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HOME: POPULATION ISSUES: PROMOTING GENDER EQUALITY: Gender-based Violence
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Violence against Women



Gender-Based Violence: A Price Too High
Ending Violence Against Women
Challenges and Good Practices In Support of Women in Conflict and Post-Conflict Situations
Combating Gender-Based Violence: A Key to Achieving the MDGs
UNFPA’s Work on Gender-based Violence: Reaching Out for Change

"If women and girls, and communities as a whole, are threatened by gender-based violence, then there is no real chance for peace and security. "

— Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, UNFPA Executive Director

Ending Widespread Violence Against Women

Around the world, as many as one in every three women has been beaten, coerced into sex, or abused in some other way - most often by someone she knows, including by her husband or another male family member; one woman in four has been abused during pregnancy.

"Violence against women both violates and impairs or nullifies the enjoyment by women of their human rights and fundamental freedoms...
In all societies, to a greater or lesser degree, women and girls are subjected to physical, sexual and psychological abuse that cuts across lines of income, class and culture."

--Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, paragraph 112

Gender-based violence both reflects and reinforces inequities between men and women and compromises the health, dignity, security and autonomy of its victims. It encompasses a wide range of human rights violations, including sexual abuse of children, rape, domestic violence, sexual assault and harassment, trafficking of women and girls and several harmful traditional practices. Any one of these abuses can leave deep psychological scars, damage the health of women and girls in general, including their reproductive and sexual health, and in some instances, results in death.

Violence against women has been called "the most pervasive yet least recognized human rights abuse in the world." Accordingly, the Vienna Human Rights Conference and the Fourth World Conference on Women gave priority to this issue, which jeopardizes women's lives, bodies, psychological integrity and freedom. Violence may have profound effects – direct and indirect – on a woman's reproductive health, including:

  • Unwanted pregnancies and restricted access to family planning information and contraceptives


  • Unsafe abortion or injuries sustained during a legal abortion after an unwanted pregnancy


  • Complications from frequent, high-risk pregnancies and lack of follow-up care


  • Sexually transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS


  • Persistent gynaecological problems


  • Psychological problems

Gender-based violence also serves – by intention or effect – to perpetuate male power and control. It is sustained by a culture of silence and denial of the seriousness of the health consequences of abuse. In addition to the harm they exact on the individual level, these consequences also exact a social toll and place a heavy and unnecessary burden on health services.

UNFPA recognizes that violence against women is inextricably linked to gender-based inequalities. When women and girls are expected to be generally subservient, their behaviour in relation to their health, including reproductive health, is negatively affected at all stages of the life cycle.

UNFPA puts every effort into breaking the silence and ensuring that the voices of women are heard. At the same time, the Fund works to change the paradigm of masculinity that allows for the resolution of conflict through violence. One strategy is to engage men - policy makers, parents and young boys — in discourse about the dynamics and consequences of violence.

As the chart below shows, women may face different forms of violence at different stages of their lives.

Gender discrimination and violence throughout a woman's life

Phase Type
Prenatal Prenatal sex selection, battering during pregnancy, coerced pregnancy (rape during war)
Infancy Female infanticide, emotional and physical abuse, differential access to food and medical care
Childhood Genital cutting; incest and sexual abuse; differential access to food, medical care, and education; child prostitution
Adolescence Dating and courtship violence, economically coerced sex, sexual abuse in the workplace, rape, sexual harassment, forced prostitution
Reproductive Abuse of women by intimate partners, marital rape, dowry abuse and murders, partner homicide, psychological abuse, sexual abuse in the workplace, sexual harassment, rape, abuse of women with disabilities
Old Age Abuse of widows, elder abuse (which affects mostly women)

Source: Heise, L. 1994. Violence Against Women: The Hidden Health Burden. World Bank Discussion Paper. Washington. D.C. The World Bank

Violence at Home

Most domestic violence involves male anger directed against their women partners. This gender difference appears to be rooted in the way boys and men are socialized -- biological factors do not seem to account for the dramatic differences in behaviour in this regard between men and women.

Pregnant women are particularly vulnerable to gender-based violence. Some husbands become more violent during the wife's pregnancy, even kicking or hitting their wives in the belly. These women run twice the risk of miscarriage and four times the risk of having a low birth-weight baby.

