Make ending violence against women a foreign policy priority

Rowan Harvey

70 per cent of people living in poverty in developing countries are women. Their unequal position in society means they have less power, money, protection from violence and access to education and healthcare than men. Women are more likely to live in poverty, simply because they are women. As economic agents, women are hindered by lack of access to education, have less access to credit, and are prevented from entering certain occupations.

In agriculture, women farm smaller plots of land and are less likely to own that land. As entrepreneurs, they manage smaller firms in less-profitable sectors. In formal employment, women are overrepresented in lower-paid professions and are paid less for the same work. Everywhere in the world, women, even when they work the same hours  as their partners, still put more unpaid labour into domestic work and care-giving.

This inequality comes at a cost; research has shown that, with a level playing field, women farmers produce the same yield as their male counterparts. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) have estimated that if women had the same access to productive resources such as fertiliser, agricultural output in developing countries would increase by as much as 2.5 to 4 per cent. Equally, If women were welcomed into the sectors and occupations that currently exclude them, output per worker would likely increase by 13 to 25 per cent (World Bank, 2012). In the face of the global economic downturn, we can’t afford to ignore the impact of gender inequality on women’s productivity and participation in global markets.

Along with these additional hurdles, one in three women globally also have to contend with endemic violence, usually at the hands of partners or family members. A leading cause of death and disability for women and a constant threat to their wellbeing, violence robs women of choices and control over their own bodies and lives. It stops them securing a decent education, earning a living, participating in public life and lifting themselves out of poverty. Even the most conservative estimates measure national costs of violence against women and girls in the billions of dollars.

The impacts of violence are felt at a young age; according to USAID, every year 60 million girls are sexually assaulted at or en-route to school. School violence leads directly to lowered enrolment rates, poor performance, absenteeism and high dropout rates. Dropping out of school in the face of violence will cost a girl up to 20 per cent of her future wages for each year she misses, according to estimates by the World Bank.

Despite the challenges they face, our work with women around the world has taught us that women and girls are powerful forces for change, amazingly determined and resourceful in their fight to achieve a better future. We believe the best way to end poverty for good is to help strengthen women in their own struggles, supporting them to use their knowledge, talents and abilities to achieve changes for themselves, as well as their families, communities and countries. Allowing violence against women to continue unabated not only sends the message that we do not value women or their lives, it also means that progress towards development goals is destined to fail.

The UK government should build on recent commitments and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with these women, putting women’s rights and tackling gender-based violence at the heart of their development efforts and making ending violence against women a foreign policy priority.

As well as realising commitments to put women’s rights at the heart of the process for renewing the Millennium Development Goals and seeing through commitments to a new initiative to tackle violence in conflict, the government should establish an infrastructure to monitor and enforce UK commitments on violence against women. They should also champion women’s rights within the international development agenda and strengthen DFID’s approach to violence against women and girls with a coherent and adequately funded strategy to address it.

In particular, they should support and fund the local women’s organisations and networks that provide life-saving services and advocate for women’s rights. Listening to women is the first step towards understanding their needs, and an important step towards unlocking their potential. It’s an issue the world simply cannot afford to ignore.

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