Sunday 25 November is the UN day for eliminating violence against women, which I'm marking with my first ever visit to Zambia. Physical and sexual abuse of women is a global scourge, that transcends borders. From the UK, where one in four women will be the victim of domestic abuse in their lifetime to Zambia, where 47% of women have suffered gender-based violence. Much has been done to improve the plight of women but, in Zambia as elsewhere, cultural norms are often still a barrier to change.
As the UK government's ministerial champion for tackling violence against women and girls overseas, I feel a great sense of responsibility. Changing mindsets and preventing violence before it starts is crucial. And there is evidence of progress. In Zambia, the government has created a new Ministry of Gender this year. A new Adolescent Girls Empowerment Programme will provide mentoring and 'safe spaces' to 10,000 vulnerable girls. Such developments are hugely welcome and we must grasp this chance to garner more global support.
There is still so much to be done. In recent years, many countries devastated by conflict have seen increasing levels of gender-based violence. Women and girls, men and boys are all victims of sexual violence where rape is used as a weapon of war. In the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, at least 200,000 cases of sexual violence mostly involving women and girls have been documented since 1996. I'm optimistic that with the Foreign Secretary's preventing sexual violence initiative we can step up our work to tackle this heinous crime and provide the justice so desperately needed.
Improving rule of law and access to justice is key to giving women the voice they need. We have helped install justice systems like the Sexual Assault and Referral Centre (SARC) in Somaliland, meaning that a woman who was raped by seven men was able, through extreme courage on her part, to bring the perpetrators to justice. It's evident - that given the right support, women will fight back.
Across Africa the SARC initiative has seen a dramatic increase in the conviction rate of violence against women cases from 35% to 60% in the target locations. This can be attributed to the work undertaken with the police, hospitals, courts and the Sexual Assault and Referral Centre. We now need creative and determined efforts to build on this success and help empower women to confront perpetrators of violence and tackle impunity on a larger scale, across the continent and beyond.
One opportunity to really make a difference is at the annual meeting of the UN's Commission on the Status of Women, an event where these issues are given an international spotlight. It is terribly frustrating that the most recent meeting in March failed to reach any agreed conclusions. We must do everything in our power to defend the hard-gained progress on women's rights and equality which is being undermined on the international stage. We must ensure that the international community agrees a set of global standards next March, to help protect women and girls everywhere from discrimination and violence.
On my trip to Zambia, I look forward to seeing projects that are making a real difference to the lives of women and girls. The absence of international cooperation cannot ever be a justifiable reason for failing to protect the worlds female population.
Please also read Sophie Tholstrup's blog on the cost of conflict for women in the DRC here.
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