Good Practices and Remaining Gaps in the Prevention of Violence against Women


Speech delivered by UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet on Human Rights Council Annual Day, at a panel discussion on “Good Practices and Remaining Gaps in the Prevention of Violence against Women, Geneva, 10 June 2011.

[Check against delivery.]

Distinguished Delegates, Colleagues and Friends,

It is my pleasure to join you today. Let me thank the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights for convening this dialogue.

We are particularly grateful that the focus of this discussion is on prevention. The best way to put an end to this universal human rights violation is to stop it happening in the first place. A focus on primary prevention enables us to reinforce the critical — and somewhat revolutionary — notion that violence against women is not inevitable; it can be systematically addressed, reduced and, with persistence, eliminated. Violence, like gender discrimination, is culturally conditioned, and therefore can be changed, with the right mix of policy tools, programmes and educational approaches.

At UN Women, promoting primary prevention is a priority strategic direction. Gender-based violence has tremendous consequences for women's and girl's lives and for the health and wellbeing of families and communities. It is a deterrent to gender equality and women's empowerment and undermines efforts to deliver gender justice. It serves as a control mechanism over women's freedoms, bodies and choices. And, in turn, the global pandemic of violence against women also translates into major economic and productivity costs, to billions of dollars drained from public budgets, and to erosion of efforts to further poverty reduction and development — costs which can all be averted through primary prevention.

What do we understand by primary prevention? We approach this at two levels: on the one hand, overall investments in women's empowerment is an important long-term path to prevention; on the other, there are also more practical and focused approaches specific to prevention of gender-based violence.

Unfortunately, there is no one-time intervention to end violence against women; it is a long-term project that involves transforming gender relations. But there are key strategic investments in women's empowerment that can also serve as “protective and preventive factors against violence. These include: ensuring that girls complete secondary education; delaying age of marriage; furthering women's reproductive health and rights; ensuring women's economic autonomy and security; and increasing women's participation in decision-making positions and political power, in order to influence policies and institutional practices that perpetuate impunity and tolerance for violence against women.

At the same time, experts agree that there are an increasing number of practical steps to promote the prevention of violence against women. Primary prevention includes universal strategies that can reach large population groups — for instance, school-based life skills training for all children.

It is also important to take into account strategies for groups considered to be at higher risk for violence, such as programmes targeting children from households with domestic violence. WHO has documented that early childhood intervention is effective. Other promising approaches include revising school curricula to eliminate gender discriminatory content, ensuring safety for girls in and around schools, and introducing codes of conduct against sexual harassment.

To stop the intergenerational transmission of violence against women, we must support expanded efforts to work with young people of both sexes to address gender equality and violence prevention, sustain social mobilization campaigns, and build commitment and capacity in the mass media to change the way that they portray women and report on issues of gender-based violence. Community mobilization that engages young people, men and shapers of customary values and public opinion, is particularly important. Real change will have to take place at local levels, where violence occurs, where community norms govern gender relations.

Nonetheless, even though primary prevention is a most strategic and cost-effective investment in the long run, it is still largely underdeveloped and underfunded in many countries. Programmes are often of limited scope and duration. Few countries have critical masses of expertise in key areas such as communications for social and behavioural change adapted to the field of violence against women. Primary prevention is a new frontier in the field of violence against women.

We have room for optimism. Our analysis at UN Women is showing the emergence of a positive shift towards focusing on prevention. Leading community-based programmes are showing promise for reducing violence levels — such as the well-known Stepping Stones, Raising Voices, SASA! and IMAGES initiatives originating in Africa; programmes working with young men, such as Program H in Brazil; and the use of soap operas and mass media showing the harmful effects of violence against women.

We have been privileged to support and learn from many of these programmes through the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women. The Uganda-based organization Raising Voices, or SASA!, is now working in 10 African countries. SASA! emphasizes prevention by focusing on the benefits of non-violence and gender equity to both men and women. It also supports a deeper analysis of the impact of violence and the underlying causes of gender inequality, showing how violence not only hurts women, but also reduces trust and respect among family members. And the programme stresses that violence does not arise out of anger, but because of an imbalance of power between men and women.

Another cutting-edge initiative using savvy communications, social media and community education that we have supported through the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women, almost since its inception, is the Ring the Bell campaign in India. This programme, run by an NGO, Breakthrough, has spurred social mobilization against domestic violence through a 360-degree media campaign to “bring domestic violence to a halt. Harnessing the power of technology, and the support of private sector advertising agencies, Bell Bajao reaches Indians living in both the cities and the most remote, rural areas. To date over 124 million people have been reached by this campaign.

The numbers of examples of primary prevention initiatives from every region of the world are growing. The numbers of men's groups, of advertising companies, of religious leaders and local council members that have joined in are growing as well. In addition to hosting the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women, UN Women also supports the Secretary-General's UNiTE Campaign to End Violence against Women and Girls through its Say NO! social mobilization platform, on which governments, organizations and individuals from around the world have posted more than 2 million actions that they are taking to end violence.

UN Women is a founding member of the 13-agency UN Action against Sexual Violence in Conflict, and hosts the Virtual Knowledge Centre to End Violence against Women and Girls. We are acutely aware that many positive shifts are occurring, whether through greater numbers of male leaders involved in the effort to end violence against women, or many more countries with legislation to protect women from gender-based violence or prosecute those who inflict it.

But, in comparison to the scope of the problem of violence against women and all of its manifestations — from intimate partner violence to trafficking and sexual violence in conflict — these numbers are far too low. We have yet to see the resolve and resources required to make the needed impact in reducing the vulnerability of women and girls to these multiple forms of violence. As just one indicator, the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women — which UN Women manages on behalf of the UN system — received more than US$1 billion of requests for its 2010 call for proposals, and has less than US$30 million to make in grants. Numbers like these tell us that the demand for support from women's rights advocates to put a stop to this egregious human rights violation has far outpaced the resolve of the development assistance community to respond. This is a gap that we have to close.

I appreciate the commitment of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to organize these important dialogues and look forward to working with national and UN partners, with men and women alike, to prevent violence against women and girls.