Dorcas Erskine

Director of Policy, Advocacy and Programmes

Every year on 25 November, we come together to celebrate the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (IDEVAW). This important day for women’s rights activists often goes relatively unnoticed by the rest of the world. But in the midst of a huge international debate on sexual abuse and harassment, could this year’s be a chance for a real conversation on the causes of violence against women? Here’s why IDEVAW is important, and why we all need to do more to tackle this pervasive problem.

Activists in New Delhi celebrate the birth of baby girls to promote gender equality
Activists in New Delhi celebrate the birth of baby girls to promote gender equality

By any measure, this is not a normal year for violence against women. After multiple survivors came forward to share their stories of sexual abuse at the hands of powerful men, it feels like the floodgates have opened. Abusers in many countries and industries are facing a reckoning, some after repeatedly targeting women – and getting away with it – for decades.

Using multiple platforms (and more recently gathering under the hashtag #metoo), women everywhere are sharing their stories. That sharing has been powerful: showing other survivors that they’re not alone, empowering others to speak out, and often finally leading to consequences for serial abusers.

Now, we need to do more than speak up, and more than listen. As Tarana Burke, the woman who originally conceived of #metoo ten years ago said recently, the conversation needs to progress. We need to move to action. 

The global scale of violence against women

We know from our work all over the world that violence against women knows no nationality. It might manifest in different ways, or be exacerbated because of a woman’s ethnicity, gender identity or socioeconomic status, but it is ever-present.

We also know exactly why this pervasive harassment happens: deep-rooted gender inequality. Violence against women doesn’t happen in a void – it is the sharp end of a culture that sees women as worth less, and teaches men that they are entitled to women’s bodies. It’s a reflection of damaging gender norms that cut across cultures, religions, political ideologies, socioeconomic classes and age groups.

All forms of gender-based violence are used to reinforce women’s subordination by controlling their bodies, freedom and opportunities. And all share gender inequality as a root cause.

That means that this problem can’t be tackled just by locking up high-profile abusers like Harvey Weinstein. Only by targeting the gender inequality that permits them to continue their abuse will we truly bring down violence against women.

Tackling gender inequality across continents

The good news is that women all over the world are already working to end gender inequality in their communities. In Haiti, ActionAid helped train women leaders to lead the response to 2016’s devastating Hurricane Matthew – this helps get supplies distributed better, as women are often better placed to know where the need is. But it also helps show the community that women can be leaders, breaking down the gender norms that lead to inequality and violence.

Women distribute emergency food aid in Jeremie Commune, Haiti, after Hurricane Matthew

In India, an ActionAid partner organisation holds ‘Beti Utsav’ celebrations in their community to celebrate the birth of baby girls. These celebrations are common when boys are born but, as one community worker told us, ‘when a daughter is born, it’s not even considered important to share the news’. By celebrating the birth of baby girls, our partners in India underline that women are worth just as much as men, and that families should celebrate and value their daughters.

In the USA, activists have been protesting draconian laws attacking women’s reproductive rights by dressing up as ‘handmaids’ from the ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, a book and TV show about a misogynist dystopia in which women are property kept only for reproduction. The long-running attempts to control women’s bodies have always been a key way that the sexist culture holds women back and limits their freedoms. In the USA, as well as in countless other countries around the world, women are standing up and saying ‘Enough’.

This International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women

Women’s rights activists have long known that the way to bring down violence against women is to fight the pernicious, sexist beliefs that enable it in the first place. With sexual abuse so much in the news, we have a chance for a real global conversation about the deep-rooted systems that have enabled this culture of abuse for so long.

This IDEVAW, let’s make sure the opportunity doesn’t pass us by. Share this blog if you think it’s time to take on the causes of violence against women.