U.S. Puts Gender-Based Violence Front and Center

Stephen Goldstein

CCP | Senior Consultant

Almost 13 years ago, we published a Population Reports issue, Ending Violence Against Women, in which we stated that around the world at least one woman in every three has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime.

The report published by the Population Information Program, a predecessor project to the Knowledge for Health project, in collaboration with The Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE), gained widespread publicity and helped focus attention on the issue of gender-based violence.

Gender Based Violence T-shirt Display

During a conference on Gender Based Violence and Health, a t-shirt display in a public area bears witness to violence against women. A clothesline is pegged with t-shirts, and each shirt has a written message to represent a particular woman's experience, by the survivor herself or by someone who cares about her.

© 2003 Henrica Jansen, Courtesy of Photoshare.

“Many cultures have beliefs, norms, and social institutions that legitimize and therefore perpetuate violence against women,” wrote the authors Lori Heise, Mary Ellsberg, and Megan Gottemoeller, adding: “The same acts that would be punished if directed at an employer, a neighbor, or an acquaintance often go unchallenged when men direct them at women, especially within the family.”

While there has been some recognition of the problem and ongoing U.S. Government efforts to combat gender-based violence in the intervening 13 years, there is no doubt that it is still a widespread practice in many countries in the form of child brides, child prostitution, female genital mutilation/cutting, honor killings, sexual abuse, and more. I was therefore excited  to learn that the U.S. Administration and USAID recently released the government’s first ever United States Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-Based Violence Globally, which cited the statistics from the 1999 Population Reports issue.

The seriousness of the U.S. effort is reflected in an Executive Order from President Barack Obama directing all relevant agencies to fall in line with these efforts, and to fully adhere to and implement the strategy. What’s more, the Order empowers an interagency working group, co-chaired by the Secretary of State and the Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development to monitor and measure progress.

The strategy document repeatedly portrays the issue as a human rights violation. “Regardless of the form that gender-based violence takes, it is a human rights violation or abuse, a public health challenge, and a barrier to civic, social, political, and economic participation.” The strategy paper adds, “Gender-based violence undermines not only the safety, dignity, overall health status, and human rights of the millions of individuals who experience it, but also the public health, economic stability, and security of nations.”

The 60-page strategy, published in August, also refers to the plight of children who “are particularly vulnerable to violence, especially sexual abuse.” It cites data from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) indicating that “almost 50% of all sexual assaults worldwide are against girls 15 and younger. In 2002, 150 million girls and 73 million boys under the age of 18 years experienced forced sexual intercourse or other forms of sexual violence. Women with a disability are two to three times more likely to suffer physical and sexual abuse than women with no disability. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons also face heightened risk.”

Included in the report is an extensive list of ongoing efforts across the U.S. Government aimed at empowering women and eradicating gender-based violence.

These include:

  • U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security. The goal: To promote U.S. national security by empowering women abroad as equal partners in preventing conflict and building peace in countries threatened and affected by war, violence, and insecurity.
  • Global Health Initiative. A key component: The Women, Girls, and Gender Equality (WGGE) Principle, which aims to redress gender imbalances related to health, to promote the empowerment of women and girls, and to improve health outcomes for individuals, families and communities.
  • President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). The plan recognizes that addressing gender norms and inequities is essential to reducing HIV risk and increasing access to HIV prevention, care, and services for women and men.
  • Countering Trafficking in Persons. An interagency task force coordinates federal efforts to combat trafficking in persons–a form of modern slavery thought to affect as many as 27 million people worldwide, a majority of whom are women and girls.
  • United States Government’s Humanitarian Response. The Department of State, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Health and Human Services, and USAID work together to prevent and respond to gender-based violence in conflict-affected regions around the world.
  • Public Law 109-95 and the United States Government Action Plan on Children in Adversity. More than 30 offices within seven United States Government agencies and departments, including the Departments of Agriculture, Defense, Health and Human Services, Labor, and State, the Peace Corps, and USAID, assisted children and their families in adverse conditions through approximately 1,700 projects in more than 100 countries.
  • Global Peace Operations Initiative. The initiative works to build peacekeeping capacity globally, including training to help prevent and respond to gender-based violence, including sexual violence.

As a recent Lancet editorial says: “Efforts to combat gender-based violence form an element of nearly every strand of the USA's domestic and foreign policy, from health and development through to defence. If the relevant strands of such impressive diplomatic machinery can be effectively harnessed, then this strategy could make a huge difference to worldwide efforts to stem gender-based violence.”

Top priorities for the next three years are:

  • To increase coordination of gender-based violence prevention and response efforts among United States Government agencies and with other stakeholders;
  • To enhance integration of gender-based violence prevention and response efforts into existing United States Government work;
  • To improve collection, analysis, and use of data and research to enhance gender-based violence prevention and response efforts; and
  • To enhance or expand United States Government programming that addresses gender-based violence.

The strategy says that the Department of State will aim to target and engage: men and boys; female leaders and women’s groups; religious, faith-based, and community leaders; and youth.

I am sure that no one will underestimate the complexity of the task, nor its importance. But let us hope that, as this new strategy is implemented and the provision of U.S. aid becomes more and more tied to the eradication of gender-based violence and to the empowerment of women around the world, the policy will make a difference to the millions of individuals, particularly women and children who are being deprived of their human rights.


Thanks to Stephen and K4Health for highlighting this important issue and providing links to these useful resources. I would like to add an additional tool designed to help program managers begin to address GBV within their programs and plan for greater integration and coordination within country teams. The program Guide for Integrating GBV Prevention and Response in PEPFAR Programs is available in English, French, Portuguese, Spanish, and Swahili on the AIDSTAR-0ne website:  http://www.aidstar-one.com/focus_areas/gender/resources/pepfar_gbv_program_guide