One in every three women in the world will experience some form of gender-based violence in her lifetime.
That’s dry, government-speak for horrible things like rape, child marriage, and domestic abuse.
According to the United Nations, more women between the ages of 15 and 44 are disabled or killed by such acts than by cancer, traffic accidents, malaria and war combined.
In other words, gender-based violence is not just a phrase; it’s a rampant problem. And it’s a problem that impacts women everywhere, from Afghanistan to the United States.
On Thursday, the State Department, Avon and a nonprofit called Vital Voices launched a program to do something about it.
The Gender-Based Violence Emergency Response and Protection Initiative aims to help survivors of such violence and protect vulnerable women against it.
As singer-songwriter Fergie, a global ambassador for Avon’s Foundation for Women, said at the launch event at the State Department, the rate of violence against women is “totally unacceptable.”
Like most government-backed initiatives, the new program’s name is a mouthful, but it boils down to three things:
1) Providing survivors immediate, life-saving help, like medical care and relocation
2) Deterring perpetrators of gender-based violence
3) Helping countries implement the laws against gender-based violence that they already have on the books
Those are three tall orders, but Vital Voices, which will oversee the day-to-day operations, already has a game plan in mind for tackling them.
With $1 million in seed money, the organization will focus its initial efforts on four countries – Nepal, Mexico, India and South Africa – where they think their work can have a profound impact. The countries all have solid laws against gender-based violence on the books but issues enforcing them. They have both women and men in power receptive to changing the way women are treated.
Josselyne Bejar knows well some of the challenges women, particularly those in leadership roles, face. She’s been a penal judge in Mexico since the mid-1990s and serves as the current secretary of the Mexican Association of Women Judges. But as she told Fusion at the State Department on Thursday ahead of the launch, her country has a misogyny problem.
“We need training,” she said, in how to combat rhetoric and policies that put women down, but said she’s confident that “we can do it with training.”
That training will come in many forms. Some of it will be in how to communicate, while other trainings will center around business skills and job-creation. The initiative will also take stock of which approaches work best, using input from lawmakers and advocacy groups around the world.
Cindy Dyer, former director of the Office of Violence Against Women at the U.S. Department of Justice and current vice president of Human Rights with Vital Voices, will oversee the implementation of the program, which is designed to last about a year and a half, but could become a long-term endeavor.
She said finding women to aid and train, both victims and those at risk of being impacted, is not the difficult part.
Women “come to us,” Dyer said, adding that “women leaders know one another.”
It’s changing the behavior of the perpetrators of gender-based violence and empowering women that’s a bit trickier.
“Until we deter the perpetrators,” she said, “until we get the bad guys off the street, this will continue to happen.”
It makes sense, then, that some of the initiative’s work will be with men, who still hold most of the power in most of the world, and how they can empower women.
It’s a long road but one that Vital Voices and other organizations who focus on the issue are glad is finally garnering attention.
Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns called gender-based violence an issue “that has been with us since time immemorial” at the launch event. And, he added, an “affront to dignity.”