Q&A with expert on preventing violence against women and girls, as Expert Group Meeting takes place in Bangkok

Date: Sunday, September 16, 2012

Photo credit: Jane Sweeney

Experts on preventing violence against women and girls are meeting this week in Bangkok to examine promising practices on prevention and present recommendations to the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). CSW is the principal global policy-making body on gender equality and the advancement of women. During its next session in March 2013, UN Member States will share experiences and adopt resolutions aimed at eliminating and preventing all forms of violence against women and girls.

The Expert Group Meeting in Bangkok, will present its recommendations to the CSW for their consideration. Lara Fergus, an independent consultant experienced in prevention policymaking will be leading the discussions at the Expert Group Meeting. She talked to UN Women about why it is important to invest in prevention to eradicate violence.

When we talk about preventing violence against women and girls, what are we specifically talking about?

Prevention is about identifying and addressing underlying causes of a problem, rather than focusing solely on its results or impacts. So in terms of violence against women and girls, prevention means looking at things like attitudes, behaviours, practices and ‘social norms' that have been shown to contribute to violence, and working out strategies to change these.

This is not as simple as it sounds, as the factors contributing to violence against women and girls are many, and they exist at different levels of society - e.g. individual attitudes, community expectations and - importantly - broader gender discrimination or inequality. But just as Governments have employed multi-pronged and sustained strategies to successfully reduce other complex harmful behaviours - such as smoking or drink driving - so too can we prevent violence against women and girls.

Why is prevention such an important aspect of addressing violence against women and girls?

While it's extremely important to continue investing in an effective response to existing violence against women and girls - such as through improving service, police and justice systems - we now know that focusing on response alone will never reduce the number of new incidences of violence.

Prevention is not only possible, it's essential. In addition to being a human rights obligation on states, violence against women and girls carries huge social, economic and health costs and drains public budgets, and it is only by addressing the underlying causes of violence that these costs will be reduced. Prevention also has the potential to create numerous benefits for communities beyond reductions in violence, because it addresses the discrimination, inequality and other violence-supportive practices and behaviours that contribute to a range of social ills. Prevention is ultimately about creating relationships, communities and organizations that are equal, non-violent and respectful of all individuals - and where women and girls live free from the discrimination, harassment or violence that can block them from reaching their full human potential.

What is the current situation in the field of prevention?

In recent years we've seen a growth in primary research, evaluation and programming activity on prevention, and consequently a growing evidence and practice base for what works - at least at the intervention level. We've also seen increasing calls from intergovernmental fora for more comprehensive, coordinated and sustained approaches to prevention to be implemented, based on the human rights obligations in existing treaties such as CEDAW, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Beijing Platform for Action.

However, current work on prevention - at both global and national levels - remains piecemeal and largely ad hoc. A lot of work is driven by civil society organizations, especially those working with women and girls, often with limited resources and reach, which makes sustainability and upscaling difficult. While significant research projects have been undertaken, these are generally - with one or two notable exceptions - unattached to programming support or policy development. And very few governments worldwide have invested in the holistic, multi-sectoral and sustained overarching strategies for prevention that are not only an obligation of human rights treaties, but essential if prevention activity is to be effective in the longer-term.

In your view, what are effective prevention strategies?

Effective prevention strategies are - as the Beijing Platform for action says - ‘holistic and multidisciplinary.' Because the factors contributing to violence against women and girls exist at different levels - individual, relationship, community, organizational and societal - interventions and programmes need to similarly work at multiple levels. They also need to target people across the different settings where they interact, such as schools, workplaces, health and social services, sporting clubs, faith institutions and local communities.

No single intervention or programme is enough to prevent so deeply entrenched a problem as violence against women and girls. One-off or single-sector interventions - such as a social marketing campaign, or a schools-based programme -, while they may have some effectiveness for participating individuals, are unable to change social norms at the community or society level and decrease prevalence of violence against women and girls across society as a whole.

A range of interventions, developed and implemented in a coordinated way across levels and settings, is needed to effectively prevent violence against women and girls. Such strategies need to be supported by policy and legislative reform, and institutional machinery, that promotes gender equality, challenges discrimination, and provides an effective response to existing violence.

What do you hope to be the outcome from this Expert Group Meeting (EGM)?

To advance the agenda for prevention globally, we need not only greater commitment and investment,particularly from states, but better coordination of research, policy and programming - at global, regional and national levels - towards a shared agenda. This will be one of the first international meetings on prevention of violence against women and girls to bring together such a range of people from different disciplines and types of work. We have researchers, policy makers, advocates, programmers and practitioners from every region, and each and every one brings substantial experience and knowledge of ‘how to do prevention'.

The challenge - and value - of the EGM is that everyone will be coming at the issue from slightly different perspectives! So what I hope the EGM gives us is the space to learn from each other, debate the difficult issues, and come to shared agreements and recommendations for the way forward that can be taken to CSW. We have all the ingredients - research findings, practice learnings, example policies, and a group of extraordinary individuals. All we need to do is make the cake.

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