Gender inequalities lead to gender inequities in access to health care, income levels, education and promotion in employment, political participation and representation. It increases the risk of violence against women and hinders the ability of victims to seek help. Gender-based violence (GBV) is a human rights violation and a consequence of power and gender inequalities with devasting long-term effects on the health, livelihood and wellbeing of victims. It is any violent act perpetuated against a person because of their gender. Both women and men can be victims of GBV, however, women are the usual targets. When targeted at women it is termed Violence against Women (VAW). VAW is a global pandemic and 1 in 3 women would have experienced it in their lifetime according to the United Nations (UN).
Most cases of GBV are perpetrated by individuals in position of power or who have control over others and are known to the survivors. In cases of VAW, the perpetrators are more likely to be their intimate partners; husbands or boyfriends. VAW can be physical, sexual or mental, and includes intimate partner violence, rape, human trafficking, female genital mutilation, child marriage, among others. Unfortunately, many cases of VAW remain unreported due to interaction of causative factors that include fear of stigma, isolation and social exclusion, discriminatory laws, norms and practices, limited access to justice institutions and representation, lack of physical security, lack of education, and poverty, among others. Globally, less than 40% of women who have experienced violence reported or sought help. The situation is worse in Nigeria where only about 32% of women, age 15-49, who have experienced violence have reported or sought help.
VAW has far reaching impact beyond survivors. It causes inequality by instilling fear in women. This fear of violence can cripple women’s ability to attain their social and economic potentials, speak up for their rights, make decisions that affect their lives and meaningfully contribute to home and society. It, therefore, takes away women’s agency and disempowers them. Conversely, VAW can itself be the product of inequality, especially in regions with discriminatory laws and social norms that exclude women and girls. These discriminatory laws and exclusionary norms infringe on women and girls’ rights to education, work and freedom.
Crises significantly diminish society’s ability to protect women and girls from violence. Thus, during crisis, whether humanitarian, pandemic or natural disaster, violence against women and girls increases. It’s no different with the COVID-19 pandemic as research conducted across many countries, including Nigeria, reveal that the Pandemic has created conditions that foster VAW. This has been termed the ‘shadow pandemic’ brewing alongside the COVID pandemic. Lockdown and other confinement measures to curb the Pandemic isolate women with their abusers and make it difficult for women to access help and report cases. In Nigeria, for instance, where 31% and 9% of women and girls aged 15 to 49 have reportedly experienced physical and sexual violence respectively, cases of domestic violence increased from 314 in March to 781 cases in April; a 149% increase. In three states that were placed under total lockdown (FCT, Lagos and Ogun), the number of cases increased by 297% between March (60 cases) and April (238 cases) compared to only 53% in states that were under less strict lockdowns; Benue, Cross River and Ebonyi. The North East region, where Propcom Mai-karfi intervenes had the fourth highest reported cases of GBV in the period with a 130% increase between March and April.
Consequences of VAW.
The consequences of violence against women and girls can be long lasting and life-threatening; ranging from physical and reproductive to psycho-social and economic, and in many cases permanent disability and death. Women lose income and incur additional expenses due to frequent absenteeism from work and accessing clinical services. Unfortunately, the impact of VAW transcends the victims and survivors to affect their families and close circles and the larger society. For instance, children from homes where the mother is abused are at risk of being abused, may become aggressive, antisocial and depressed, and may have developmental and mental health problems. The productivity and profitability of businesses is reduced from high turnover, absenteeism, poor performance, increased health expenditure and other costs.
Women’s Empowerment and VAW.
One of the ways to prevent VAW is by empowering women economically. Community interventions that empower women, improve their economic position and change gender stereotypes and norms have been used in developing countries to reduce gender inequality. These programmes mostly work with women alone or involve men as well. However, some work mainly with males and focus on addressing issues around masculinity, gender norms and violence. This shift in programme targets reflects an increasing awareness of the significance of engaging men and boys in programmes aimed at stopping VAW.
Women’s Economic Empowerment (WEE) has been shown to reduce the risk of VAW by improving women’s financial autonomy, self-esteem and bargaining power. A woman empowered to earn an income can financially contribute to the household increasing her bargaining power and reducing her vulnerability to violence. Being economically empowered, the woman also has the means to prevent and escape abuse and support herself.
Unfortunately, WEE can, on the other hand, increase the risk of violence in some contexts by de-stabilising traditional gender roles in the short term. When men are not engaged in WEE, it can lead to misunderstanding and backlash between women and their partners. This is particularly true in environments that are culturally sensitive and conservative with strict gender norms and higher tolerance of VAW. In these contexts, WEE may be seen as disrupting the power and control men have over women due to increased earnings and allocation of time to more productive ventures by women, thus, resulting in violence by spouses and others in the community.
Propcom Mai-karfi’s Approach to Women Empowerment
Propcom Mai-karfi (PM) is not designed to directly address issues of VAW. However, with ‘Do no Harm’ and ‘inclusion’ as core components of the programme, concerted efforts are made to empower women and improve their positions in their communities. Consequently, the programme mainstreams WEE across all interventions. This begins by understanding the target demographic and the context within which they exist. It also includes careful selection of partners with experience in programme locations via a vigorous due diligence process. This process ensures partner commitment to policies safeguarding against harassment, sexual exploitation and abuse, trafficking and others, with measures put in place to ensure their institutionalisation.
