By Patricia Mahoney
Many countries have laws against gender-based violence and they need to enforce them equitably and consistently
On December 10, we celebrated International Human Rights Day. It marked the end of the 16 days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence that began on November 25 with the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.
While human rights and gender equality should be respected every day, this anniversary offers a special opportunity to renew the global commitment to free women and girls from violence. Regardless of where it occurs; whether in the United States or Uganda, violence against women and girls diminishes the dignity of all humankind.
This is because a society is as strong as all of its members. When women and girls are not given equal opportunities in education, healthcare, employment, and political participation, they cannot contribute to their nation’s prosperity, security, and democratic institutions.
In contrast, the International Monetary Fund estimates that simply having an equal number of men to women in the formal labour force can increase a country’s GDP growth from 5 per cent to as much as 34 per cent!
I would also like to cite statistics for countries in which girls and women are free from gender-based violence, but that data, sadly, is harder to find.
Regrettably, violence against women and girls occurs in every country. A 2011 study found that in the United States nearly one in five women surveyed had been raped at some time in her life, while one in four women had been a victim of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in her lifetime.
According to the 2011 Uganda Demographic and Health Survey, at least 27 per cent of women and girls between the ages of 15 and 49 experienced some form of domestic violence in the year prior to the survey. The same survey showed that at least 56 per cent of married women experienced some form of domestic violence during marriage.
We can all do better than that. Many nations, including Uganda, have passed legislation addressing gender-based violence. The next step is to enforce those laws equitably and consistently.
The United States has made gender equality and women’s empowerment a priority, both at home and in our foreign policy. The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) passed in 1994 stiffened penalties for rape, increased the rates of prosecution and conviction, improved training for law enforcement officers, prosecutors, victim advocates, and judges, and expanded services to victims.
While we still have a long way to go, VAWA has improved services to victims and the criminal justice response, and the rate of intimate partner violence has dropped by 67% from 1993-2010. While a strong legal framework is essential to countering violence against women and girls, attitudes must also change, including among women themselves.
Rape, genital mutilation, and domestic violence are unacceptable, and we all should reject the view that the victims of these crimes are to blame for what happened to them. We must encourage girls and women to speak up for themselves, and educate boys to speak up for their mothers, sisters, wives and daughters.
In honour of the International Human Rights Day, let’s remember that nearly half of the humans in this world are female, and that they deserve to be safe from violence in their homes, on the streets, and in their communities. Respecting this fundamental right will lead to a more peaceful, prosperous, healthy, democratic future for all of us.
Patricia Mahoney is the Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. embassy in Kampala.