With a New Government in Power Now is the Time to Focus on Women

07/12/2011 12:30 GMT | Updated 04/02/2012 10:12 GMT

Last month I was interested to hear the World Development Report 2012 on gender discussed in the House of Lords. Baroness Northover drew on evidence from the report to highlight the seriousness of domestic violence, where in Cusco, Peru, reportedly half the women are victims.

The problem is unfortunately not confined to one city; I recently found out that across Peru more than 60% of rural women have been attacked by their male partners. In August, as part of VSO's Parliamentarian Volunteering Scheme, I helped two Peruvian organisations campaign for women's rights. The Instituto de Defensa Legal (IDL) and Movimiento Manuela Ramos (MMR) are working to tackle violence against women and girls. Recently elected president, Ollanta Humala, seems supportive of women's rights; however to address this issue in the long term the public and the corporate sector must also take domestic violence seriously.

In Peru instances of rape, physical and psychological abuse are widespread but the crimes are rarely reported and under-punished; indeed domestic violence is not classified as a crime. While working with the IDL and MMR, my role was to convince Humala's new policy makers to prioritise the issue. I met with several new ministers as well as the first female elected mayor of Lima, the President of Peru's Supreme Court and various police chiefs who were all open to new ideas. They recognised that women are not reporting these attacks partly because they don't feel they will be supported by the police. The victims are often blamed, particularly in rural areas, and laws designed to protect women are not being implemented in practice. As well as discussing these challenges, the ministers recognised our arguments for a review of the law and improvements to education on the issue within families and schools.

This is an important step because in Peru's culture, violence against women is seen as the norm. This urgently needs addressing and I stimulated public discussion about domestic violence by giving interviews with the media during my placement. Traditionally, this issue is not popular with editors, but it is essential to work with journalists to encourage responsible reporting. The media as an industry needs to stop perpetuating gender stereotypes and start promoting positive images and messages about women. Popular culture and the news will not reach everyone, but is a good way to reflect social problems and start changing these ingrained ideologies.

Finally, business has a crucial role in this. I spoke to producers at a radio station in Peru who wanted to run a campaign against domestic violence but who couldn't get a corporate sponsor for it. In the UK, I have worked with several high-profile businesses on their corporate responsibility strategies. There is a strong business case for them to campaign against domestic violence: having women forced to stay off work due to injuries caused by their partners costs the UK economy £2.7 billion a year. Using big brands to raise awareness of violence against women achieves results; The Body Shop's 'Talk to a Friend' campaign raised £2.6m to help victims of domestic violence. This model could work well in Peru as it saves companies money and supports staff. Peru2021 is a not for profit organisation already working with companies to enable them to make social responsibility a key element of their business strategies. IDL and MMR have now started to engage with Peru's biggest private companies to encourage them to see the economic argument for putting an end to gender-based violence.

Peru is experiencing economic growth, but gender and race inequalities mean that the benefits are very unevenly shared. During the elections, Humala promised to address social inequalities in Peru, improve the economy and provide opportunities for more than half its population who live below the national poverty line. Abuse suffered by the country's women undermines Peru's ambitions for growth and progress. Not enough women have the confidence, the self-esteem or the freedom to play a full role in the political and economic life of this country. The people I worked with at IDL and MMR are seizing this opportunity to reinvigorate their campaigning for women. However, to put a stop to the violence a range of people must be engaged, from ministers to CEOs. Most importantly, the public need to stop seeing violence against women as a fact of life, and start seeing it as something they can, and must take action against.