13/01/2016 07:09 GMT | Updated 12/01/2017 05:12 GMT

Violence in Cologne - Unacceptable, Unjust but Sadly Not Uncommon

The horrific sexual assaults on women carried out by groups of men during New Year's Eve celebrations in Cologne sent shockwaves through Europe. Many struggled to comprehend how something so appalling was able to happen in such a major city.

Now, in the weeks following the attacks there has been criticism of the police, politicians and the media being too slow to react and when the response finally did come it was inadequate.

Unfortunately, some have turned their criticism towards the refugee crisis, branding the attacks a result of Germany's generosity towards the number of refugees it has allowed into the country. Not only is this unfounded but it is a dangerous narrative which takes the focus away from the real issue at hand.

This is an issue of endemic violence against women and girls - rooted in persistent and pervasive gender inequality - and how the cities that they should be able to freely enjoy and thrive in are failing them. A third of all women and girls face violence in their lifetime - and many of them are subject to it on the streets of their cities or towns.

Poor lighting, dark streets, dangerous public transport systems and inadequate policing in many of the major cities in the world leaves thousands of women at risk from attack every day, and this risk is even higher for women living in poor settlements and slums in cities around the world.

The problem is shocking but not unusual. In Bangladesh, 87% of women said they faced harassment in bus terminals and train stations, 80% by the roadside, and 69% outside their schools and colleges. In São Paulo, Brazil, a woman is assaulted in a public space every 15 seconds. And in London, 43% of young women (aged 18-34) say they have experienced sexual harassment in public spaces in the past year.

Such persistent exposure to attacks and the fear of rape, sexual assault, humiliation and harassment affect a woman's rights to enjoy public spaces, pursue education, work and recreational opportunities and participate in political and community life. These problems are compounded for women living in poverty or facing marginalisation due to some other aspect of their identity, such as migrant and LGBTI women.

But instead of societies recognising and governments taking the necessary action to prevent the problem, women are often blamed for provoking attacks - by what they were wearing, or being out late, or having been drinking. They are left feeling afraid or unwilling to go to the authorities - or even their own families - due to the obstacles, discrimination and ridicule they face.

Meanwhile, those who perpetrate violence against women and girls often do so with impunity and little fear of justice.

While efforts and some progress have been made by the global women's movement and beyond to tackle this violence, there is still far more to be done. In cities across the world, the sexual violence and harassment facing millions of women and girls still remains a neglected and unacknowledged issue, either with few laws or policies - or the political will - to prevent and address it.

Urgent action is needed to improve infrastructure, strengthen policies, and transform mind-sets and behaviours, in order to end all discrimination and violence against women and girls, including sexual assault on the streets of the world's cities and the persistent fear it generates.

Evidence shows providing more money to women's rights organisations could make a huge impact towards ending violence against women and girls. It is one of the most effective ways of ensuring meaningful change and providing frontline services for survivors of violence.

The world has spoken out against the attacks in Cologne on New Year's Eve - they were completely unacceptable and unjust but sadly they were not uncommon. If we're serious about eliminating violence against women and girls on a global level we need global leaders to put women's rights organisations at the forefront of our response. These individuals and groups need dedicated and reliable funding as well as the laws and services to make sure they can work safely. Without urgent action, women will continue to suffer in the cities which should provide them with safety.

ActionAid is helping women and girls around the world to tackle violence and stand up for their rights. For more information visit: