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Statement by Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, UN Women Executive Director, on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka explores the "Shadow Pandemic" - the rise in reported violence against women and girls during the COVID-19 pandemic.

With the will, there’s a way to end violence against women

Date: Wednesday, November 25, 2020

[Also available in: ar | es | fr | ru ]

We’ve seen the close connection between the COVID-19 pandemic and the rise in reported violence of all kinds. We called it the Shadow Pandemic.

We have also seen the difference between the way that our societies and our public services respond to citizens who present with a life-threatening illness, and those who come for help with a life- or health- threatening partner.

We have seen the whole world respond to the coronavirus pandemic, with all hands on deck, with responsive investment and protocols backed by determination. Every continent has recognized the health pandemic’s disastrous consequences and the need to stop it in its tracks. Men’s violence against women is also a pandemic – one that pre-dates the virus and will outlive it. It too needs our global, coordinated response and enforceable protocols. It too affects vast populations of all ages. Last year alone, 243 million women and girls experienced sexual or physical violence from their partner. This year, reports of increased domestic violence, cyberbullying, child marriages, sexual harassment and sexual violence have flooded in.

If you take a test to see if you have a coronavirus infection, no one asks you what you were wearing when you caught it, or if you’d been drinking. You can expect with certainty that your test will be laboratory processed, and with reasonable probability that you will get medical attention. The response won’t depend on whether you are believed. You won’t feel such shame that you probably won’t even try to go to the authorities. You can expect care and support.

If only ending men’s violence against women was as simple as vaccinating against it. If only responding to it was as well funded as our response to the virus and its impacts on our societies and economies. Imagine if we invested the same amount of expertise and energy in finding a sustainable, global solution. If all leaders including heads of state dropped everything to lead the fight, if front-line workers like prosecutors, judges and policemen worked to save lives of women and girls as the health workers have done, and if ministers of finance allocated funds and provided forensic laboratories and rape kits like they provided personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing services. Imagine if everyone did this until we flattened the curve of violence against women. Imagine the impact.

We are at the beginning of a promising response that could be expanded to be proportionate to the challenge. Already 146 countries have undertaken measures to make the prevention and redress of violence against women and girls a key part of their national response plans for COVID- 19 in response to the UN Secretary-General’s call for ‘peace in the home’ and as a key part of the UN’s next decade of action. But it is not yet at the heart of agendas, and change is not yet at the scale required.

The collaboration between scientists, governments, civil society and industry has been a game changer in the COVID-19 pandemic. That, and more, is the scale and nature of the collaboration needed to end violence against women and girls, across all sectors, and at societal, community, family and individual levels. The Generation Equality Forum and its multi-stakeholder Action Coalitions reflect this consistent, holistic approach with a five-year plan to engage on change that is systematic and lasting. 

Civil society is a key partner in this. To play its role fully, it must be flexibly resourced and the funding cuts limiting women’s organizations, crisis centres, helplines and shelters reversed. The EU-UN Spotlight Initiative is leading the way on this – and others need to join in order to build the response that will truly make a difference. Women are currently being failed by their elected representatives, and under-capacitated nongovernmental organizations are unable to fill the void. Every country’s fiscal stimulus packages should include provisions for ending violence against women, and for well-funded social services – crucially including sexual and reproductive health provisions – that support survivors and enable recovery.

Women must have full access to justice, with reliable prosecution of perpetrators of violence and effective prevention of these crimes. One of the reasons that women report less than 40 per cent of serious violent crimes against them or seek help of any sort, is their lack of faith in the system’s response. The turn-around starts with law schools and police academies that teach their cohorts to recognize and respond to abuse and be alert to discrimination. It means ending impunity, with strong legal and policy frameworks, and data to monitor progress and help us hold ourselves and authorities to account.

Equally important are the cultural changes that help prevent violence against women and girls in the first place. For this, we have to shift the stereotypes and attitudes that shame survivors and normalize and excuse the perpetrators. And we must engage allies in this, including men and boys. After all, while a virus is indiscriminate, a man or boy can choose not to be violent and society can guide him not to be violent and hold him accountable if he is. 

All these interventions must occur concurrently, continuously, in collaboration, and at scale to succeed.

The economics of violence are simple and devastating. No one gains. Everyone loses, and we have to turn this around. As we face COVID-19’s devastation, there has never been a more important moment to resolve to put our combined resources and commitment behind the biggest issues, and to end violence against women and girls, for good. We know what it takes to fight a pandemic. Now we need the will to do it, and with Generation Equality, lead the way.

The ISC has a number of projects on gender equality and combating systemic discrimination in science. See the Action Plan for further details. The ISC secretariat also recently watched “Picture A Scientist” and encourages our members to use this documentary as a conversation starter around the issues of gender equality in science, as well as instituting practical ways in which to combat harassment and discrimination in science systems, especially workplaces.

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