Lets act now to end gender-based violence

By Kanni Wignaraja and Joyce Mends-Cole*

Zambia launched the National Action Plan on Gender Based Violence, the National Gender Communication Strategy and the Gender Song on 25 November 2010. It did so on the day which launches the annual global Campaign to End Violence against Women – better known as the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Based Violence. The statement from the Vice President of the Republic of Zambia read during the launch by the Minister of Gender and Women in Development emphasized the catalytic role of leaders at all levels, including herself, in the struggle to end this scourge.

As women in leadership positions, we join this call and commitment. We call upon women, men, boys and girls to act to prevent Violence against Women and to encourage everyone to say “ENOUGH – UNITE TO END VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN”.

Issues of Gender Based Violence (known as GBV) are not confined to one locality, but abound in various parts of the world. For example, in December 1989, a 25-year-old man shot and killed 14 women engineering students at a Canadian university, saying he was “fighting feminism” – he did not believe that women should become engineers. In August 2010, militia overran a town in Eastern Congo and spent four days raping women and girls, using rape as a weapon of war. In Zambia, we have learned of the high rates of defilement and violence and abuse against women and girls in homes and schools.

When and how will it end?
We believe that GBV can only end when a society decides a woman is worth the same as a man and has the same rights; when it is not acceptable for a woman to be beaten by her partner and her cries are heard by neighbours and no-one intervenes; when a society sanctions teachers who demand sex from girls for passing grades; when a society believes that girls and boys must be given the same opportunities; when refugee women and girls’ experiences are validated and their hopes for durable solutions supported; when it becomes ordinary and not unusual to have women in top leadership and decision-making positions and when a society also agrees that any form of violence, whether against women or men, is unacceptable. Our call is not for women and men to be the same – women and men are different in some ways and those differences make the world a wonderful and interesting place, but those differences should not be used to discriminate against women, preventing their own empowerment and their contribution for progress and development of a country.

Gender based violence is inextricably linked to gender-based inequalities. It is a direct manifestation of how a society defines and accepts unequal power relations. Gender based violence encompasses a wide range of human rights violations, including sexual abuse of children, rape, domestic violence, sexual assault, trafficking of women and girls and harmful traditional practices. Any one of these abuses can leave deep physical and psychological scars, and in its extreme, results in death. It is an unacceptable treatment of human beings, and society can and must raise voices and take actions to stop it.

What can and must be done?
Laws often come up against traditional beliefs and practice and need to be supported by building a social consensus and attitudinal change, for those laws to be enforced fully. Many customs and traditions are important and ensure the cohesion and peace of a community. However, a custom that perpetuates GBV in any form is not a cultural practice or tradition to be protected. The change in behavior and beliefs will come from enlightened leaders who speak out against GBV, who hold perpetrators accountable for their crimes related to GBV, and who stand as role models to which society can look up.

Ending impunity is the litmus test for ending GBV. When those who engage in Gender Based Violence are sanctioned, whether through prosecution and punishment or other means, it sends a clear message to would-be violators – this will not be tolerated.

Promoting gender equality and empowering women is also a core element of addressing GBV. This comes first from a greater investment in education of girls but also boys – education which teaches respect, civic consciousness, and ethics and values that promote the principles of equity, fairness and justice. Second, it comes from ensuring greater equality of access to resources, be it land, credit, homes and jobs – so women are empowered and able to have their own means of resources – economic empowerment. This allows them to leave abusive relationships and stand on their own as needed.

Finally, society must provide for care. Those who have been the unfortunate prey of GBV need to have safe house, places of care, counselling and protection. This requires a collaboration between health and social services, the law enforcement agencies and local administration. Furthermore, there is a need to have an effective reporting and referral system to have clear track record of the cases in order to deal with them more effectively and systematically.

No single government agency, United Nations agency or non governmental organisation can be the sole voice or point of action to root out GBV in society. It requires a comprehensive and coordinated approach. Everyone can make a difference. Women represent 52 percent of the total population in Zambia, and no development plan can be effective while GBV affects large numbers of this group. So it is everybody’s business, including traditional leaders, religious leaders, community based leaders, businessmen and women, parliamentarians, parents and school children, to engage in a serious discourse about the underlying causes and consequences of GBV, if we are to make a change and ensure a safer and more equal human development for all. There could be no better time than now, as Zambia marks 16 days of activism against GBV, from 25 November to 10 December 2010, – the time for collective voice and action to stop GBV is now!

*Kanni Wignaraja is the UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative and Joyce Mends-Cole is UNHCR Representative in Zambia.

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