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Published in: 12/04/2015

Experts point to progress, challenges in ending the global epidemic of violence against women

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Experts on violence against women speaking at the Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization (PAHO/WHO) today noted significant progress in domestic and international responses to violence against women. But they said that intensified and sustained efforts by both the health sector and other sectors will be needed to end the global epidemic of violence against women.

The experts spoke during a panel discussion on "Breaking the cycle of violence against women: Strategies, policies and actions," organized by PAHO/WHO as part of the annual "16 days of activism against gender-based violence" following the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, Nov. 25.

PAHO/WHO data show that one in three women in the Americas has suffered physical or sexual violence at the hands of an intimate partner or has suffered sexual violence at the hands of someone who is not an intimate partner or ex-partner. Moreover, 38% of all murders of women in the region are committed by a partner or ex-partner.

"Violence deprives women of the possibility of realizing their potential and has an even greater impact on women with disabilities, members of ethnic or sexual minorities, poor women, refugees, and those living in situations of conflict or displacement," said Cuauhtemoc Ruiz, acting Director of PAHO/WHO's Family, Gender and Life Course Department.

The good news, said panelists, is that a great deal of progress has been made internationally and in many countries to raise awareness of the problem and to spur both domestic and international programs to effectively address of violence against women.

In the United States, for example, the Violence against Women Act of 1994 introduced a series of measures combining law enforcement with services for victims of violence that has contributed to a 64% decline in the rate of intimate partner violence, said Caroline Bettinger-López, White House Advisor on Violence against Women.

Before the law's passage, "our political system, legal system, health system, and the court of public opinion were, at their best, all bystanders to what was perhaps the most pervasive form of violence in our country," said Bettinger-López. The 1994 law "re-characterized violence against women from a so-called family affair to a violation of women's rights."

Vikki Stein, Director of the Office of Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), said her agency has initiatives addressing multiple manifestations of violence against women and girls, including child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation, as well as initiatives to change public perceptions that domestic violence is a private affair. "One of our objectives is to increase the percentage of the population that understands that violence against women is wrong," said Stein.

Diana Arango, the World Bank's Senior Specialist on Gender-Based Violence and Development, introduced a new Violence against Women and Girls Resource Guide, developed by the World Bank in partnership with the Inter-American Development Bank, the George Washington University Global Women's Institute, and the International Center for Research on Women. She said the publication provides evidence and "promising practices" to help individuals and organizations integrate prevention of violence against women and girls and provide quality services to violence survivors across a range of development projects across multiple sectors.

Teresa Valdes, Chief of the Gender Unit in the Ministry of Health of Chile, described her country's efforts over the past 25 years to address violence against women. They include a series of laws and policies that promote equality and non-discrimination against women, protect mothers, and discourage or penalize sexual assault and other forms of violence against women.

Despite these efforts, she noted, many challenges still remain. "We have the laws and the policies, but not enough resources," said Valdes, adding that programs were often of insufficient quality and lacked capacity for follow-up.

Alessandra Guedes, PAHO/WHO Regional Advisor on Family Violence, presented PAHO's Strategy and Plan of Action on Strengthening the Health System to Address Violence against Women, which was adopted by the ministers of health of the Americas in October 2015.

"This strategy and plan of action reflect our region's recognition that violence against women is a public health and human rights problem, as well as their commitment to fulfill their responsibilities in preventing and responding to such violence," said Guedes. "In approving this document, the Region of the Americas became the first WHO region to have its highest authorities endorse a framework for action on violence against women, and we hope it will inspire other regions to follow suit."