November 25 marks the start of the 16 Days of Activism to End Gender-Based Violence, which is a time for global action to increase awareness and galvanize advocacy on behalf of women, girls, and marginalized genders. To build a world free of gender-based violence it is no longer possible to only rely on the grassroots activists who dedicate their lives to doing this work, we must all play our part. Are you in?
The last few years have seen a global reckoning around gender-based violence: survivors around the world are speaking out about their experiences of violence and their inability to rely on the legal and political structures that are supposed to protect them.
It isn’t a coincidence that many systems and institutions are failing to protect women and girls – they were built that way. To end sexual violence, we must dismantle the systems that work against women and girls and allow impunity as well as entrenching inequality.
This past February, silence breakers were vindicated when Harvey Weinstein was found guilty of rape and sentenced at a court in New York State. But guilty verdicts alone won’t end the global rape epidemic. It’s more than individual perpetrators, it’s more than “one bad man”. We have to look beyond individuals and change the system.
Intersecting discrimination and the patriarchy
Patriarchal systems and structures are complex, and people’s experience of them are not uniform, with women and girls from marginalized communities facing overlapping forms of discrimination, leaving them vulnerable to abuse and exclusion on multiple faultlines of intolerance. However, regardless of geography or circumstance, patriarchal values have dictated the foundational laws and institutions that govern societies around the world, entrenching these barriers in the very fabric of society.
In India, the intersection of gender and the caste system leaves already marginalized women and girls at further risk of sexual violence and facing increased barriers to justice. High profile cases, including the Hathras case, have highlighted the urgent need to address caste-based sexual violence across the country. We’ve been working with Swabhiman Society on addressing the barriers to justice faced by Dalit women in Haryana State.
Tackling societal norms that perpetuate violence
Across the world, societal norms that consider women and girls as the property of their family see girls married to older men. When there are laws that allow child marriage, or when laws intended to protect girls aren’t implemented, girls who are married as children face increased risk of domestic violence. In addition to the physical danger this presents to women and girls, violence can also have lasting psychological implications on girls’ and women’s mental health. With COVID-19 predicted to increase rates of child marriage around the world, we’ve been working with partners from Georgia to Uganda to support survivors to advocate for change and ensure laws protect girls from child marriage.
Sexual violence and the media
Access to justice for survivors can be impeded when reporting is inaccurate, intrusive, and misrepresents the context of violence against women and girls. As well as impacting individual cases, irresponsible media coverage can have a cumulative effect on society’s perception of violence, changing the way communities perceive certain crimes and whether justice is possible. But by the same token, well-researched, and trauma-informed media coverage can have a positive impact, opening people’s minds and holding governments and justice systems to account. Documentaries, like On the Record and Athlete A, for example, can elevate the voices of survivors and shine a spotlight on ecosystems of complicity and systemic sexism that perpetuate sexual violence.
We work closely with filmmakers and journalists on gender-sensitive reporting, to support the media to do their part in ending violence against women and girls. For 16 Days of Activism, Equality Now is incredibly proud to partner with the Netflix documentary Athlete A. The film tells the story of the gymnasts who survived USA Gymnastics Doctor Larry Nasser’s serial sexual abuse and shines a spotlight on the complicity of individuals and institutions who granted him impunity for so long.
The world we want to live in
Governments have a responsibility to keep all people safe, including women and girls, and we hold them accountable when they don’t, calling them out publicly, bringing them for hearings before human rights commissions, and even taking them to court. But governments also need to help us all build the world we want to live in
In the world we want to live in every woman and girl knows her rights; survivors of violence are able to voice their concerns without fear of stigma or belief; justice systems work for women and girls, not against them; survivors are able to access support services that are centered around their needs and are empowered to move forward with agency.
The work ahead of us will take much more than 16 days, but we aren’t cowed. We are here, standing firm, and determined to end violence against women and girls.