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To end violence against women, we must uncover inconvenient truths

To tackle gender-based violence, we need robust data - a key pillar of the UN Secretary-General's global political engagement strategy on GBV and COVID-19. Our Regional Director Bjorn Andersson explains, in this opinion piece originally published by Devex on November 25, 2020, to launch the #16Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence.

In early 2017, around 100 women gathered at a hotel conference room in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. They had applied to gather data for the National Statistics Office. The NSO was looking for women who had the empathy and tenacity needed to interview women and girls about different forms of violence they may have experienced in their lives.

Thus began a profound journey to collect data for Mongolia’s first national survey on the prevalence of violence against women. Eventually, more than 7,300 women nationwide shared their most personal and intimate stories, the majority for the first time. This led to many of the enumerators themselves opening up about their own experiences of violence, a cathartic and empowering process.

The survey results revealed the extent of this scourge — 1 in 3 women had experienced physical or sexual violence, or both, in their lifetime by their intimate partners.

The challenge in Mongolia is actually very similar to the situation globally, as we have seen from surveys in countries such as Sri Lanka and Vietnam, both of which have just released survey results in 2020 supported by the U.N. Population Fund-led kNOwVAWdata initiative.

The results come at a time when the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to even more violence against women amid quarantines and lockdowns as women are often confined in the same space as their abusers.

We know from global estimates that, on average, 1 out of 3 women experiences some form of physical or sexual violence during her lifetime.

It’s traditionally been difficult for societies to admit that gender-based violence is a very real crisis in their midst. It’s only when there is solid evidence that denial can give way to acceptance of the problem, and an admission that it must be addressed.

Even during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, it is critical to collect data that adds value and does not put women at risk. UNFPA has been guiding organizations to collect meaningful data through examining service records or through interviewing service providers to find out challenges women face in accessing and using services.

With clear evidence of the trends, challenges, and gaps, governments and legislators have an even stronger impetus to act. This must include changes in legislation and policies, as well as effective community mobilization. And by listening to the very real stories that lie behind the data, individuals in societies can become more personally invested in addressing the crisis of gender-based violence.

For example, Mongolia’s first national survey on the prevalence of violence against women prompted the government to strategically determine the locations of 10 new one-stop crisis centres. The survey, meanwhile, sparked honest dialogue about the prevalence of gender-based violence across the country, which could lead to more change for the better in the future.

In Vietnam, the findings of two national surveys a decade apart have galvanized action from government and society alike. The first national survey informed new government strategies and policy responses, including increased budgetary allocations for domestic violence prevention, and the creation of response models, which were piloted in selected provinces for nationwide application. Violence against women became a key theme in Vietnam’s National Action Plans and the National Strategy on Gender Equality.

But importantly, the findings of the first survey led to annual advocacy and mass communication campaigns, which sought to educate and change the attitudes and behaviors of communities and individuals. This included seminars and workshops for policymakers, service providers, law enforcement, civil society organizations, and the media.

Specific attention was also placed on community outreach, through parades, arts performances, and music videos, which further helped raise awareness about the nature of violence against women and available support services.

As we mark the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, and particularly as the world struggles to emerge from COVID-19 and the shadow pandemic of violence against women, we’re calling on all governments, and indeed all societies, to adopt an integrated four-step strategy: Fund, respond, prevent, collect.

• Prioritize funding for GBV programs, including in COVID-19 fiscal stimulus packages.

• Ensure response services for survivors are maintained as essential, including during COVID-19 lockdowns.

• Declare national zero tolerance policy for GBV with a concrete prevention action plan in place, including through social mobilization to change behaviors.

• Collect data for improvement of GBV services and programs, complemented by the stories behind the data, always ensuring survivor-centered and ethical safety standards.

Violence ultimately does not exist in a vacuum; it is a manifestation of longstanding gender inequality, patriarchy, and chauvinism the world over.

When we begin to unpack gender-based violence, we more clearly see its root causes.  When we confront these root causes, without shying away, we tackle them better.

Let’s work to uncover and quantify inconvenient truths so we can address them in an honest and holistic way — not only for the sake of women and girls, but for our collective humanity.

Björn Andersson joined the United Nations Population Fund Asia-Pacific Regional Office as its director in September 2017. Prior to this, he served as chief of staff to two UNFPA executive directors.