Cross-cultural studies of wife abuse have found that nearly a fifth of peasant and small-scale societies are essentially free of family violence. The existence of such cultures proves that male violence against women is not the inevitable result of male biology or sexuality, but more a matter of how society views masculinity.

Gender and Violence

Studies of very young boys and girls show only that, although boys may have a lower tolerance for frustration, and a tendency towards rough-and-tumble play, these tendencies are dwarfed by the importance of male socialization and peer pressure into gender roles.

The prevalence of domestic violence in a given society, therefore, is the result of tacit acceptance by that society. The way men view themselves as men, and the way they view women, will determine whether they use violence or coercion against women.

UNFPA recognizes that ending gender-based violence will mean changing cultural concepts about masculinity, and that process must actively engage men, whether they be policy makers, parents, spouses or young boys.

Sexual Assault

The majority of sexual assault victims are young. Women in positions of abject dependence on male authorities are also particularly subject to unwanted sexual coercion. Rape in time of war is still common. It has been extensively documented in recent civil conflicts, and has been used systematically as an instrument of torture or ethnic domination.

Now, with precedents set at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, in Tanzania, and the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, at The Hague, for mass rape, other acts such as sexual assault, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced sterilization, forced abortion, and forced pregnancy may qualify as crimes of torture, crimes against humanity, and even some as crimes of genocide.

UNFPA Responds

Because gender-based violence is sustained by silence, women's voices must be heard. UNFPA puts every effort into enabling women to speak out against gender-based violence, and to get help when they are victims of it. The Fund is also committed to keeping gender-based violence in the spotlight as a major health and human rights concern.

UNFPA advocates for legislative reform and enforcement of laws for the promotion and the protection of women's rights to reproductive health choices and informed consent, including promotion of women's awareness of laws , regulations and policies that affect their rights and responsibilities in family life. The Fund promotes zero tolerance of all forms of violence against women and works for the eradication of traditional practices that are harmful to women's reproductive and sexual health, such as rituals associated with puberty.

Sixteen Days of Activism: Sixteen Days of Hope

Gender-based violence is one of the most pervasive of human rights abuses. It covers a range of injustices from gender abuse to systematic rape and from pre-birth sex selection to female genital mutilation. In 2005, UNFPA took part in a worldwide campaign, 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, that began on 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, and ended 10 December with International Human Rights Day. Find out more about the campaign as well as 16 ways that UNFPA addresses gender-based violence. more

As part of its work to counter gender-based violence, UNFPA has supported training of medical professionals, to make them more sensitive towards women who may have experienced violence and to meet their health needs. Pilot interventions have been tested in 10 countries-Cape Verde, Ecuador, Guatemala, Lebanon, Lithuania, Mozambique, Nepal, Romania, Russia and Sri Lanka.

Following consultations with health providers and clients, all women were screened for abuse in some pilot projects. Possible victims have been offered legal, medical and psychological support, and medical referrals when necessary. Attention has been paid to involving communities, and to creating support networks for gender-based violence victims that include both police and health-care providers, along with counselling services.

UNFPA has also held workshops for health providers on recognizing the effects of gender-based violence on women's health, and on how to detect and prevent abuse and assist victims. These have stressed the need for confidentiality and monitoring.

Based on this experience, UNFPA has produced a manual, A Practical Approach to Gender-based Violence, which has been translated into seven languages.

Additional strategies the Fund employs to address gender-based violence include:

  • Ensuring that emergency contraception is available for victims of sexual violence


  • Strengthening advocacy on gender-based violence in all country programmes, in conjunction with other United Nations partners and NGOs


  • Advocating for women with parliamentarians and women's national networks

  • Integrating messages on the prevention of gender-based violence into information, education and communication projects


  • Conducting more research on gender-based violence
Learn More:
Programming to Address Violence Against Women: 10 Case Studies
Ending Violence Against Women: Programming for Prevention, Protection and Care
Indonesian NGO Works to Stop Violence against Women

Guidelines on Gender-Based Violence Interventions in Humanitarian Settings

Women, War, Peace
Addressing Violence Against Women: Piloting and Programming

 

 

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