Globally, tens of thousands of women suffer violence every day. This violence takes place in rich countries and in poor ones, in the home, at work, on the street, in every social stratum, and amongst the young and the old.
1 in 3 women suffer gender violence
As we mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and the UN's campaign for 16 days of activism, data from the World Health Organization show that gender violence is a leading cause of death or permanent disability for women worldwide.
1 in 3 women will experience either physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner or sexual violence by a non-partner at some point in their life. And the violence often involves children.
Violence against women and girls affects their physical, mental, sexual and reproductive health in the short and long term in many ways: unwanted pregnancies, induced abortions, sexually transmitted infections including HIV, as well as mental health problems like depression, sleep and food disorders, emotional stress, post-traumatic stress disorder and attempts to and even suicide.
Societal norms and values
Too often, a blind eye is turned when violence against women is committed. Cultural values and societal norms come into play--values so widespread that the violent behavior is often mistakenly considered normal. Surprisingly, 30% of perpetrators of psychological and physical violence are in fact intimate partners of the victims. Other examples of societal violence against women are female genital mutilation and forced marriages, often with very young girls. Juvenile marriages not only compromise girls' health, but also their education and their place in a public sphere.
It is a violation of their human rights. Violence against women must be considered a major global public health problem and all countries must act quickly and effectively to address it.
The Global Action Plan
In May 2016, countries at the World Health Assembly endorsed an historic 'Global Plan of Action' to address violence, including against women and girls and all children. This plan - aligned with the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the 2016 Global Strategy for Women's, Children's and Adolescents' Health - outlines what countries can do to end violence against women and girls by 2030.
The action plan suggests strengthening health systems in four strategic areas: leadership and governance of the health system, the delivery of health services and providers' capacity to respond, violence prevention programs, and the gathering of information and evidence. The Plan also emphasizes the importance of counseling centres for victims of violence, where victims can confide to empathetic staff, who have been trained to listen and act appropriately.
The Action Plan requires the combined intervention of governments, parliaments, companies and all civil society. In its work, WHO has identified the importance of monitoring and evaluation and works closely with Parliamentary partners around the world.
WHO will continue its cooperation with these partners to monitor the implementation and commitments made to the Global Action Plan by countries: Parliamentarians from around the world are invited to the next World Health Assembly in May 2017 to share legislative actions taken and how health systems have adapted to the WHO plan; And countries have agreed to gather in 2018 and 2021 to report on progress in implementing the Action Plan.
Translating commitments into action
Violence against women is a consequence of gender discrimination supported by society---by the rule of law, by families, companies, and by the continuation of inequality between men and women. Gender-based violence has devastating impacts on women and girls, and all of society in respect to equality, poverty and equity, HIV / AIDS and peace and security. Above all, health consequences of this violence are devastating, both in the short and long term.
Laws are often inadequate to protect women. While over 130 countries have some laws in place to penalize at least some forms of violence, such as domestic violence or rape, enforcement often lags behind.
The Action Plan is a great step forward in the fight against gender violence. But there is still an urgent need to ensure that strong commitments by governments turn into concrete actions in countries. We urge institutions and organizations to do more and guarantee investments in education aimed at all age groups and social backgrounds, in concrete actions in the field, and in training for health care providers so that they are listening and prepared to offer adequate support services.
But an even bigger 'but': these actions will only happen if there is the political will and commitment to make changes based on the recognition that all forms of violence are unacceptable.
Halt violence against the most vulnerable -women and girls
For these reasons, the fight against violence against women and girls is at the core of my vision for the future of the World Health Organization in the protection of the right to health for all, especially society's weakest and most vulnerable --women and girls.
We can start today: Support of the UN's 16-day UNiTE campaign to End Violence Against Women which started on 25 November and culminates on 10 December - Human Rights Day.
It is no longer tolerable to turn away and pretend violence against women and girls does not exist. It is time to call a halt to this violence.
It is time to act.
Dr Flavia Bustreo is currently one of several candidates for the position of Director-General of the World Health Organization, based in Geneva Switzerland. Since 2010, Dr Bustreo has worked as Assistant Director-General for the sector of Family, Women and Children's Health.
Link here for her profile and vision for her candidacy on the World Health Organization's website.