People always ask me how I can work on violence against women? "Isn't is depressing?" they say. On my way to South Africa last week for the Sexual Violence Research Initiative Forum - the largest international conference on violence against women and girls in the Global South - the flight attendant said to me, "Don't you find it overwhelming?"
For me, I wonder how I could not work on this issue. Knowing that every day millions of women and girls around the world are abused, face discrimination and are even killed simply because they are female, how could I not try to prevent it?
For the other 374 women and men from 40 countries who attended the conference, I am sure that their motivation to work in this field is also personal. They have witnessed the devastating effects of abuse that many women experience on a daily basis, often in their own homes, at the hands of those who are supposed to love them most. They have seen the extreme trauma experienced by women and girls, and men and boys, during conflict when sexual violence is used as a weapon of war. They see the enormous cost this has for all of society. And they cannot stand by and watch. They want to create a better world. A world where men and women are equal. A world where everyone is treated with dignity and respect. A world where women and girls are free to live up to their greatest potential. A world where we celebrate diversity.
And these are not just empty dreams. Violence is preventable. The Forum highlighted various interventions that are having a real impact in reducing rates of violence in families and communities. We can be hopeful about the future with programmes such as Pigs for Peace in the Democratic Republic of the Congo building women's economic empowerment and resilience through livestock; an early book-sharing programme helping to prevent the development of aggression in children in South Africa; a programme to engage men as equitable and involved fathers in maternal, newborn and child health and violence prevention in Rwanda; a holistic toolkit taking a systemic approach to preventing violence against children in schools, among many others. In addition, experimental and innovative strategies are being tried and tested. For example, using play to empower young girls in schools in Pakistan; self-defence and empowerment training in Nairobi slums to prevent rape; and work with faith communities on gender and masculinities, to name just a few.
Of course, there remain many challenges. Much of the successful work has so far taken place at an individual community level. However, given the enormity of the problem we need to scale up these efforts nationally. We need structural transformation to challenge the acceptability of violence, promote women's rights, and address models of manhood that promote dominance over women. Further, as Dr Rashida Manjoo, the former UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, and one of the keynote speakers noted, "impunity rather than accountability has become the norm for gender crimes." There remains a gap between the rhetoric of governments who publicly declare that violence against women is the most pervasive human rights violation we face today, and the fact that many states are still failing in their obligations to protect their citizens and prevent violence. As Noura BIttar Soborg, a brilliant young Syrian refugee and social entrepreneur stressed, the world must not turn its back on the victims of violence and conflict.
So why do we do what we do? Yes, sometimes it is depressing. And often exhausting. And occasionally you feel disheartened; that as a society we are going backwards. But mostly it is inspiring to see positive change happening in communities and within governments. It is empowering to see the resilience of women and girls who are are leading that change. It is motivating to see men and boys join the movement to create a more equitable world for all. And it is truly humbling to meet women and girls who, despite the horror of their experiences, chose not to hate but to use their lives to inspire others and create a safer world.
Come and join us. Be a part of something great.