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Target 5.2 of the Sustainable Development Goals is to “Eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls (VAWG) in the public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation.”

1.1   UK Government initiatives

In 2018 DFID published its Strategic vision for gender equality.

This included a commitment to:

Challenge and change unequal power relations between men and women, and negative attitudes and discriminatory practices that hold women and girls back.

Build the inter-linked foundations which will have a transformational impact for girls and women: elimination of violence against women and girls; access to sexual and reproductive health and rights; girls’ education; and women’s economic and political empowerment, including an increase in women’s participation and leadership in conflict prevention and peacebuilding processes, at community and national levels.

Protect and empower girls and women in conflict, protracted crises and humanitarian emergencies, to rebuild their lives and societies, by listening to their needs and by increasing the meaningful and representative participation and leadership of women.

DFID points out that the sexual exploitation and abuse experienced by women and girls can have lifelong and inter-generational effects. It estimates the global prevalence of child sexual abuse at 18% for girls and 7.6% for boys, and that approximately 20% of refugee and displaced women experience sexual violence.

In humanitarian crises and conflict inequalities escalate. DFID reports that gender-based violence can increase to affect over 70% of girls and women.

The Government has a specific Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security 2018 – 2022 in which it commits to increase its work to reduce all forms of violence against girls and women, to reduce the number of girls and women affected by trafficking and modern slavery and to empower women to play a role in rebuilding their lives, and in building peace, reconciliation and their societies.

In 2019 the Government announced a new programme: What Works to Prevent Violence: Impact at Scale, to help stop violence against one million of the world’s poorest women and girls.

The seven-year project is designed to challenge violent behaviour against women and girls across Africa, the Middle East and Asia. That programme totalling £67.5 million programme builds on a pilot programme—What works to prevent violence.  

1.2   How effective are Government programmes on VAWG

In 2016, the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) reported that the Government had made a strong commitment to leading efforts to tackle violence against women and girls (VAWG) around the world. It gave DFID’s programmes a Green rating in its traffic light system. ICAI explained the reasons for this assessment:

In light of its active learning stance, a strong research portfolio and some good-quality programming, combined with a strong leadership role at the international level.

However, it noted that the programmes remained small relative to the problem they sought to address, and that the key challenge for the future would be taking successful initiatives to scale.

In a follow up report in 2017 however, ICAI found that progress was slow and it was “concerned that the scale and intensity of VAWG programming does not appear to have increased.”

1.3   Impact of Covid-19

This UN Inter-agency statement on VAWG in the context of Covid-19 highlights six critical areas for action if governments are to live up to the UN Secretary General’s call for all governments to make the prevention and redress of VAWG a key part of their national Covid-19 response plans. The statement emphasises the importance of funding for women’s rights organisations, access to services for VAWG survivors, police and justice response, and prevention.

The statement says:

Violence against women and girls is pervasive during normal times. It is a product of unequal gender power relations and discrimination against women and girls, which is exacerbated by conflict and humanitarian crises, poverty, economic stress, and, at times, the harmful use of alcohol or other drugs. Some of the measures to contain COVID-19, such as restrictions in movement and staying at home have increased exposure for those already in abusive relationships. This has been compounded by increased burdens and stress from domestic and care responsibilities and from loss of livelihoods, combined with fewer opportunities for social contact with informal and formal networks and limited access to services and community support.

The Centre for Global Development (a US-based think tank) cautions on making hasty conclusions about the incidence of VAWG as a result of Covid-19:

In some countries, reported rates of violence against women have both increased and decreased during COVID-19, depending on the type of violence and source of reporting. For example, in April in South Africa, calls to gender-based violence centers were reportedly increasing, while a group working closely with the National Prosecuting authority, police, and the Department of Social Development reported in May that rape and sexual assault cases were down by 50 percent. These conflicting reports are not unique, but they raise many questions around how to interpret and draw conclusions from different sources of data.

In particular, it points out that VAWG data specifically suffers from widespread underreporting due to stigma, shame, and fear of retaliation, which may further compound biases in reported data.

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