Violence against women and girls (VAWG) | ActionAid UK

Violence against women and girls (VAWG)

Violence against women and girls (VAWG) is one of the most widespread human rights abuses, affecting on average one in three women and girls worldwide.

Gender inequality is the fundamental root cause of all forms of gender-based violence, including domestic violence, sexual harassment, rape in conflict or harmful practices including FGM. It happens everywhere, and it is exacerbated by other aspects of women’s identity, based on class, caste, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, disability or migrant status.  

Women’s rights organisations are at the forefront of the struggle to realise women’s rights to a life free from violence. ActionAid works alongside women’s rights organisations, providing funding, training and support. We help set up initiatives including women’s watch groups and girls’ clubs, where women and girls learn together about their rights and how to claim them. 

We campaign to ensure governments, donors and the international community show leadership in combatting violence against women and girls, prioritise women’s rights organisations as leaders in this struggle, and ensure that financing is available so that commitments to eradicate these practices can be fulfilled. 

of women experience violence in their lifetimes worldwide2

women were killed in 2012 alone by family members or intimate partners3

girls worldwide have been married before the age of 18, many against their will4

  • 2. World Health Organisation, Violence against women, intimate partner and sexual violence against women:
  • 3. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Global Study on Homicide:
  • 4. Prevention of violence against women and girls: what does the evidence say?, The Lancet: ↩

How economic inequality makes women more vulnerable to violence

On virtually every measure, women are economically worse off than men.5 Research by ActionAid has shown that the gender pay gap between men and women’s earnings and ability to participate in paid work amounts to US $17 million every year.6 

Economic inequality increases women’s risk of being subjected to violence, by undermining their voice and bargaining power at home, work and in wider society, making it harder to leave abusive partners or work situations. Women who are poor, young, migrant, indigenous, from an ethnic minority, as well as domestic workers, sex workers and those who have been trafficked are particularly at risk.

Domestic violence is the most prevalent form of abuse suffered by women.

  • 5. ActionAid UK ‘Close the gap! The cost of inequality in women’s work’:
  • 6. ActionAid UK ‘Close the gap! The cost of inequality in women’s work’:

Gender-based violence at work

Reported abuses faced by women at work range from sexual, physical and psychological harrassment, bullying by managers and supervisors, body searches, beatings, forced pregnancy tests, dismissal of pregnant women and violations of sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Appalling neglect of workplace safety standards, along with pressure to work long hours in toxic conditions, cause physical and psychological harm, injury and even death to many women. A stark example was the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2013, in which over 1,100 women lost their lives. 

Women workers courageously seek ways to come together to challenge work-based violence and exploitation. However, they are frequently met with threats and further violence by employers.

Schoolgirls at risk of gender-based violence 

Education is a crucial route out of poverty for future generations. But the World Health Organisation estimates that 150 million girls are sexually assaulted every year, with many of these attacks occurring on the way to school or at school.1 

Violence against schoolgirls is part of gender discrimination in communities and wider society. Challenging prejudice in communities is central to stopping violence within schools, as is creating safe spaces like girls’ clubs within schools. Here, girls can discuss their needs and take concrete action to raise awareness of girls’ rights to education and to challenge violence.

  • 1. WHO ‘Global estimates of health consequences due to violence against children’

Violence and girls’ sexual and reproductive health and rights

Domestic violence is more prevelant and more severe amongst girls who marry as children, than amongst women who choose to marry.1  Girls in many contexts are often married off to the perpetrators of rape or sexual assault. It is a violation of women’s and girls’ sexual health and reproductive rights, and perpetuates other forms of violence including denial of education and reproductive health access

Girls are usually physically and emotionally unprepared for sexual activity, pregnancy and childbirth. Globally, 16 million girls aged between 15 and 19, and 1 million girls under the age of 15, give birth each year.2 70,000 girls die during pregnancy and childbirth. This makes complications during pregnancy and childbirth the second highest cause of death for girls aged 15-19 worldwide.3 

Reducing child marriage and the adolescent birth rate is necessary to not only improve the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and girls, but also to reduce domestic violence and other forms of violence against women. 

  • 1. Spencer, D. (2015). “TO PROTECT HER HONOUR” Child marriage in emergencies – the fatal confusion between protecting girls and sexual violence. 1st ed. [ebook] London: CARE. Available at: [Accessed 4 Jun. 2017].
  • 2. World Health Organisation (n.d.). Adolescent pregnancy. [online] World Health Organization. Available at: factsheets/fs364/en/ [Accessed 4 Jun. 2017].
  • 3. World Health Organisation (n.d.). Adolescent pregnancy. [online] World Health Organization. Available at: factsheets/fs364/en/ [Accessed 4 Jun. 2017].

Global threats to progress made on violence against women and girls

Political momentum has led to improvements in laws and national commitments. The 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was a step in the right direction. Since then, there have been numerous initiatives aimed at combatting violence against women, notably the 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action. In 2014, 76 out of 100 countries surveyed had laws on domestic violence, whereas only 13 out of 100 did in 1995.1 But hard-won women’s rights are at risk. 

Increasingly states are closing down spaces which civil society, including women’s rights organisations, need to be effective. The quashing of unions, detention of activists, restrictive legislation, blocking of internet access and the use of militarised police against peaceful protestors are regularly deployed by governments.2 According to Freedom House, 2014 was the ninth consecutive year of an overall decline in levels of democracy worldwide.3

In addition, rising political and religious fundamentalisms are also undermining efforts to eradicate violence against women. Religious fundamentalisms can apply to many different religions, and they typically entail the reinforcement of rigid traditional gender roles that place severe controls over women and their bodies.4

Another threat is posed by the austerity measures imposed in many countries following the financial crash of 2008. Women’s social and economic inequalities have worsened, putting them at increased risk of violence. Cuts in services have left many women struggling to access support at the time they need it most.5 

Women’s rights organisations leading the way 

But women across the globe are organising and resisting. Many are putting their lives on the line to tackle gender inequality. 

Women’s rights organisations are at the forefront of the struggle to end violence against women, and they hold the key to achieving transformational change. Because their work is strategic, lasting and cost effective, it has successfully transformed the lives of many of the most marginalised women and girls. 

  • 1. ‘Women, business and the law 2014 — removing restrictions to enhance gender equality’
  • 2. CIVICUS ‘State of civil society report 2014’:
  • 3. Freedom House, ‘Freedom in the world 2015’:
  • 4. AWID, ‘Key learnings from feminists on the front line: summaries of case studies on resisting and challenging fundamentalisms’
  • 5. True, J. ‘The political economy of violence against women’:

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