Violence against women: changing attitudes and laws

Around the world women and men are taking part in 16 days of activism to eliminate violence against women. Cat Meredith examines Oxfam’s approach to changing attitudes and laws, from UN conference halls to village committees.

A quick scan of the headlines shows that violence against women and girls (VAWG) is depressingly widespread: one in 10 women in Britain have been forced to have sex against their will, a couple in India were convicted of murdering their daughter in a suspected honour killing; and over  6,000 Syrian women have been raped since the start of the conflict in their country.

Oxfam’s approach to tackling VAWG is twofold: a combination of advocating for change at an international and regional and local level, and prioritising eliminating violence against women and gender justice in our development and humanitarian programmes.

A community discussion class run by Oxfam's partner in Nepal, part of the Raising Her Voice programme. Credit: Aubrey Wade/OxfamThere is no magic formula but Raising Her Voice (RHV), our five year global programme aimed at raising women’s voice and influence, revealed the role of strong governance in tackling VAWG.

Ending violence against women requires change on multiple levels, enshrining women’s rights on paper in national laws, working with institutions like police and local government to ensure that women’s rights are actively upheld, and (perhaps the hardest challenge of all) bringing about attitudinal change in societies where violence against women is considered normal acceptable behaviour.

Challenging social norms is tough and can result in a back lash against the very women who have already been victimised. Oxfam’s RHV partners in Nigeria reported that ‘police stations are places where women are likely to get raped again.’ Women who dare to step into the public sphere can put themselves at risk of further violence as they threaten the established order. In the 2008
elections in Nepal, for example, 26% of female political candidates faced violence.

‘Challenging social norms… can result in a back lash against the very women who have already been victimised’However thanks to the brave women, who risk everything to stand up for their rights and the rights of fellow women, change can -and is – happening. RHV contributed to the introduction of ten laws to prevent and protect against gender-based violence in Uganda, Nigeria, Mozambique and Pakistan.

The power of women standing together against violence is strong. In Pakistan, RHV worked with 30 women leaders groups to build connections with the more marginalised local community committees. This meant that women leaders could share experiences from the grassroots directly with the local, regional and national authorities. As Razia Mudasser, a women’s group leader from Pakistan explains: ‘It is said that one and
one is eleven, alone, one person is only one, but, when another person joins, they gain the power of eleven.’

Oxfam’s practical guides on tackling VAWG were devised for our own staff, but are now open to all in our bid to raise the bar across the sector:  Ending Violence Against Women: An Oxfam guide and our new Anna MacDonald speaking at the UN Arms Trade Treaty negotaiations on behalf of Oxfam and the Control Arms campaign.humanitarian policy notes on gender issues and VAWG in emergencies.

On the regional and international stage, we lobbied for a comprehensive international action plan at the UN Commission for the Status of Women meetings in March and our long-running We Can campaign to end violence against women in South Asia has now been taken over by local
Oxfam partners and allies across the world, and has supported and mobilised over 3 million women to become Change Makers in their communities.

The latest issue of the Gender & Development journal contributes to the debate over how development practice can be more effective at eliminating violence against women. It exploring the link between conflict and gender based violence, recognising that during times of conflict levels of gender based violence (GBV) tend to increase, as social
order breaks down. Kerry Crawford explores the issue of rape as a weapon of war and Oxfam campaigners explain why they pushed for GBV provisions to be included in the international arms trade treaty.

The scale of violence against women around the world is overwhelming, the headlines seem to keep on coming, but we have seen real transformative change in our programmes. And as an organisation we will continue to conquer violence both in local communities and in UN conference halls. The partners and individuals that Oxfam works with inspire hope, so I’ll leave the final word to Razi Sultana, a
Women’s Leader Group member in Pakistan:

‘I believe that men and women are created equal and therefore should be treated equally in all matters. The time is past when women couldn’t raise their voice against violence.’

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Top – Lobbying for the domestic violence bill in Uganda attended by RHV partners. Credit: Oxfam
Left – A RHV community discussion group meeting in Nepal. Credit: Oxfam/Aubrey Wade
Right – Anna MacDonald speaking at the UN on behalf of Oxfam and the Control Arms campaign. Credit: Keith Bedford/Insider Images

Author: Catherine Meredith
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.