Sexual violence against women and girls is a global problem that affects millions of lives every year. Despite the efforts of activists, governments, and international organizations, the issue remains pervasive and often ignored. Many experts agree that talking about the problem is not enough to end it. Instead, they call for more concrete actions, such as changing social norms, strengthening laws, and providing support to survivors.
The scale of the problem
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one in three women worldwide has experienced physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime. This means that more than one billion women and girls have suffered from this form of abuse, which can have devastating consequences for their health, well-being, and human rights.
Sexual violence can occur in different settings, such as homes, schools, workplaces, public spaces, and online. It can be perpetrated by intimate partners, family members, friends, acquaintances, strangers, or groups. It can take various forms, such as rape, sexual harassment, child sexual abuse, forced marriage, female genital mutilation, trafficking, and sexual exploitation.
Sexual violence is often fueled by gender inequality, discrimination, and harmful stereotypes that justify or normalize the behavior of perpetrators. It is also influenced by factors such as poverty, conflict, displacement, and cultural practices. Sexual violence can affect women and girls of all ages, backgrounds, and identities, but some groups are more vulnerable than others, such as refugees, migrants, indigenous women, women with disabilities, and LGBTIQ+ people.
The limitations of talking
In recent years, there has been a growing awareness and discussion about sexual violence against women and girls, thanks to the efforts of survivors, activists, and movements such as #MeToo, #TimesUp, and #NiUnaMenos. These initiatives have helped to break the silence and stigma around the issue, and to expose the extent and impact of the problem.
However, talking about sexual violence is not enough to end it. As the UN Secretary-General António Guterres said, “We cannot accept a world in which one half of humanity is at risk in the streets, in their homes or online. We must end violence against women and girls – now.”
Talking alone cannot change the deep-rooted social norms and attitudes that enable and condone sexual violence. It cannot prevent the occurrence of sexual violence or protect the victims from further harm. It cannot ensure that the perpetrators are held accountable and that the survivors receive justice and support. It cannot address the structural and systemic factors that contribute to the problem, such as poverty, conflict, displacement, and lack of education and opportunities.
The need for action
To end sexual violence against women and girls, talking must be accompanied by action. Action that involves multiple stakeholders, such as governments, civil society, media, private sector, and international organizations. Action that is based on evidence, human rights, and gender equality. Action that is comprehensive, coordinated, and sustainable.
Some of the actions that are needed to end sexual violence against women and girls are:
- Changing the social norms and attitudes that perpetuate sexual violence, such as toxic masculinity, victim-blaming, and rape culture. This can be done through education, awareness-raising, and advocacy campaigns that challenge the stereotypes and myths about sexual violence, and that promote positive and respectful relationships, consent, and equality.
- Strengthening the laws and policies that prevent and respond to sexual violence, and ensuring their effective implementation and enforcement. This can be done by adopting and harmonizing legal frameworks that criminalize all forms of sexual violence, and that protect the rights and dignity of survivors. It can also be done by enhancing the capacity and accountability of the justice and security sectors, and by providing adequate resources and training to the relevant authorities and professionals.
- Providing comprehensive and accessible support and services to the survivors of sexual violence, and ensuring their participation and empowerment. This can be done by establishing and strengthening the referral and coordination mechanisms that link the survivors to the health, legal, psychosocial, and economic services they need. It can also be done by creating and supporting safe and confidential spaces where the survivors can share their experiences, access information, and receive counseling and assistance.
- Addressing the root causes and risk factors that increase the vulnerability of women and girls to sexual violence, such as poverty, conflict, displacement, and lack of education and opportunities. This can be done by investing in the development and empowerment of women and girls, and by ensuring their access to education, health, employment, and decision-making. It can also be done by promoting peace and security, and by preventing and resolving conflicts and humanitarian crises.
The role of everyone
Ending sexual violence against women and girls is not only a moral and legal obligation, but also a social and economic necessity. Sexual violence not only harms the individual victims, but also their families, communities, and societies. It undermines the human rights, dignity, and potential of half of the world’s population. It hampers the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals and the vision of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
Ending sexual violence against women and girls requires the commitment and collaboration of everyone. Everyone has a role and a responsibility to prevent and respond to sexual violence, and to support the survivors. Everyone can be an agent of change and a part of the solution.
As the UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka said, “We need to move from outrage to action, and from action to impact. We need to end the culture of impunity for perpetrators, and the culture of silence for survivors. We need to make sexual violence history.”