Health Versus Harm: Zero Tolerance on Violence Against Women and Girls

This past weekend after my first lap running along the Seine then past the Louvre through the Tuileries, Place de la Concorde to the Arc de Triomphe, and back, I paused to stretch in front of the Louvre and thought, “I am the luckiest human being alive to run this. Go again? Yes. Go again? Then again!” When I was fully exhausted but sprinting to finish strong on the Champs-Élysées, I was applauded by tourists. I smiled and thought about how much I love endurance running and how much deeper the reasons why. I know what I look like out there sporting my Run for Congo Women t-shirt and Comrades 2010 hat: Determined. Physically healthy. Strong. That has always been the goal.

But, then, as I was walking down the Metro stairs sipping Pellegrino, I saw her. Head down. No shoes. Bare toes out. Unwashed. I will never see her face. She couldn’t even bear to lift her head to beg anymore. Why bother? She just sat there hunched over, huddled in defeat at the bottom of the stairs with a dirty empty cup. So, I gave. She is why I am so determined. She is why I run. She is why for three years I traveled alone while raising monies for girls and women’s health through Girls on the Run International and their charity, SoleMates. To see her. To speak with her. To mentor her. Then, to ensure change for her.

For these past weeks, I have had my own head down reading reports citing statistics about gender-based violence (GBV). I kept asking questions and hoping for answers that would somehow give sound reason as to why so many women and girls in this world are being harmed. With that harm what happens to their chance for physical health? How high are their risks of other vulnerabilities like HIV/AIDS?

Globally, one in three women will be beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime according to a 2010 fact sheet put out by Women Won’t Wait Campaign, International AIDS Women’s Caucus, and the International Women’s Health Coalition. According to Women for Women International’s article Violence Against Women and Girls, “A 2007 report and survey of grassroots Iraqi women found that 63.9% of respondents stated that violence against women in general was increasing, with 38.5% reporting that rape was increasing.”

Women for Women International’s research also depicts harrowing challenges in Africa, “Over the course of more than a decade of war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), millions of lives have been lost and hundreds of thousands of women and girls have been raped in a strategic campaign of sexual violence employed by virtually all armed groups, including the military... In 2009, the violence is still increasing.”

As such in 2009, violence against girls was cited by the Clinton Global Initiative as an epidemic. From their web site, “According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in one year alone nearly 150 million girls experience some form of sexual violence. Rape, assault, exploitation, and trafficking devastate the lives of victims and contribute to the spread of HIV and AIDS.”

In fact, last year, the Clinton Global Initiative brought together nine organizations—the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the CDC Foundation, five United Nations organizations (UNICEF, UNAIDS, UNFPA, UNIFEM, and the WHO), the Nduna Foundation, and Grupo ABC—and each pledged their commitment to end violence, in particular sexual violence, against girls.

At AIDS 2010, the Guardian reported Bill Clinton and Bill Gates opened with a speech about why organizations should make the best use of donated monies due to the economic crisis hampering an increase in funding. Yet conference statistics cited epidemic numbers of violence against women and girls (VAW/G) and also how deep the links between gender-based violence (GBV) and HIV/AIDS. In fact, the American Bar Association’s article Universal Access and Human Rights: For Women and Girls, Too affirms the current challenge in the fight against HIV/AIDS is to acknowledge “the feminization of a modern day pandemic.”

While in Vienna, the Global AIDS Alliance (GAA), an advocacy organization that focuses on improving U.S., multilateral, and affected-country national government policy and funding for the global AIDS pandemic, held the press conference pictured here to announce their report, Political Breakthrough: Mobilizing Accelerated Action to End Violence Against Women and Girls by 2015.

After the press conference, I spoke with Lisa Schechtman who is the Policy Director of the Global AIDS Alliance. In a recent interview, she shared, “the new report was called ‘Political Breakthrough’ because, for the first time, three major AIDS donors and normative agencies (PEPFAR, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and UNAIDS), have placed GBV front and center in their efforts and have committed to providing funding dedicated to addressing this critical challenge—the first expression of political will.”

Lisa affirms needing more than political momentum, however, even as she acknowledges the inherent importance. “While political will starts as rhetoric, it allows for affected communities to demand action and for advocates and activists to hold donors and policymakers accountable for actually doing something—the second and most important expression of political will. It also allows us to trace where the money is going and what impact it is having.”

Enter funding. The problem is the reality. The places where HIV/AIDS are most prevalent are some of the most impoverished in our world. According to UNIFEM’s Backgrounder at AIDS 2010 “in Africa where the epidemic is most widespread, young women are three times more likely to be HIV-positive than young men.” The organization cites gender inequality as one of the most important reasons for this. Less control over their bodies and their lives leads to higher rates of HIV for women and young girls. Is that not another way to say, gender-based or sexual violence?

Even with all of the preceding, eliminating gender-based violence is not explicitly one of the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals hence some of the current funding challenges. Lisa explains, “very little funding from any source has been directed specifically to GBV. Slightly more funding has been directed to the intersection of GBV and HIV, but even this has been small and directed to piecemeal projects that do not advance comprehensive change or even meet the needs of the vast number of women and girls who experience violence. Through these smaller efforts supported by the international community and many other programs undertaken by local civil society around the world, we have learned not only that we can address violence, but how to do so effectively. It’s time to stop talking about this major human rights abuse and hold our governments accountable for doing what works at a scale that can reach everyone in need.”

The International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA) is a major step in ascertaining that goal. IVAWA is currently moving through Congress with bipartisan support and as Lisa shares, “it mandates a coordinated, multiagency multisectoral response to GBV across all USG diplomatic and international development channels. Recognizing that violence against women and girls has an impact on—and is impacted by—every area of a woman’s life and every part of society, the bill takes a holistic approach and, for the first time, makes violence against women and girls a foreign policy priority for the United States.”

Therefore, IVAWA, the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), and how effective both female and male youth are as agents of mobilization and social change to end VAW/G for greater public health was also the focus of researchers and advocacy groups at AIDS 2010 and beyond.

Check out Her Blueprint on Thursday, August 12 for Part 2 of this article in which Kate goes in-depth with Remmy Shawa, Intern of the Joint United Nations Program on HIV and AIDS, Yvonne Akoth of the Kenya Girl Guides Association, and other youth and women advocates who are taking huge strides in the prevention of gender-based violence and the rights of those living with HIV/AIDS.