Programming Essentials, Monitoring & Evaluation
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Promoting primary prevention

Last edited: October 31, 2010

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This section is based on the guidance in the Primary Prevention Module. (Guedes and Bott, 2009)

Primary prevention or stopping violence before it occurs is the most strategic approach to ending violence against women and girls, for the following reasons:

  • It upholds the human rights of women and girls and averts a serious public health, security and justice problem.
  • It is always preferable to prevent problems than to respond to them and their devastating costs and consequences.
  • Over the longer run, successful primary prevention efforts could improve the social, economic, and health status of women and the broader societal wellbeing around the world through:
    • improved quality of life;
    • improved health status for girls and women;
    • greater respect for and protection of human rights;
    • a reduction in related forms of violence (child abuse, youth violence); and,
    • cost benefits through lower need for medical care, mental health services, criminal  justice, incarceration and expensive perpetrator programmes, diminished educational performance and lost  productivity of women.

Prevention entails working at different levels of society to change institutions and implement targeted interventions with specific groups, and more generalized approaches for the population at large (e.g. campaigns, mass media messaging and other awareness-raising initiatives). Broad areas of intervention include:

  • Influencing government policy and legislation to explicitly address primary prevention;
  • Changing organizational practices to be more gender aware and put in place specific  and proactive policies of zero tolerance;
  • Fostering coalitions and networks;
  • Mobilizing communities, education and social marketing;
  • Changing individual knowledge and attitudes: reaching young people and engaging men and boys as allies; and
  • Empowering women socially and economically.

However, there is a limited evidence-base and expertise in how to design and implement effective primary prevention strategies in the area of ending violence against women, with some exceptions primarily from industrialized countries and in specific areas. Some experts recommend that universally-applied youth education and school-based programmes together with sustained national prevention campaigns reinforced through community mobilization interventions may provide a particularly promising strategy when combined. (Donovan and Vlais/VicHealth, 2005)

There are also responses that can have a preventive effect over the long-term, though they cannot be substituted for or be considered the same as direct primary prevention interventions.  These, include for example:

  • counseling for children who have experienced or been exposed to violence (which may prevent boys from becoming perpetrators and girls from becoming victims);
  • risk assessments for survivors (and children or other dependents); and
  • consistent prosecution of cases with successful convictions (which may deter perpetrators or would-be perpetrators from committing future abuse).

Prevention interventions should not be implemented without adequate responses in place for survivors, who may come forward as public attention increases and stigma around the issue is reduced.

  • Putting in place the infrastructure and institutions to address violence against women and girls, using the ecological model to achieve changes in individual, interpersonal, community and wider societal behaviours and practices. For example, legal reforms delaying the minimum age for marriage to 18 years and promoting the completion of girl’s secondary education that can reduce girls’ risks of forced and early marriage, and the related intimate partner violence that may be experienced by child brides.

  • Promoting gender equality through the expansion of women’s and girls’ economic opportunities, access to basic services, education, social and political participation, as well as breaking down gender stereotypes harmful to women and girls. Effective interventions have included community education on gender equality, human rights or violence against women, coupled with livelihood support for women, such as microfinance.

  • Changing the discriminatory attitudes, norms and practices that perpetuate violence against women and girls through multi-faceted educational and social mobilization approaches and targeted campaigns. Examples include school-based programmes for children and adolescents and ‘edutainment’ on gender equality and educational messages against violence shared through television, film and other popular forms of entertainment for young adults, and mobilization of peer networks; or campaigns specifically aimed at men’s behaviours and roles to end violence against women.

  • Developing programmes and interventions that are based in behavioural science and change theories for both school-based and community-based settings.

  • Targeting specific problems that are correlated with violence against women and girls. For example, in cases of alcohol abuse, interventions might regulate alcohol sales through increased prices or limited purchase times or develop targeted treatment programmes for individuals with substance abuse problems. Early intervention programmes for children who are witnesses of domestic abuse is another potential entry point to reduce the chances of perpetration or victimization later in life. (WHO, 2009)

  • Engaging key and strategic groups, in particular adolescents and men, in addition to key community, traditional, cultural and faith-based leaders.

  • Supporting the development of socially just and gender-equitable institutions.

  • Promoting Safe Cities and Communities to improving the security of women and girls in public spaces and in preventing rape and sexual harassment.

Campaigning is an important strategy for achieving various outcomes related to ending violence against women and girls, since it can support changes at the individual, interpersonal, community levels as well as within the broader society. Campaigns may be developed to achieve different goals related to preventing and responding to violence against women, targeting various audiences and using diverse methods to communicate the targeted message.  Social marketing strategies implemented over several years, in particular can strengthen the impact of messages and expand the audiences reached through a particular campaign. Broad areas for campaigns include: 

  • Raising public awareness of the issue and promoting ‘zero tolerance’ for   violence. 
  • Garnering policy-makers’ support for the introduction, reform and implementation of legislation.
  • Increasing knowledge among women and girls of their legal rights and recourse mechanisms, and making known the availability and location of services.

