Violence against women and girls continues unabated in every continent, country and culture. It takes a devastating toll on women’s lives, on their families and on society as a whole. Most societies prohibit such violence – yet the reality is that too often, it is covered up or tacitly condoned. – United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon
In September of this year, the United Nations will hold a summit for the adoption of the post-2015 development agenda. Replacing the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) after their expiry, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will guide priorities in international development until 2030.
Given the importance of this global framework in terms of program development and, expectedly, influencing funding direction over the next 15 years, I, like many other gender and development advocates, welcome the inclusion of a stand-alone goal on gender equality and women’s empowerment – Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.
Some may argue that this is similar to MDG #3; however, conceivably borne out of learning from the previous development framework, Goal 5 goes beyond gender parity in education and participation in work and decision-making.
It consists of six content targets, including, quite notably, two on violence against women (VAW): the elimination of all forms of violence against women and girls, including trafficking and sexual exploitation, and the elimination of harmful practices such as child, early and forced marriage, and female genital mutilation (FGM).
The situation: Global Picture
- The most common form of violence experienced by women globally is physical violence inflicted by an intimate partner. On average, at least one in three women is beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused by an intimate partner in the course of her lifetime.
- Women aged 15-44 are more at risk from rape and domestic violence than from cancer, motor accidents, war and malaria, according to World Bank data.
- Several global surveys suggest that half of all women who die from homicide are killed by their current or former husbands or partners.
It is not a crime that can be solved only legislatively
VAW is complex; it is not something that can be understood simply through a punitive lens, or addressed by just having laws that criminalize violence against women, and punishing the perpetrators.
VAW is one of the five manifestations of gender bias. The other four being – stereotyping, marginalization, subordination and the issue of multiple burden. What is unique about VAW as a gender issue is that the other four are all contributing factors to the perpetuation of violence against women.
There are prevalent traditional beliefs regarding men and women that are still promulgated in various ways through the key social institutions – family, school, media, religion and state – thus, VAW, as an issue, is intrinsically linked to how girls, boys, women and men are socialized from birth.
In the Philippines, VAW is rooted in various manifestations of gender-bias, some women experience ‘internalized oppression’ and accept that they are relegated to an inferior position in the family. This can contribute to men taking advantage and thinking it is acceptable for them to beat the girls/women in their family. Consequently, a significant percentage of women beaten by their husbands, feel that it is justified for them to do so, or that it is not their role to complain.
In the family, subordination can translate to the woman not being allowed to take a job outside the home, or in deciding how many, or when to have children. In the communities this can be seen in the disproportionate number of men and women in positions of authority in community development, as women are often type-casted in nurturing roles such as social workers, or barangay health workers instead of leadership roles. This also contributes to them being objects of violence in private and public spaces, especially when they attempt to fight against this subordination, or want to take part in decision-making in the family or participate in society.
Lastly, the multiple burden that women face being the primary person delegated to fulfil the reproductive role (e.g., giving birth, taking care of children at home), and their increasing roles in productive (e.g. engaging in economic activities for the family) as well as community activities, have created circumstances that result in women being victims of violence. The difficulties that may arise from balancing all these multiple roles without support “give reason” for their male partners or other male authority figures to complain about any perceived lack of time spent by the women with the family or children. For example, in the Philippines, the leading reason given by husbands to justify beating their wives is neglecting their children.
The challenges ahead include the need for more effective behavior change and increased access to services
The gender roles and biases that contribute to the problem of violence against women are deeply rooted in socio-cultural belief systems. Consequently, the response needs to be equally comprehensive and systemic in order to change behaviors and perceptions of women in all aspects of Philippine society. Behavior change strategies that reinforce an egalitarian and not a paternalistic view and respect of women need to be integrated in gender sensitivity trainings, and public awareness campaigns.
The government and civil society can also explore working with the same social institutions aforementioned; for example, integrating messages opposing violence against women in values formation curriculum within the formal education system, or working with inter-faith groups and priests to condemn VAW in their sermons, and encourage community members to report cases and promote vigilance against VAW.
The Anti-Violence Against Women and Their Children Act of 2004, along with other laws against rape, trafficking and sexual harassment, provide important advocacy wins for fighting the different forms of VAW in the country. They have served as basis for local programs to fight VAW – such as the establishment of Barangay VAW Desks, for example. That said, however, policy opportunities can also present challenges especially in the enforcement, the implementation of clear processes, as well as in the timely and appropriate provision of services.
These should include, but are not limited to, greater needs for safe and effective reporting mechanisms for incidences of VAW at the community level; increased protection, counselling and shelter services for victim-survivors of violence and their children; delivery of justice and financial /legal/para-legal support to victim-survivors and their families; and reintegration in their communities with livelihood support.
All of these are needed for a comprehensive approach to the problem of violence against women that are much needed to follow through on the earlier successes of the prevention, policy lobbying, and awareness-raising component of VAW advocacy in the Philippines. It will do good to build on legislative gains, both nationally and the international Sustainable Development Goal 5, and focus on translating the growing vigilance opposing Violence Against Women into behavior change that leads to women’s empowerment.
To read more on the Sustainable Development Goals and Violence Against Women:
 Source: United Nations Secretary-General’s In-depth Study on Violence against Women, 2006
 Source: 2008 National Demographic Health Survey, National Statistics Office, Philippines