Stopping Violence Against Women Before It Starts

“The girls really love doing the games and drama. Many of them are already involved in unsafe sex; now they’re gaining not just knowledge, but the confidence and assertiveness to say no or let’s use a condom.”

This is what Sarah Tweats, a secondary school teacher in Zambia, says about the results she sees among her female students after deploying the Stepping Stones training, a community-based program that teaches young people about HIV, gender equality, communications, and relationship skills.

According to a review of 61 violence prevention programs published by the Journal of Adolescent Health this month, programs like Stepping Stones have been shown to effectively teach adolescents to identify and prevent sexual violence and other acts of violence committed by intimate partners, including acts of physical aggression, sexual coercion, psychological abuse, and controlling behaviors.

Community-based programs use techniques such as group education, role playing, mentorship, and sports to drive home messages of equality and relationship-building. Several programs reviewed in the study saw a decrease in self-reported acts of violence and harassment and a greater likelihood that participants would intervene in or speak out against violent situations.

The authors of the study, Rebecka Lundgren and Avni Amin, also found that parenting programs focused on “dysfunctional parenting, violent discipline and child maltreatment” can help reduce risk factors that lead adolescents to engage in or be subjected to sexual and intimate partner violence. These programs encourage “safe homes” with home visits, couples or group education, and peer or one-on-one support. They also include psychological interventions with children who have been maltreated or who have witnessed violent acts by their parents.

Finally, the research has shown that school-based “dating violence programs” that seek to reduce intimate partner violence by improving relationships, decreasing acceptance of sexual violence, and fostering gender equality have shown to effectively prevent physical, sexual, and emotional violence in adolescent dating relationships.

At the policy level, it’s critical that governments enforce laws that promote gender equality, such as local and national minimum marriage age laws that prevent child marriage, and international agreements such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Governments should also scale up and replicate programs to address sexual violence and intimate partner violence among adolescents.

Overall, Lundgren and Amin’s study found that programs with longer-term investments and repeated exposure to ideas over time in different settings produce better results than one-off programs. Changing harmful attitudes that lead to gender-based violence is by no means a quick or easy process, but it is possible. We now have evidence of several promising interventions that can stop violence before it starts. Given proper resources and funding, programs like Stepping Stones will impact future generations to come.

This blog post is the second of a five-part series summarizing the research featured in the January 2015 special supplement to the Journal of Adolescent Health. The supplement reviews the progress on adolescent sexual and reproductive health and rights since the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development.

Access the supplement for free here.

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