One in Three is Too Many: Taking action on violence against women

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This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future.

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On 23 October 2020, Melissa, a 42-year old mother of three, was beaten to death by her husband in their home on the island of Maupiti in Polynesia. On October 29, 26-year-old Maëlys from Angers, France was strangled by her husband in front of their children aged 4 and 7. On 10 November in Tegernsee, Germany 25-year old Cristina was held hostage and killed with a knife by her partner; their 2-year old child was present. Police arrived too late to help her but shot dead the offender. Neighbours said that they had been fighting often.

This gruesome list of crimes represents just a fraction of the violence against women that is committed on a daily basis around the world. These are not crimes of passion or simply marital disputes. Violence against women is one of the most widespread, persistent and devastating human rights violations in the world. Women encounter violence wherever they go — at home, in public, at work and online. The numbers are staggering: more than one in three women worldwide report having experienced physical or sexual violence in their lifetime — and this is likely a low estimate. And according to UN Women data, 1 in 2 women killed worldwide were killed by their partners or family in 2017; while only 1 out of 20 men were killed under similar circumstances.

We must change the socio-cultural environment. Any discussion of addressing and ending violence against women must therefore start with the fundamental question of what leads men to harm women and how to stop it.

This kind of violence is rarely an isolated incident and usually part of a pattern of ongoing abuse. Far too many women wake up every day with physical and mental scars caused by the people they trusted most — their boyfriends, husbands and partners. The COVID-19 crisis has made things worse: confinement means that millions of women are trapped at home with their abusers, unable to reach out for help and with nowhere to go.

Countries around the world are taking action: 21 of the 37 governments who adhere to the OECD Gender Recommendations list violence against women as one of the three most urgent gender equality issues in their countries. Many are updating legislation, abolishing discriminatory laws and implementing strategies to prevent and address violence. Yet, only 133 of the 180 countries covered by the OECD’s Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI) criminalise domestic violence, and just 110 treat sexual harassment as a criminal offense.

Clearly, more needs to be done. Following the OECD’s inaugural conference on ending intimate partner violence in February 2020, OECD Ambassadors have launched a Call to Action asking the OECD to focus on 5 challenges which need to be addressed to design effective policies.

First, we need to better understand both the magnitude and root causes of this type of violence by collecting data more accurately and more regularly. We can’t address what we don’t know. The lack of reliable information is partly due to inadequate public resources for data collection; but it also reflects a hidden dimension of shame and fear, as well as societal reluctance to identify and condemn perpetrators and abuse.

Second, we need more systematic, whole-of-government action — with comprehensive legal frameworks and society-wide strategies — to prevent, protect and prosecute against intimate partner violence. This includes setting minimum standards for services and clearly outlining roles and responsibilities in order to achieve buy-in across the government.

Third, we must ensure easy and co-ordinated access to services for survivors of violence, such as medical care, childcare, education, housing, social protection and legal assistance. Survivors themselves often face compounding disadvantage based on race, income, sexual orientation and so on, and public service delivery needs to take account of this. It is unacceptable to ask survivors to tell their stories of abuse over and over again to different agencies and case workers.

Fourth, we need to make sure that no barriers prevent survivors from getting the justice they deserve. We must create survivor-centred justice pathways and integrate them with other services. In parallel, criminalisation of multiple forms of violence — including clear, substantial sanctions for perpetrators — and ensuring adequate crime definitions are also essential.

Finally, and perhaps hardest, we must change the socio-cultural environment. Any discussion of addressing and ending violence against women must therefore start with the fundamental question of what leads men to harm women — and how to stop it. Countries run many different programmes seeking to prevent further violence by working with perpetrators, yet few evaluations of such interventions exist. Understanding what types of programme are effective is indispensable to increase chances that offenders don’t start abuse again once they have completed prison time.

We at the OECD look forward to working with every stakeholder — including governments, public authorities, non-governmental organisations, social partners and, most importantly, survivors — to find lasting and effective solutions to the global challenge of ending violence against women.

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Tackling COVID-19 Gender Equality

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Monika Queisser

Head of Social Policy Division, OECD

Monika Queisser is Senior Counsellor to the Director of Employment, Labour and Social Affairs Directorate and the Head of Social Policy Division at the OECD, where she supervises and coordinates the work on social protection, social indicators, pensions, affordable housing, family and LGBTI policies. She has been working at the OECD since 1997. In 2007-8, she worked as an adviser to the OECD Secretary-General. Prior to joining the OECD, Ms. Queisser worked at the World Bank in Washington, D.C. She was a member of the pensions and insurance group in the Financial Sector Development Department. Her first employment was with the German Ifo Institute for economic research in Munich. Her professional experience also includes employment as a journalist at daily newspapers and broadcasting in Germany.

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