The advantages of WEE prompted and strengthened PM’s desire to mainstream WEE across all interventions. PM strongly believes that by so doing women beneficiaries on the programme have become more resilient (through increased participation within select value chains) and are able to access needed services; especially around crop and livestock production and management.
Due to the backlash, misconceptions or feelings of resentment that can arise from WEE, PM takes proactive and informed measures to lessen the causal factors. Customary formalities are observed with key gatekeepers. Male spouses, male relatives and male caretakers are engaged and informed on the purpose and intended benefits of our WEE work as well as the manner of engagement of the women at initiation and implementation stages. In practice, this includes holding consultative forums with partners and outlining context and women specific issues to encourage informed development of intervention models.
PM also encourages collective work through women group structures. These groups are leveraged using culturally acceptable positions of women based on age, marital status and other factors. For instance, unmarried and older married women, widows and elderly women have been found to have greater market access and autonomy and can facilitate market interactions for the group compared to younger and newly married women. This gives opportunity to develop business models that utilise the different strengths and abilities in a manner that ensures all women benefit irrespective of circumstance within acceptable social norms.
Combating Violence against Women.
Addressing the root causes and factors that increase the chances of VAW is the best way to prevent it from happening. Practical actions or measures to prevent VAW include some of the following:
- Individuals should educate themselves about GBV and transfer their learning to others including how it occurs, prevention and where to get help.
- Early education of boys and girls in schools about gender issues, social norms and other related topics and promoting gender equality and respectful behaviours towards one another.
- Design community interventions to target men and boys and address harmful gender norms and promote gender equality. Involve spouses or guardians of women who are part of empowerment interventions to educate and get them to understand the benefit of the interventions not only for the women but for the household and wider community.
- Use survivor-centred approach to programme design where the rights, needs and wishes of survivors are prioritised above all else by those involved in the intervention.
- Businesses should encourage gender equality and have zero tolerance for abuse and violence. They should educate their staff on GBV, change norms that foster violence while promoting those that engender equality, and provide safe spaces for reporting, seeking help, and handling GBV cases.
- Governments should enact and enforce policies and laws that protect the rights of survivors and ensures they receive the care and support needed, and perpetrators are prosecuted.
- Governments should make it easy for victims to report and get justice by providing multiple and confidential avenues for reporting cases. They should ensure members of the criminal justice system, including the Police, are trained to judiciously and sensitively handle GBV cases sensitively.
- Governments and humanitarian partners should device ways to make it easy for survivors to access help; especially marginalised and vulnerable groups such as those in post-conflict regions.
- Governments and relevant development organisations should address harmful norms at the wider community level through continuous community sensitisation and engagement.
International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.
Yearly on November 25th, the international community marks International Day for Elimination of Violence against Women and uses it as an opportunity to draw attention to the plight of survivors and those vulnerable to abuse. This year’s commemoration is critical as the COVID pandemic has further enabled VAW due to isolation to prevent its spread and the strain imposed on already limited health, essential and other services. Consequently, this year’s theme “Orange the World: Fund, Respond, Prevent, Collect!” is a clarion call to improve funding to prevent VAW, ensure that measures to address COVID prioritise services for survivors of violence, highlight prevention of and enhanced data collection on VAW. For more information on International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, go here.
For information and help on GBV in Nigeria:
- Your local State Ministries of Women Affairs
- Project Alert on Violence against Women
- Action Health Incorporated
- Women Rights Advancement and Protection Alternative (WRAPA)
- Women Aid Collective (WACOL)
- The International Federation of Women Lawyers
- Mirabel Centre
The following resources have been consulted in writing this article; refer to them to learn more about GBV and VAW:
- Promoting Gender Equality to Prevent Violence against Women. Briefing Paper; World Health Organisation, 2009.
- Assessing Reported Cases of Sexual and Gender-based Violence, Causes and Preventive Strategies, in European Asylum Reception Facilities. Journal Article; Oliveira et al., 2018; Journal: Globalization and Health.
- Violence against Women. Blog; World Health Organisation; November 2017.
- Handbook for the Protection of Internally Displaced Persons. Action Sheet 4: Gender-based Violence.
- The shadow pandemic: COVID-19 and Essential Services for Women and Girls Survivors of Violence. Infographic; 2020.
- Violence against women a cause and consequence of inequality, Selim Jahan, November 2018.
- Gender-based Violence in Emergencies. Blog; September 2020; UNICEF.
- Violence against women and girls: the shadow pandemic. Statement by humzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women. Blog; April 2020; UN Women.
- COVID-19 and Ending Violence against Women and Girls. Report. UN Women.
- Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey. October 2019; Nigeria Population Commission.
- Gender-Based Violence in Nigeria during the Covid-19 Crisis: The Shadow Pandemic. Brief; May 2020. UN Women.
- Violence against Women and Women Economic Empowerment; Presentation; Anna-Karin Jatfors; UN Women 2017
- Causes and Consequences of Violence against Women. Chapter 3 in Book ‘Understanding Violence against Women’, 1999; National Research Council.
- A Framework to Underpin Action to Prevent Violence against Women. 2015. UN Women.
- Gender-Based Violence an Analysis of the Implications for the Nigeria For Women Project; Publication; the World Bank, 2019