Violence against girls and women is the most widespread pandemic on earth: One out of three have survived sexual or domestic violence. And these are just the reported numbers. Violence against women and girls is the biggest human rights issue of our time and a public health crisis of unimaginable magnitude and impact. Everyone knows someone who is impacted by violence. Your mother, daughter, sister, grandchild, neighbor or friend.
Violence against girls and women affects us all. It is not the private, personal, or cultural problem that is often the way it is presented. It devastates individuals, families, communities, and nations. It fuels global crises like maternal and infant mortality, lack of health care, the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, drug and alcohol abuse. It fuels crime, terrorism, and war, as well as extreme poverty, through lack of education and lost income. If you want to end violence against men and boys, end the violence against their mothers. Witnessing violence teaches violence. Women’s empowerment requires both women and men to speak up and act against violence.
Despite the vast number of victims, most survivors never report the violence they’ve suffered, fearing punishment and the re-victimization they face through the very systems charged with protecting them. Legal codes are rife with abusive laws like the finger test, where inserting two fingers into the vagina of a woman is used to determine whether she has been raped. In other countries, female rape victims can be arrested for making “false accusations,” and a rape complaint can be regarded as an admission of unlawful sex outside of marriage. And such laws apply to women traveling in these countries, as well as to those who are citizens. In the United States, a large number of states allow rapists to enjoy parental rights.
Such systemic abuse only reinforces the trauma, shame, guilt, and humiliation suffered by victims of violence. Society the world over does not hesitate to make a woman feel that the violence was her own fault. It is time for us to move beyond the focus on individual empowerment and victims’ services to address the national and global systems that allow this violence to continue.
More and more, people are taking to the streets, demanding change. From protests in India over a student’s gang-rape/murder to Nigeria’s “Bring Back our Girls” movement, women’s rights groups are leading the charge, battling for protections. In countries where comprehensive national legislation on domestic violence has been enacted by governments, we have seen unprecedented results in assuring women’s safety. The rates of women reporting violence and seeking help skyrocket, and rates of violence plummet. In nations with laws protecting women from domestic violence, there is a 33-percent lower mortality rate, and women are 14 percent more likely to reach the age of 65
But efforts on a national level are subject to shifting political winds. So, more than 2,000 front line women’s rights advocates from 142 nations have come together to form the organization I helped create, Everywoman Everywhere, a nonprofit coalition with a singular call: A global treaty to prevent violence against girls and women. This treaty will mandate that governments employ evidence-based interventions to stop the violence, built on the successes of other proactive treaties and national domestic violence reform.
We already know what works, which interventions end violence. Now we need national reform, starting with the law, to change culture and drive accountability. The World Health Organization and many other global and multilateral organizations have recommended changes to local and national laws, as well as training of health care workers, police, and judges. An international treaty would help mandate the interventions that work and would encourage implementation of such interventions in countries through national reform.
Treaties are the pinnacle of international law, representing legislation at the highest levels. Few nations can resist collective pressure to sign onto a new global norm. From landmines to tobacco to climate change, proactive treaties have provided the backbone for global transformations, through concrete, proactive steps at the level of national governments.
Law schools and universities have contributed to help build the research foundation for the treaty, and many experts are engaged in working on its content. Activists are primed, agendas are coalescing into a unified vision, and models for social change are in place. The question now is, how much longer must we wait?
Vidya Sri is Co-Founder of EverywomanEverywhere.org, and former Fellow of Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.