What can you walk past?

In the field, Women's rights article written on the 31 May 2016

Papua New Guinea: Six-year-old Jane* survived a brutal assault by four men which left her hospitalised and permanently scarred. Photo: Vlad Sokhin.

By Anna Trembath, Gender Advisor, Programs, and Tom McColl, Portfolio Manager, Pacific

Affecting one in three women globally, violence against women and girls is an epidemic in need of urgent and sustained action. Last week, women from across the Pacific, as well as Aboriginal leaders, and Oxfam Australia’s Chief Executive, Dr Helen Szoke, met in the Solomon Islands to help turn this around.

At a three day regional workshop they shared the most up-to-date strategies to support survivors of violence and to prevent it occurring in the first place. These included how best to provide life-saving support, how to break the cycle of violence, and importantly, changing the attitudes and norms that underpin this violence.

For many women and girls, violence is a part of everyday life. Reprehensively, for women and girls aged 15-44, the risks of rape and domestic violence is higher than that of cancer, contracting malaria, or being involved in a motor vehicle accident.

The scale of this violence has many and far-reaching impacts. These include impacts on health and reproductive rights, on the ability to get an education, to earn a living, to participate in public life, and live a life free from fear.

For children witnessing this violence, the impact can be debilitating and lead to cyclical effects that span generations.

And it’s inaction that allows this pattern to continue.

You’ve probably seen the video from then Chief of Army, Lieutenant General, David Morrison, talking about demeaning behaviour towards women. Watched by more than 1.7 million people, he says in relation to this behaviour that: “The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.” The same can be said about violence against women and girls.

We, and Australia’s Government, have to ask ourselves, “What can we walk past?”: because in our region, the statistics are even worse than the global ones.

In Pacific countries, the incidence of violence against women is one of the highest in the world.

In some Pacific nations, two out of every three women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence from their partner; other forms of family violence are also rife.

To eliminate this violence, we must tackle gender inequality at its roots. At the same time however, we need to ensure women and girls affected by violence have access to the support services that will enable them to break free when it does occur. Finally, we need to ensure that appropriate legislation, policy and government budgets are in place, and that these are being acted upon.

Oxfam has been working with local partners in the Pacific for years to challenge violence against women and girls, especially in PNG and the Solomon Islands. We’ve supported programs led by local communities and women who are driving ground-breaking change.

We have learnt that programs in this area are most effective when they address the root causes such as discriminatory and ingrained gender inequities and social norms.

This means working with men and boys as well as women and girls. It means providing survivors of violence with access to justice and support services. And it means improving policy, legislation and adequate national funding. But it also means providing the oversight that holds countries to account for the effective implementation of these things.

Central to the success of our approach is that programs must be driven by local change-makers – often these are women who are themselves survivors of past violence.

The Australian Government has reiterated its commitment to addressing and ending violence against women and children in Australia and neighbouring countries.

Oxfam acknowledges the great work that has been done in the region and beyond with the support of Australian aid. But we need to build our aid program’s focus on gender equality and its ability to address violence against women and girls in the Asia-Pacific region. This will require a reprioritization of resources, greater transparency of the investments being made in gender equality, as well as a greater emphasis on longer-term programming.

Oxfam is committed to a Pacific in which women and girls enjoy their human rights and live free of violence. While the statistics can feel overwhelming, last week’s workshop shared real stories of the women and communities that are making change happen.

Change is possible. But not if we don’t stop and assist.

Read more: Survivors of Violence Become Leaders of Change: Lessons from Women in the Pacific