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Violence against women has increased in the Ebola-affected countries of West Africa, according to a panel discussion last month at the 59th session of the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in New York, United States. [1] In Guinea, there have been twice as many rapes since the epidemic began.

We know that violence against women and girls rises in humanitarian situations, but nonetheless this is dismal news. Much of the news around gender inequality seems to relate to violence against women and girls these days. Just last week I read about marital rape in Lebanon, the attempted rape of a toddler in Kenya and the rape of girls as young as 18 months in Congo. [2,3,4]

What is the international community doing to address this appalling trend?

Leaders at the CSW adopted a political declaration reaffirming the principles of the landmark World Conference on Women held 20 years ago in Beijing, China. Signatories to the declaration hope to see the full realisation of gender equality and the empowerment of women by 2030.

Not surprisingly, the declaration has been criticised by women’s rights activists for being bland. [5] I would add the charge of being overambitious: the target is almost certainly beyond anyone’s reach — and impossible to measure.

The question is: will the ongoing international conversation around gender equality help women and girls who are suffering from violence?

Here’s an idea. Rather than setting unachievable targets to achieve gender equality, perhaps the development community should pull together and focus on resolving a single issue that affects women and girls: violence.

And another idea: how about diverting the funds presently lavished on high-level gatherings such as the latest in New York to NGOs that have the flexibility, creativity and links with communities to reduce violence.

Take the pee-powered toilets that have the potential to provide light and security to refugee camps in disaster zones, a collaborative venture by a UK university and the charity Oxfam. Or a community-based radio programme called Samajhdari in Nepal that reports on women’s experience of violence and offers information on legal rights and where women at risk can go for help.

Some organisations are already thinking about how to focus their development efforts effectively. I wrote last month about how the UK Department for International Development is targeting four key outcomes in its strategy for women and girls. Within this, the department has prioritised combating violence against women and girls and, in 2012, developed a useful guide to community programmes on violence against women and girls. [6]  

These kinds of programming actually make a difference in women’s lives. We should be flooding them with money, not wasting it on over-ambitious declarations.

Henrietta Miers has worked across Africa and Asia as a gender and social development consultant for 20 years, specialising in gender policy. She is senior associate of WISE Development, a consulting company that focuses on boosting economic opportunities for poor women.


[1] Maria Caspani Violence against women rises in Ebola-hit nations: ministers (Reuters, 18 March 2015)
[2] Dana Halawi Activists urge Lebanon to make marital rape illegal (Thomson Reuters Foundation, 23 March 2015)
[3] Katy Migiro Kenyan schoolboys save girls from rape after learning ‘no means no’ (Thomson Reuters Foundation, 23 March 2015)
[4] Katie Nguyen Congo hospital sees rise in rape of girls as young as 18 months (Thomson Reuters Foundation, 24 March 2015)
[5] Liz Ford World leaders pledge to achieve gender equality by 2030 (The Guardian, 10 March 2015)
[6] Violence against women and girls (DFID, May 2012)