Earlier this week, we posted on a luncheon event at the UN hosted by the Global Health Council on linkages between Health & Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality. The following is a transcript of the speech IWHC President Adrienne Germain delivered at the event.
When we think about women’s empowerment and gender equality, we normally go straight to education, income, employment, political participation, and decision making.
But, actually, at the heart of both empowerment and equality are a person’s fundamental right and ability to control her own body including her sexuality.
Without this control, girls and women may go to school but leave early because they are:
- Forced into early marriage,
- Sexually harassed, or raped, even by their teachers, or
- Expelled because of pregnancy
Similarly, women may aim to earn income or to be employed, but be excluded or fired when they are pregnant, or fall ill and become disabled because we fail to provide health care.
Further, many forms of work put girls and women at elevated risk of health problems, and sexual and other forms of violence, because they are isolated—such as domestic service, or informal labor in agriculture or street vending: or because they are forced including bonded labor and trafficking.
We have all heard about or know women excluded from politics and decision-making roles because it is assumed that they will marry and have children and thus be less capable. And we know too well the brutal other side of the political coin—the rape and violence against girls and women that escalates in war and conflict situations, or is used as a means of so-called “ethnic cleansing.”
Control of women’s bodies and their sexuality is also a vehicle for the expression of identity politics, based on interpretations of religion or culture. And so we witness so-called “honor killings” and “dowry murders,” acid throwing, and female genital mutilation, and so-called “corrective rape” of lesbian women.
At its core, violence against women in these many, many forms, is extraordinarily prevalent. Globally, one in three women will be beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her life time. Violence compromises the potential of all our other investments in women and girls and, indeed in wider development.
I have just returned from Ethiopia where nearly 60 percent of women ages 15-49 experienced physical or sexual violence, or both, by an intimate partner in the last 12 months. In South Africa, which has been called the rape capital of the world, violence exposes girls and women directly to HIV and also compromises their ability to use contraception, negotiate safer sex, and even use AIDS treatment.
The health consequences of violence against women are many, and lifelong. They include serious injury, disability and death, emotional disorders such as depression, anxiety and sleeping and eating problems. Substance use and addiction also often result. All of these are entirely preventable.
What too many do not know is that maternal health is also jeopardized—violence goes up in pregnancy. Violence, or the fear of it, keeps women from using healthcare and contraception. Violence leads to miscarriage and low birth weight.
What is the way forward?
First, after decades of rhetorical statements with little political or financial backing, the UN secretary General initiated a campaign, Unite to End Violence Against Women in 2008. Leadership like this, by men from the very top of the UN, national governments, corporations and other sectors including, for example, sports and media, is essential—not once a year but on a regular and sustained basis—to change the nearly universal climate that allows violence against women and girls to continue unchecked and with impunity.
Second, the actions demanded by NGOs are feasible and should be funded as a priority. The most recent can be accessed on our home page—IWHC.org by clicking on the Violence Against Women factsheet. Comprehensive actions include:
- 1. Establish and implement laws, programmes, and policies for zero-tolerance of abuse and violence.
- 2. Make health services available that encompasses information and services for the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of sexual violence, unwanted pregnancy, and STI’s including HIV, and that provide Post Exposure Prophylaxis for HIV, emergency contraception, and referrals to safe abortion.
- 3. Guarantee comprehensive sexuality that helps young people develop the skills to negotiate safe sex, establish gender equality, respect the right to consensual relationships, and end violence and coercion.
- 4. Create safe spaces for girls inside schools and for women in their communities and work places.
- 5. Fund programs like several IWHC supports in countries as diverse as Pakistan, India,Cameroun, Nigeria, Brazil and Peru that build girls self esteem and help them learn what their rights are and how to mobilize locally nationally and globally.
Violence in all its forms is an egregious violation of the human rights of girls and women. It certainly compromises their health, their capacity to exercise their other human rights and their ability to participate fully in society. It is also hugely costly to society.
- The cost of intimate partner violence alone in the United States exceeds $5.8 billion per year: $4.1 billion is for direct medical and health care services, while productivity losses account for nearly $1.8 billion.
Imagine what we could do with these billions—for the Millennium Development Goals, for women and girls, for the future of our world. We’ve listed actions multiple times and we know what to do. We need now to do it.
Adrienne Germain is the President of the International Women’s Health Coalition.You can read her bio here.
For more information on violence against women, click here to view the factsheet “Seven Things the World Can Do to End Violence Against Women,” recently published as the result of a collaboration between the International Women’s Health Coalition, the World AIDS Campaign, International Aids Women Caucus (IAWC), and Women Won’t Wait.