Want to address violence against women? Make their voices heard, create reporting structures

A series of photographs that are part of Oxfam’s campaign to raise awareness on violence against women in 2012 in Mali. How can the international aid community improve on protecting women from violence? Photo by: Vincent Tremeau / Oxfam / CC BY-NC-ND

Between 35 and 70 percent of women and girls experience some type of physical or sexual violence in their lifetime — and of course the risk is higher in developing countries.

As campaign groups across the globe mark today the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. It’s time to reflect about how global development professionals can better address this often culturally-sensitive issue and mainstream it in their programs.

On the sidelines of last week’s Trust Women Conference hosted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation in London, Devex sat down with Everyday Sexism Project Founder Laura Bates and Carol Robles-Román, president and CEO of Legal Momentum, to find out what these two pioneers in defending women’s rights believe how the international aid community can improve on protecting women from violence.

Their first two suggestions: enable women’s voices to be heard and create structures through which they can report violence effectively.

Women should ‘make a fuss’ when they are harassed

Everyday Sexism Prorject features collection of online testimony in 18 countries — including South Africa and Brazil — with a section targeting refugee women, and has collected 80,000 women’s experiences since 2012. Contributors share stories ranging from verbal harassment in the street to physical and sexual public violation.

Raising awareness of the scale of abuse women suffer is the first step, explained Bates. This must be followed by “creating awareness of what is advised, that these things are unacceptable, that victims can come forward, but also working from the other end with governments, organizations and police forces to make sure if women do report it is taken seriously.”

She said women who don’t “make a fuss” about harassment or abuse often see problems escalate, and urged organizations tackling the issue to emphasize that challenging what happens in public spaces will impact what happens in the workplace or home.  

The model is not bound to the Internet and in her opinion can be replicated in developing countries.

“At its core is the very simple principle of sharing stories,” Bates noted. “In countries where mobile phones are more widely accessible, people can text and collect data this way. But also there are incredibly old and powerful storytelling traditions within communities. It’s the power of women’s voices raised together that’s created this impact.”

The women’s rights advocate advised development professionals to ensure women’s experiences lay at the heart of any program addressing violence, citing “Project Guardian,” a scheme to fight sexual harassment on public transport run by the British Transport Police, as a good example.

“Right from the very beginning they put women’s experiences at the absolute center of planning,” Bates said. “They used them as a route into retraining 2,000 officers and making campaign materials.”

Since later research revealed that women did not relate to the term “sexual assault,” the wording on posters was more specific — a lesson that can be applied to any country.

“Putting the experience of those who are suffering at the very heart of the process from the beginning is absolutely crucial to creating change,” Bates concluded.

Improve reporting structures

Robles-Román, on the other hand, underscored how she learned that developing ways to could report crimes better can truly make a difference to protect women from violence.

In her previous role as deputy mayor for legal affairs and counsel to former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, she helped develop Family Justice Centers. These facilities, located within underserved communities, co-locate legal services such as domestic violence and human trafficking to make it easier for women to report violence.

“We saw a rise in the murder rate for women of color, and a striking fact that came out was they were not [previously] seeking law enforcement,” Robles-Román explained, adding that the centers made it easier for victims to ask for help. “The whole experience was dehumanizing … so we created the scenario where it was an inviting place to be — turning the whole thing on its head.”

Female murder rates fell, and four more centers have opened since 2004 in New York City. But was the winning formula? Getting different government agencies to work together, noted Robles-Román.

“Once you have everybody under one roof, even perceived adversaries turn the table and start working together,” she said.

Legal Momentum focuses on educating legal entities about dealing with victims of sexual assault and domestic violence, and partners with the U.S. federal government to train sexual assault advocates who are not judges or lawyers in how to get cases to court.

“The statistics are very poor in terms of sexual assault and domestic violence cases prosecuted in court,” she said. “It sounds like an oversimplification, but we have to make sure the justice system is well-trained.”

This, she highlighted, is definitely an approach that should be scaled in developing countries.

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About the author

  • Gabriella Jóźwiak

    Gabriella Jóźwiak is an award-winning journalist based in London. Her work on issues and policies affecting children and young people in developing countries and the U.K. has been published in national newspapers and magazines. Having worked in-house for domestic and international development charities, Jóźwiak has a keen interest in organizational development, and has worked as a journalist in several countries across West Africa and South America.