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Violence against women doesn’t happen in a vacuum

The government's predilection for prioritising effect over cause has consequences - we must focus on prevention as well as cure.

Street children look on as Indian social activists take part in a rally on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women in Kolkata on November 25, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

The International Development Secretary has trumpeted her work on Violence against Women and Girls. And of course any focus on this vital matter is welcome, but look below the surface and there’s obviously a problem: It’s still treated throughout government as a 'women’s issue'.

Today marks the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Given that one in three women worldwide will experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime; that, in some countries, violence against women is near-universal; and that the World Bank identifies gender-based violence as one of the biggest health risks facing women – more of a threat to their wellbeing than either cancer or car accidents; given all these issues - it’s clear - one day will never be enough.

The government have succeeded in raising the status of this vital issue, tackling the often collusive silence that surrounds the debate. This commitment must be applauded. But their approach is fundamentally flawed.

In June this year, Parliament’s cross-party International Development Committee highlighted DfID’s bias towards support services for the victims of violence rather than programmes aimed at tackling the underlying cultural beliefs and social structures thatperpetuate this savage trend. Of 117 interventions listed by DfID, just 16 were aimed at changing social norms.

Take a glance at the Department for International Development’s (DfID) list of projects aimed at tackling violence against women. Of the 69 projects listed, 'women' and 'girls'mfeature 81 times. 'Men' and 'boys'? Not once. Placing the burden for tackling violence solely on women’s shoulders is not only a route to more stress and risk, but (crucially) it won’t actually tackle the core cause. And in doing so, implicitly allows violence to continue.   

All too often, gender inequality, reproductive and sexual health, childcare, and violence against women and girls are defined (and dismissed) as women’s issues. Men are the primary perpetrators of violence, and committers of risky sexual and drug-taking behaviour – risks that are all-too-often passed onto their unknowing or powerless wives and girlfriends – but they’re habitually missing from the debate. Violence doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

Since the Tories have come to power, gender activists have become alarmed at a shift in the programmatic approach to supporting women – warning of short-termism and hollow-gesturing. As I wrote recently, the duplicitous nature of a government which promises violence against women and girls is "at the heart of everything they do", whilst devoting tokenistic pots of money to the cause is failing to effectively integrate gender inequality into wider development programmes.

It is crucial that we shift the focus onto prevention as well as 'cure': not only are the mental (and sometimes physical) scars of being a victim often 'incurable', but living with the fear of violence can be just as damaging, psychologically and physically, as actually experiencing it.

That is the challenge today, as it should be every other.

Gavin Shuker MP (@ShukerOffice) is the newly appointed shadow minister for international development, with specific responsibility for tackling violence against women and girls