Valentine’s Day is celebrated on every continent in the world, often with flowers, chocolate, special gestures, and other tokens of love and affection. Devastatingly, for too many women around the world, “love” is experienced through violence by their husband or partner, and February 14 may be no different than any other day.
The oft-cited statistic that as many as 1 in 3 women has been beaten, coerced into sex or in some way abused means it is enormously likely that you and I know many survivors. I, too, am a survivor of what is widely referred to as gender-based violence. Just after starting a new job in Washington, D.C., several years ago, I was mugged and nearly raped in the stairwell of my own apartment building. The issue of gender-based violence touches a personal chord, not only with me, but with many other women (and their friends, family and co-workers).
We can all help prevent more women and families from becoming victims if we learn the facts and speak out against gender-based violence in our daily lives. As we approach Valentine’s Day, here are the 5 essentials everybody should know about gender-based violence:
1. Gender-based violence affects more than 1 billion women worldwide.
Women are victimized in any number of ways, including partner abuse, rape, child sexual abuse and sexual harassment. Women are more likely to be beaten or raped by their partners or husbands than by anyone else. The effects are profound and lasting, from unwanted pregnancy and unsafe abortion to sexually transmitted diseases and ongoing gynecological problems. Gender-based violence affects women’s bodies, minds, freedoms and lives.
2. Gender-based violence is one of the most pervasive human rights abuses in the world.
There is no excuse for violence. Yet perpetrators justify their violence through a variety of excuses and ideas: that women should be disciplined and controlled by their husbands; that certain men or women deserve to be abused because of their actions, words or dress; that men are naturally violent; or that jealous beatings are a way to express love.
3. Gender-based violence is also a public health issue.
Research shows that gender-based violence is a significant cause of maternal death and a risk factor for contracting HIV, as well as a leading cause of other physical and mental problems, including chronic pain, depression and substance abuse.
4. Gender-based violence does not affect only women.
While it is true that the overwhelming majority of gender-based violence is targeted at women, it’s also crucial to examine other harmful gender norms, barriers, prejudices, prohibitions and inequities across the world. Violence and inequity based on gender identity must stop.
5. You have a role.
Everyone has a role to play in changing the story line. Yet as common as gender-based violence is, there is a culture of shame that keeps most people silent about it. To end the scourge of gender-based violence, we must stop the silence. Survivors of gender-based violence are often first encouraged to seek help when someone, possibly a health provider, asks whether they are experiencing violence. For many survivors, knowing that the violence they are experiencing is not okay, and is not a sign of love, is a critical first step.
I work at Jhpiego, an international organization dedicated to preventing the needless deaths of mothers and their children. We’ve been working in Tanzania and Mozambique to integrate screening and clinical care for gender-based violence into HIV services. In Guinea and Nepal, similar efforts are under way. Integrating services for gender-based violence into local health facilities requires sensitizing and training health providers to overcome their own prejudices about the issue, but it is an arena of human rights and public health that we are determined to be a part of.