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Main challenges

Advances in law and policy are limited by a number of critical challenges that perpetuate gaps in implementation, upscaling and accountability, and prevent effective programmatic responses.

  • Gender inequality
  • Impunity
  • Inadequate human, technical and financial investments
  • Weak coordination and monitoring mechanisms
  • Insufficient data and research
  • Limited attention to neglected groups and issues
  • Dearth of evaluations and evidence base to guide programmes
  • Limited scope and coverage of services and interventions
  • Low demand for services by survivors
  • Fragmentation of efforts to prevent and respond to violence

Gender inequality

The historical and multiple forms of inequality that persist between women and men across all societies enable violence against women and girls to continue in both public and private settings. This discrimination and the barriers preventing women and girls from exercising their rights, accessing services and other opportunities, greatly increase their risks of experiencing violence.  Socially-accepted gender norms and values about what constitute acceptable behavior and interpersonal relationships are instilled since childhood. For example, in simplified terms, in many societies girls are raised to be more submissive and to defer to male authority, while boys are taught to be more controlling, dominant and aggressive – also reflecting traditional gender roles of what is expected of them later in life in terms of becoming a woman (wife and mother) and what it means to be a man (a virile provider and protector).

How men and women are socialized and the definitions and understandings of womanhood and manhood establish their positions of relative power and control at home and in society. These same norms governing gender power relations influence how violence against women and girls is viewed and tolerated in different contexts. These norms, gender biases and discriminatory attitudes also often permeate the various sectors within government, whose public officials are likely to hold many of the same views as those in the society within which they live. Addressing gender inequality is critical across sectors responsible for delivering justice, social, health and security services to survivors and to those responsible for the education of boys and girls.

One of the greatest challenges in ending violence against women and girls lies in unraveling how harmful gender attitudes and roles are deeply ingrained across the fabric of societies, and fostering values of mutual respect and equality.

Impunity

The lack of state accountability in comprehensively addressing violence against women and girls is a significant obstacle to ending the problem. Generalized acceptance of violence against women, lack of political will, inadequate legal protections and enforcement, insufficient resource allocation and/or poor implementation of national commitments contribute to pervasive impunity. This is particularly evident in countries and communities with weak justice systems and where customary law practices and more widely-used informal justice mechanisms may contradict international human rights standards. In such contexts, access to formal justice for women and girl survivors of violence may be hindered by obstacles such as gender bias and discriminatory attitudes, social stigma and financial constraints (linked to women’s lower socio-economic status). Ending impunity requires adequate prosecution and punishment of perpetrators; equal protection for women under the law and equal access to justice (that holds up to public scrutiny); and the elimination of attitudes that foster, justify or tolerate violence against women. (AusAID, 2008; UN General Assembly, 2006)

Inadequate human, technical and financial investments

While an increasing number of countries have adopted laws and policies, they are rarely accompanied by adequate budget allocations, nor the requisite institutional, staffing, infrastructural improvements and other supports that may be needed at the national and sub-national levels to implement them. Skills and knowledge on preventing and responding to violence against women and girls, including in evidence-based programming, is often limited, particularly in resource-scarce settings. This is also compounded where high staff turnover poses additional challenges in retaining a skilled and experienced cadre of individuals. Long-term and sustained resource investments, including for strengthening expertise and building ‘critical masses’ of expertise in key areas and sectors, and improvements to remove service delivery bottlenecks are critical across sectors, in order for governments to deliver on their commitments to ending violence against women and girls.

Weak coordination and monitoring mechanisms at the national level

Addressing violence against women and girls requires a multisectoral approach, involving at a minimum the health, education, social, legal and security sectors, and strategically, other key sectors such as labour, migration and urban planning, among others. Unlike stand-alone sectors, there is no ‘natural’ government entity to take charge of coordination for ending violence against women. In many cases it is the Ministry of Women’s Affairs or its equivalent, which are often under-resourcedand lacking the institutional and political influence within government. Other mechanisms and processes, such as sector-wide approaches (SWAps) and decentralization may pose additional challenges to coordinating and monitoring the implementation of policies and programmes, where addressing violence against women may not be seen as a priority. Formal channels of communication and information-sharing between and among government and non-governmental entities working on this issue are also needed for coordinated, effective responses.

Insufficient data and research

Though an area receiving increased attention and investments, statistical data on the scale, nature and consequences of violence against women and girls remains limited. Quantitative surveys have been conducted in roughly 100 countries, though there is wide variation in methods, in the size of the population surveyed, and in the type of information that is collected. Surveys usually do not capture all forms of violence, nor reflect variations among different groups of women within a given country or other disaggregated information that is useful for planning. Population-based surveys (of which there are fewer) are the most reliable sources of data, but are costly to implement and require technical expertise. Without regular implementation of such surveys (every five to ten years), progress on reducing the prevalence and incidence of violence cannot be monitored over time. High impact advocacy messages that are not backed by hard data also hinder ongoing efforts to ensure policy commitments and investments.

