Plan's Sarah Hendriks: No one should be subjected to gender-based violence

Sarah Hendriks, global gender advisor at Plan International. Photo by: Plan International

What is an empowering moment for a woman? For some, it is having the right to vote; for others, having access to reproductive health services. But for Plan International’s global gender advisor, it’s having the courage “to leave a violent situation.”

“The moment I felt most empowered as a woman is when I made a personal decision to ensure that gender-based violence would not be in my life,” Sarah Hendriks told Devex in an interview for International Women’s Day, whose theme this year centers around ending violence against women.

Hendriks, who will be among the speakers at the launch today of Plan’s report on the safety of girls in urban spaces, identified the three milestones women have achieved in years: More women are now involved in decision-making processes, more girls have access to primary education, and some countries already recognize women’s sexual and reproductive health rights.

Still, much more needs to be done for women and girls, especially those subjected to early child marriage and sexual harassment as well as those lacking access to basic services, such as personal toilets at home.

Hendriks shared with us her thoughts on gender-based violence and what the aid community should do more to protect women and girls in fragile states as well as ensure that gender equality remains atop the international development agenda.

Plan is launching a report today in time for International Women’s Day. What are the biggest takeaways from the study?

In 2012, a study to understand how safe and inclusive cities were for adolescent girls was carried out in Cairo, Delhi, Hanoi, Kampala, and Lima. The research is among the first of its kind. Examining the unique position of adolescent girls in urban environments in an active and participatory way from a broad range of stakeholders is an innovative approach to delving into a new area of research.

The findings are very moving. Very few girls in the study claimed that they “always” feel safe when walking in public spaces. Existing barriers to girls’ autonomous mobility across the cities included the lack of a public transportation system conducive to safe travelling. In Delhi, girls stressed that they often did not have personal toilets, and public toilets were scarce and poorly maintained, forcing them to use open spaces, putting them at risk of sexual harassment and assault. In terms of emergency services, girls in most of the cities commented on the lack of formal policing or security guards in their communities.

How big of a problem is violence against women and girls?

Gender-based violence is, unfortunately, ubiquitous. It crosses country and class borders, and affects women and girls the world over, in countless negative ways. Gender-based violence is one of the most grievous violations of human rights and no one should be subject to it. In many places, violence is subtle and pervasive and then becomes dangerously normalized. The power to leave a violent situation, or ensure that violence in all its forms is unacceptable, is a highly empowering moment. 

What can the aid community do to improve gender equality and women’s protection in fragile states, such as Afghanistan and Pakistan?

The aid community needs to focus on age and gender-responsive approaches to our work in emergencies or fragile states. In particular, fragile contexts can heighten the vulnerability of girls to both violence and other harmful gender norms like child marriage. Focusing on these areas and designing age-appropriate responses is critical. 

A disaster or fragile context can have consequences for girls in many different ways … But perhaps the theme that comes out most strongly is that in the chaos of a disaster, girls may be left alone and unprotected  and that they may also lack the education and skills needed to know how best to protect themselves. In such circumstances, they are easy prey for those who want to exploit them. In Pakistan, when women were asked what worried them most in the 2010 floods that affected 20 million people, they talked about protecting their adolescent daughters from those who might want to abuse or abduct them.

Addressing the needs of girls in disasters, conflict, and emergencies, and acknowledging all they have to offer, is about their rights, and about recognizing the needs of a particular group in a particular situation. It is also about achieving development goals. And about how some of the millions of dollars invested in humanitarian action and disaster risk reduction should be focused on girls and young women. It is about all these things. But most of all, it is about how we use a crisis to build a fairer and more equal world for all, and ensure that girls as well as boys have that opportunity to “change the world in astonishing ways”  even in a disaster.

How can the aid community ensure the achievement of the Millennium Development Goal on gender equality by 2015, and that it remains in the post-2015 development agenda?

The focus must shift to ensure that the new framework is focused on human rights for all as a critical part of tackling poverty the world over. It must be inspirational and universally applicable, so that all countries everywhere are inspired to do more to close gender gaps and uproot gender discrimination, injustice and exclusion. It must aim to explicitly eliminate violence against women and girls. It must address the key structural barriers of power and accountability that lie at the heart of decision-making for women and girls.  This involves shifting the focus to tackle the underlying and often intersecting forces of gender inequality. 

The post-2015 framework must ensure measureable results in key areas, including completion of post-primary education for the hardest-to-reach girls; reduction in the gender-wage gap; more women and girls participating in decision-making at all levels; and ending gender-based violence.

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About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.