduced violent crime against women and girls. The White House reports that between 1993 and 2010, the rate of intimate partner violence declined by 67 percent. The rate of intimate partner homicides of females decreased by 35 percent from 1993 to 2007.

The U.S. and other donors can immeasurably improve their existing GBV foreign aid programs by incorporating an additional cultural norm, and by helping national and local governments make it a reality for every community: “Rape, beat or kill a woman? Go to jail.”

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About the author

  • Holly Burkhalter

    Holly J. Burkhalter serves as a special adviser at International Justice Mission, the world’s largest international anti-slavery organization. Formerly IJM’s vice president of government relations and advocacy, Holly led a grass-roots advocacy program to mobilize people around the country. She continues to build support for U.S. policies that will abolish modern-day slavery and other forms of violence against the world’s poorest. She speaks regularly on IJM’s behalf and has testified frequently before the U.S. Congress.