Limited attention to neglected groups and issues

Insufficient attention has been paid to certain forms of violence, to certain groups of women or to particular contexts, and their costs and consequences. This is due in part to the absence of data and analyses that can help develop understanding of how violence differs for different parts of the population in different situations. These will vary by country and region, but include:

  • Femicide
  • Violence against marginalized or excluded groups, such as indigenous women, domestic workers, women in detention and migrant workers (UN General Assembly, 2006)
  • Sexual violence and rape within marriage and as experienced by adolescent girls and young women in all contexts
  • The intersections between violence against women and HIV and AIDS
  • Violence and sexual harassment in public spaces such as public transport, marketplaces, cities, schools, farm fields and other common locales
  • Political violence directed at women during elections, vying for public office or in high-level decision-making positions
  • Violence  in conflict, post-conflict and emergency settings
  • Primary prevention (efforts to stop violence before it occurs by working with strategic groups such as men, adolescents or children who have witnessed abuse).

These issues and contexts are often missing, neglected or low-profile in advocacy, policy and programming. Consequently, identification and development of effective programme strategies and approaches has been hindered or slow.

Dearth of evaluations and evidence to guide programmes

Related to the neglect and underfunding for many years in addressing violence against women, the field is characterized by few evaluations and therefore by a dearth of knowledge on proven approaches that can guide policies and programmes. While a great deal of know-how has been accumulated, from an evidence-based approach, it is challenging to identify promising or good practices and effective strategies for prevention and response in the absence of a more robust body of evaluation findings. To date, initiatives have rarely included adequate resources for conducting baseline assessments, or putting in place appropriate monitoring and evaluation frameworks and activities. This makes it impossible to determine the correlation between the programme interventions and the changes observed.

Where evaluations and assessments have been conducted, they often vary greatly in methodology and rigour, scale and scope (e.g. focused on only one sub-group of women or men, or in one location), making it difficult to draw conclusions that are transferrable for adaptation to other socially and regionally diverse settings. These factors limit broader understanding of successful approaches and the actual impact of programmes, and prevent the identification of practices that could be upscaled or adapted for implementation in different country contexts.

To learn more about conducting monitoring and evaluation, see the Monitoring and Evaluation Section.

To learn more about the evidence available to date, see the specific programming modules on the Virtual Knowledge Centre home page.

Limited scope and coverage of services and interventions

In most countries, especially considering the magnitude of the numbers affected, services for survivors are very limited in scope and reach. This is linked to the low priority and insufficient investments made in addressing the problem. Where services do exist, they are often concentrated in urban centres or larger cities, and are unlikely to be comprehensive, perhaps focused in one or a few sectors and lacking the coordination and referral capacities required. Many services to date (especially safe houses/shelters, legal aid and other supports) are provided by non-governmental and women’s organizations, who are lacking resources and are only able to reach small numbers of the population. In addition, existing approaches may not reach especially vulnerable and at-risk groups such as adolescent girls, migrant, indigenous or other groups of women in the population for which mainstream outreach efforts will be inadequate. Also limited is the existence of effective primary prevention programmes, resulting from underinvestment in this area and the fact that most interventions have focused on supporting survivors after abuse has already occurred.

Low demand for services by survivors

There are many reasons why women and girls may not seek services, some personal and some a result of the systematic discrimination that they face from the institutions and communities that surround them. Some of these factors include:

  • The fear of stigma and judgment they may face from service providers, community members and their families and friends;
  • The negative attitudes and poor quality of care provided by service providers (in particular, those that are the first point of contact - health and police);
  • Limited knowledge of their legal rights, the resources and services available to them, and the existence of other recourse mechanisms;
  • Inability to access services for lack of transportation, time or money;
  • Restricted mobility;
  • Restricted decision-making within the household;
  • The fear of retribution by an abusive partner (especially where police capacity is low and orders of protection are not closely monitored);
  • Financial dependence on the husband, partner or family together with non-existent income opportunities or alternatives;
  • Intimidation and hesitation to engage with a complex legal system and processes that are not gender-sensitive and may re-victimize them; and,
  • The fear of losing custody of children.

Fragmentation of efforts

Without a strong national multisectoral plan, coordinating body and formal mechanisms of collaboration and information-sharing, most interventions are planned and implemented in isolation from one another. As a result, there are severe gaps in the overall approach to ending violence against women and girls, including incomplete and unevenly distributed services; ad-hoc prevention efforts that are independent from response efforts; and law and policy that is disconnected from the realities on the ground. Fragmented efforts at the local level mean survivors may not have access to comprehensive services and may be required to travel long distances and to multiple locations to receive them, requiring them to repeat their story time and again and putting the burden of coordinating and tracking their medical, police and legal files on their own shoulders. Fragmented efforts also mean that administrative data is not likely systematized, affecting the ability to have accurate, consistent records that shed light on the nature and scale of the problem; on which responses are working and which need reworking; and makes it difficult to integrate findings into larger multi-stakeholder policy and programming frameworks.