Violence Against Women

November 25, 2019 | Ann Keeling, Roopa Dhatt, Kim van Daalen

Women in Global Health Demand an End to Violence Against All Women and Girls worldwide, including Female Health Workers. 

Today,  25 November, women and men all over the world mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. As in previous years, it is the start of 16 Days full Activism concluding on International Women’s Day on 10 December.  

This year’s theme is Orange the World: Generation Equality Stands Against Rape’.

Violence against women and girls - in their homes and in public, at leisure and at work, in conflict and in peacetime - is one of the longest and deepest human rights abuses in human history. It takes many forms from female genital mutilation to forced marriage and intimate partner violence. And it is everywhere. This is associated with significant mental, emotional and physical health impacts. Not only impacting the lives of those women experiencing it, but also of their offspring. The World Health Organization estimates that about 1 in 3 women worldwide have experienced physical and/or sexual violence at some moment in their lifetime - either by an intimate partner or non-partner. Prevalence estimates of intimate partner violence range from 37.7% in the WHO South-East Asia region to 23.2% in the high-income countries.

However, violence against women is often unreported, underreported and in many countries, condoned by the law. This while it is entirely preventable. Violence against women is often committed with the certainty,  in most cases, that they will not be prosecuted or punished. Only a small minority of perpetrators are ever held accountable. A lot has been done to criminalize the issue, but implementation of new laws is still challenging in many countries.

A recent joint study of John Hopkins University and the UNFPA indicated that it will cost  a total of $264 billion to end preventable maternal deaths, stop gender-based violence and cover unmet needs for family planning. All within one decade. “A drop in the ocean compared to the dividend expected and the funds available,” said UNFPA Executive Director Dr. natalia Kanem. Without action taken these costs will only be increasing considering the cumulative lives lost and the potential that will go unfulfilled. 

Health workers are likely to be the first professional contact of survivors of gender-based violence and have a key role in recognizing, responding and informing to eliminate it. With proper training and protocols, health workers can become more sensitive in recognizing issues of violence against women and provide comprehensive health services. Furthermore, health workers can inform policies, collect data, prevent violence by fostering and informing prevention program and become advocates for the recognition of violence against women as a public health problem.

Yet, many women in the health workforce are victims of violence and harassment themselves. 

Women form 70% of the global health workforce and that number is set to rise - delivering health services to 5 billion people. Although women hold the majority of jobs in the sector they hold only 25% senior leadership roles and are clustered into lower status, lower paid and often unpaid roles. Without women’s work - paid and unpaid - health and social care services would cease to function. And women are key to meeting the 40 million health and care worker shortage predicted by 2030. 

Female health workers have to navigate unsafe working conditions, particularly those on the front lines in conflict or remote areas.  Outreach workers and domestic social care workers are commonly subject to violence and harassment. There is a largely hidden epidemic of harassment and violence against female health and social care workers by their colleagues, patients, visitors and community members causing harm, stress, low morale and attrition. Every year female health workers are murdered in the course of their work caring for others. 

Like violence agisnt women in general, violence against female health and social care workers is often unreported, unrecorded and unpunished. 59 countries have no laws prohibiting sexual harassment at work, 100 countries do not have civil remedies and 110 have no criminal penalties for sexual harassment in the workplace. 

Every girl and every woman has the right to a safer, fairer, more just world. It lies in every one of us to help make it a reality. 

Therefore, on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women 2019 Women in Global Health calls for:

1. An end to all forms of violence against women and girls; physical, emotional and mental. 

2. All countries to take specific measures to ensure the safety of and decent working conditions for female health and social care workers.

3. Mandatory national collection of data on all forms of gender-based violence and harassment of women and girls - including female health and social care workers - to encourage reporting, action and elimination of these rights abuses. 

4. The adoption of gender-sensitive guidelines and protocols on the provision of post-violence care in all health care systems. 

5. Adoption of laws and policies to criminalise violence against women and girls, outlaw sexual harassment, support survivors, support prevention and enforce appropriate penalties. 

6. All ILO Member States to adopt and ratify ILO Convention 190 on Violence and Harassment (link to convention) when it comes into force in 2020 and to work with ILO on global and national action plans to eliminate violence and harassment of women at work. 

7. Men everywhere to be upstanders not bystanders, act as allies for women and speak out to tackle violence and keep women and girls safe.

None of us can feel safe if the women who deliver our health and social care do not feel safe when working to care for us.

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