Gender-based violence against women and girls is the most pervasive breach of human rights worldwide and a tactical weapon that is fueling violent conflict. In just the last year, we have witnessed an increase in targeted attacks on women leaders, push back against women’s rights, shrinking of civil society space, virulent online harassment, and conflict-related sexual violence all in conjunction with the strengthening of authoritarianism and state aggression. This unparalleled trend is evident in many countries, including Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Iran, Myanmar and Russian-occupied Ukraine.

A woman sits at a school being used to house several thousand people displaced by fighting in Mekelle in Ethiopia's northern Tigray region. June 27, 2021. (Finbarr O’Reilly/The New York Times)
A woman sits at a school being used to house several thousand people displaced by fighting in Mekelle in Ethiopia's northern Tigray region. June 27, 2021. (Finbarr O’Reilly/The New York Times)

This curtailment of rights and the reinforcement of rigid gender roles is a documented outcome of, and contributor to, violent conflict. The connection between gender inequality and violence is further evidenced in the face of heightened state fragility and global shocks, such as the COVID pandemic and climate change. That the security of women is a strong indicator of the security of a nation is now a well-established link, and increasingly acknowledged at the level of discourse. 

Yet, coordinated and sustained action — even in the face of rising violence — is lagging, if not regressing. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres noted the consequences of this trend in his 2022 report on women, peace and security, saying: “Today, the world is experiencing a reversal of generational gains in women’s rights while violent conflicts, military expenditures, military coups, displacements and hunger continue to increase.”

A Call to Action

There are strategies ready to be put into action, however. Over the last two decades, civil society actors have generated a wealth of evidence and expertise on how to uproot gender-based violence at all levels — from the home, the workplace, in the community, on the battlefield and in the international arena.

With evidence and calls to action mounting, governments and international actors should seize this moment. Right now, the annual 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence global campaign is currently in full swing. The critical links between this campaign and the Women, Peace and Security agenda highlight that this is the time to work hand in hand with civil society, in particular women peacebuilders and the coalitions they lead, to take up effective action against gender-based violence across sectors. 

There have recently been some welcome responses on the U.S. policy front. On November 28, President Biden issued a presidential memorandum to promote accountability for conflict-related sexual violence, firmly acknowledging that sexual violence is not an inevitable outcome of armed conflict. On December 12, the U.S. government will also release its 2022 U.S. Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-Based Violence Globally, with a stronger focus on security and accountability.  

The 3 “P’s” of the Women, Peace and Security Agenda 

As these and other policy efforts around the world advance, it is critical that prevention, protection and participation — key pillars of the Women, Peace and Security agenda — are pursued together and receive adequate investment to make gender-based violence a cross-cutting policy priority. 

Successful design and implementation, moreover, require substantive, ongoing and innovative partnership with civil society — as demonstrated by some of USIP’s longest-standing efforts in this area, such as the U.S. Civil Society Working Group on Women, Peace and Security; the Women Preventing Violent Extremism project; and the Missing Peace Initiative to Prevent Conflict-Related Sexual Violence.

Prevention

As Alice Wairimu Nderitu, the under-secretary-general and U.N. special advisor on the prevention of genocide, noted at a recent USIP event: It is not easy to quantify what has been prevented. And what is not quantified is often neglected, particularly in policy implementation. 

However, we need to invest in prevention because it makes the best-case scenario possible — a scenario where the least harm and burden falls on individuals and societies, with far-reaching positive implications.

Better documentation of gender-based violence is critical in this regard. The ability to track reductions in prevalence can be used to evaluate the efficacy of prevention efforts, while increases in gender-based violence are often an early warning indicator of a possible violent outbreak — from mass shootings to mass atrocities. 

This requires investment in better data collection tools and models that include gender and intersecting identities. The failure to collect gender-relevant and disaggregated data in the past, resulting in data gaps, cannot be used as an excuse for exclusion in the present. Documentation of gender-based violence is critical, furthermore, to advancing accountability processes that can act as a deterrent and a useful prevention mechanism.

Additionally, if violence against women and girls remains a “women’s issue,” prevention efforts will continue to be limited. Not only do men also experience gender-based violence, the solution to the issue does not lie with women and girls alone. 

Violent masculine norms and male trauma feed into gender-based violence and societal conflict. Such norms are built on the normalization of violence as a response to conflict. When state and other actors reinforce these norms and link them with perceived roles and rights of men to secure order, protect their family and homeland, and safeguard national glory through forceful means, the vulnerability of women and girls (and all marginalized people) is heightened. While there is still much to learn about effective policy and programing to counter violent masculine norms, there is a growing knowledge base that has been generated over recent years by organizations like Equimundo and MenEngage Alliance

Protection

The call to strengthen mechanisms for protecting women and girls from violence and discrimination has been made repeatedly over the years. Prevention, of course, is the best protection, and the failure to invest in prevention and equitable access to protection in peacetime has heightened risks for women and girls in the face of conflict. 

But the response to the gender-based violence that does occur — particularly in conflict settings — has too often been nonexistent, slow, selective or ineffectual. There is urgent need for greater collective commitment and investment to protect women and girls, particularly those taking risks for the benefit of others. 

One form of protection is the provision of rapid and flexible funding that allows local civil society organizations that are already working to prevent gender-based violence to take autonomous action to protect those at risk in response to rising threats and violence.

Another opportunity to strengthen protection is to build on advances in legal thought and collective commitment with respect to atrocity prevention and response. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has increased receptivity to consolidating a “mutually reinforcing web of accountability,” including coordinated responses to conflict-related sexual violence. More generally, overcoming existing policy siloes to ensure gender-based violence is addressed across emerging strategies — such as the U.S. Strategy to Anticipate, Prevent and Respond to Atrocities, the Global Fragility Act strategy, and climate action frameworks — will be important to ensure timely responses and adequate funding.

Participation

Particularly given the upsurge in violence, protection is a requisite for women’s participation in all aspects of public life. The importance of such participation is increasingly recognized but, as the head of U.N. Women Sima Sami Bahous has stated, “Violence silences women, renders them invisible, pushes them from public space.” 

Not all women, however, are equally subject to such violence, making it critical to consider which women have been targeted and why. Such an intersectional perspective is important as international actors seek to amplify women’s voices and promote women and girls’ leadership.

It is also vital that policies address the perpetuation of structural violence, which renders invisible the actions and concerns of local women and civil society. To this end, international support in the form of long-term, sustainable and flexible funding for homegrown solutions to gender inequality is needed. It is also worth reiterating that while women’s participation is now regularly included as a key solution to emerging crises like climate change, gender-based violence cannot be addressed primarily by women and girls.

The sustained efforts of civil society actors around the world have helped to significantly raise awareness of gender-based violence and its linkages to wider conflict and insecurity. Thanks in large part to their efforts, many of the solutions are also well-known. We now need the collective commitment to fully fund and act on them. 

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