Endemic violence against women and girls

A wave of anger marked March 2021 as thousands took to the streets to protest against violence and discrimination against women. The contexts varied enormously across settings such as Turkey, Australia, Mexico, the UK and the US, but the frustration was universal. Many women recounted the fear they live with and a sense of hopelessness and helplessness in the face of the situation. And yet, the strength of these conversations inspires measured optimism for the future.

This would not be the obvious conclusion to draw from the new report on violence against women from WHO and partner organizations, published on March 9, 2021. This comprehensive report includes data 2000-2018 for 161 countries on the spousal violence and 137 countries for non-spousal sexual violence. Overall, an estimated 31% of women aged 15-49 have experienced physical or sexual violence from a current or former husband or male intimate partner, or sexual violence from the from someone who is not a current or former husband or partner, at least once since age 15. While there are national and regional variations in the prevalence of intimate partner and non-partner violence, it is clearly a pervasive global problem of pandemic proportions. These horrific figures make it imperative that more action is taken urgently by governments and corporations.
An alarming level of violence is already present early in women’s lives. The report estimates that 16% of young women aged 15-24 have experienced physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner in the past 12 months. Adolescence is a time when relationship patterns solidify, closely linked to the development of self-esteem and the ability to say no in sexual or romantic contexts. The amount of intimate partner violence is therefore deeply concerning, indicating an early entrenchment of abusive relationship dynamics. Moreover, the sequelae of non-spousal or spousal violence alter the course of life, whether it is an unwanted pregnancy and its impact on education and career, or sexual health problems and reproduction, chronic illnesses or depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder. , and devote energy to healing. The provision of quality care after abuse is therefore crucial. Many women do not report sexual abuse due to stigma, emotional difficulties and the likelihood of being blamed. For adolescents who have been sexually abused, studies recommend care that respects their autonomy and wishes, ensures confidentiality and makes services welcoming. As the WHO report points out, women should be able to access survivor-centered health care. Believing in women is the key to this.

In this gloomy picture, however, lurks the potential for optimism. Precisely because of its foundational character, adolescence is a window of opportunity to establish healthier gender dynamics. The report stresses that violence against women is not inevitable and urges that prevention programs be more widely tested and scaled up. Profound societal changes are needed, starting with creating gender equality that encompasses economic empowerment and access to education. Real change also requires a fundamental questioning of social norms around gender roles and behaviors, which adolescent health professionals are well placed to do.

Since men are the main perpetrators of violence against women, adolescents must be included in these interventions; it is essential that such initiatives challenge gendered ideas and norms that support masculinities based on the control of women and the glorification of violence. Schools and communities are essential for programs that aim to develop a common understanding of gender dynamics, sexuality and relationships. For example, many teen dating violence prevention programs include coaching for healthy relationships, promoting gender-equitable attitudes, or modifying school environments or policies. Efforts to reduce violence should vary by context; in humanitarian contexts, for example, providing safe places for girls and women is of paramount importance.

The WHO report is a valuable addition to the increasingly open discussions of gender-based violence in recent years, as women reveal their experiences. The speech is a step towards creating a new reality, and the breadth of the discussions today should give us hope that change is possible in the future. To end violence against women, these discussions must cover all genders – with much greater reflection of men and boys on their role in this issue – and they must include adolescents, whose participation offers the promise of changing cultural norms, creating more gender-equitable societies, and developing healthy relationships.

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  • Preparing a Trauma-Informed Global Workforce
    • A recent editorial in The Lancet Child and adolescent health draws attention to the alarming prevalence of violence against women and girls, beginning at the critical developmental period of adolescence, and to the critical need for accelerated government intervention to prevent violence.1 We would like to emphasize that progress in monitoring and improving post-abuse care will be hampered if health professionals are not properly equipped with the skills and experience to deal with gender-based violence.

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