See the full module on Campaigns.

Illustrative Global Campaigns and Social Mobilization Initiatives:

UNiTE to End Violence against Women (United Nations Secretary-General) – Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish

Say NO – UNiTE (UNIFEM) – English, French, and Spanish

Stop Rape Now (UN Action against Sexual Violence in Conflict) - English

The 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence (Center for Women’s Global Leadership) – English

Stop Violence against Women [including Safe Schools] (Amnesty International) – Arabic, English, French and Spanish

The White Ribbon Campaign - English

End HIV and Violence against Women Now. (Women Won’t Wait) - English

Blue Heart Campaign Against Human Trafficking (UNODC)– EnglishSpanish, French, Portuguese, and Russian.

VDAY- English

Lessons Learned:

  • Primary prevention is most effective when diverse methods, such as community mobilization, mass media and awareness-raising, school-based approaches and policy changes are combined and employed at different levels of society.

  • Primary prevention efforts are more effective when they aim to both 1) transform individual and collective attitudes, beliefs and behaviours related to gender norms and roles in a given community and 2) implement local and national strategies to empower women and eliminate gender disparities. (Morrison, et al., 2004) Interventions that target change at the interpersonal, relational, community and societal levels or those that facilitate broader community mobilization against violence can have a powerful affect on individual behavior change. (Harvey, et al., 2007)

  • Primary prevention initiatives require long-term planning and investment.  It may only be realistic to expect changes in knowledge and attitudes within a short timeframe, but changes in behaviours can take at least 5 or more years.

  • Mass media and awareness-raising campaigns can increase their visibility and reach larger audiences by including popular figures (e.g. athletes, musicians, and television and film stars) and influential community leaders (e.g. religious groups and local leaders). However, it is important that those individuals share the gender equality and zero tolerance values being espoused, including as role models and through their own behavior.

  • Communications strategies against violence should be developed using formative research to ensure that messages and approaches resonate with the public or the specific population being targeted, otherwise interventions may not be effective.

  • Partnership with civil society and community-based organizations is key to successful community mobilization, and important to gaining legitimacy and community-wide support.

  • Including intimate partners in microfinance and domestic violence reduction schemes that target women may be an effective strategy in reducing any friction that arises from the programme.

  • Mobilization strategies at the community level can be effective in preventing violence against women if they emphasize the benefits of not using violence and are coordinated across all levels of society, including local government representatives, community leaders, non-governmental organizations and women’s groups. (UN General Assembly, 2006; AusAID. 2008)

Resources for Prevention:


What Works to Prevent Partner Violence: An Evidence Overview (Lori Heise, 2011).  Available in English.

Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Prevention Course (Violence and Injury Prevention and Disability/ World Health Organization). Available in English.

Violence Prevention: The Evidence Overview (World Health Organization, 2009).  Available in English.

Primary Prevention of Intimate-partner Violence and Sexual Violence: Background Paper for WHO Expert Meeting (World Health Organization, 2007).  Available in English.

Preventing Violence Before it Occurs: A Framework and Background Paper to Guide the Primary Prevention of Violence against Women in Victoria (VicHealth, 2007).  Available in English.

Guidelines for the Primary Prevention of Sexual Violence & Intimate Partner Violence (Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence ActionAlliance.)  Available in English.

Violence Prevention Alliance. Website. Available in English.

Violence Prevention Website. Available in English.

Prevention Connection Website. Available in English.

Prevention Institute Website. Available in English.

Women’s Safety Audits: What Works and where? (Women in Cities International and UN-HABITAT, 2008).  Available in English.

Global Assessment on Women's Safety (Women in Cities International and Red Mujer de America Latina and Huairou Commission, 2008). Available in English.


Campaigns and Social Mobilization

VicHealth Review of Communication Components of Social Marketing/Public Education Campaigns Focusing on Violence Against Women (Donovan and Vlais/RJD Consulting for ViCHealth, 2005).  Available in English.

Making a Difference: Strategic Communications to End Violence Against Women (UNIFEM, 2003).  Available in English and Russian.

How to Mobilize Communities for Health and Social Change (Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Center for Communication Programs, 2003).  Available in English.

GBV Prevention Network Communications Materials (Gender-based Violence Prevention Network).  Materials available in a number of languages.

Health Communications Materials Database (Media Materials Clearinghouse). Materials available in a number of languages.

The Communications X-Change (Futures Without Violence).  Materials available in a number of languages.

Gateway to Health Communication & Social Marketing Practice (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).  Available in English.