The U.S. Approach to Fighting Violence Against Women

Cindy Dyer, Vice President of Human Rights, Vital Voices Global Partnership and
Tanya Charles, Policy and Advocacy Development Specialist, Sonke Gender Justice.

It is no secret that gender based violence is a serious issue worldwide. One in three women globally experience some form of domestic or sexual violence during their lifetime. Facing statistics like these, it is easy to become discouraged; however, many countries have made undeniable progress. The United States is an example of how coordination between government and civil society can take strides towards remedying this immense problem. True collaboration between these sectors is imperative to stop violence against women, and in the United States, it has led to a significant decrease in the rates of domestic violence and gender-based violence in the past 20 years.

The first step the U.S. took towards eradicating gender-based violence was enacting the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in 1994. This Act itself was the result of a close collaboration among governmental agencies and non-governmental organizations with expert knowledge of the field. The legislation went through several drafts following modifications and feedback from survivors and civil society advocates and activists. But the need for forever collaboration does not end when legislation is enacted. The best-crafted pieces of legislation or protocols are worthless if they are not actually implemented. And effective implementation also requires partnership with each sector having a role to play. Without the police, there would be no investigation; without prosecutors, there is no accountability; without service providers, there would be no support for survivors; and without advocates there is no opportunity for continued improvement.

Each sector depends on the others, and none are successful working in isolation. This Act spurred a movement of joint cooperation between the government and community-based service providers; its implementation required the collaborated efforts between all actors involved and provided a platform for future coordination. The NGOs spoke, and the government listened. Due to the meaningful coordination among all of these agencies and individuals, the rates of domestic violence began to drop once VAWA was passed. From 1994 to 2010, the rate of intimate partner domestic violence in the United States dropped a dramatic 64%, bringing the number of victims down from 9.8 in 1,000 to 3.6 in 1,000.

The final and most important step is the government's continued respect for and involvement with NGOs and community-based service providers. VAWA has been reauthorized three times since its initial passage, and with each re authorization, the Act has been improved and enhanced to reflect the advice and suggestions of civil society advocates and agencies. The United States would not be where it is today without the participation of both the government and community-based services providers. More work still needs to be done, but it is clear that these meaningful partnerships, based on a true spirit of collaboration, are essential to combating gender-based violence.

No money, no implementation, no coordination: the South African experience

In South Africa, collaboration between the government and civil society has not been as cooperative as it has in the United States and elsewhere. Despite South Africa having among the highest rates of gender-based violence in the world, the government has not treated the matter with the urgency it requires. While it is commendable that the state has attempted to address gender violence by drafting a number of pieces of legislation and establishing several coordination structures, these efforts have been marred by poor implementation, limited collaboration and a lack of adequate provision of financial resources.

A few highlights of government's attempts to deal with violence against women reveal moments of hope followed by periods of disappointment and despair. In 2007, the Inter-Departmental Management Team launched the '365 Day National Action Plan' which was established to guide all government departments and civil society organizations dealing with violence against women and children. Though intended to extend only through 2011, it remained in effect until 2013, and still resulted in no tangible impact.

Similarly, in December 2011, cabinet approved a National Council on Gender Based Violence with the aim of developing and adopting comprehensive measures to urgently address gender violence. Finally, we thought, a national council that would bring civil society and government together to take on this enormous issue. Sadly, the Council was also ineffective and disrupted by political changes after the 2014 elections. In early 2015 the Council was on hold pending further investigation into its creation. No word on this Council since.

The picture that emerges here is of a government that is not serious about ending gender-based violence. A serious effort would include coordinated efforts and allocation of the necessary funding to support them. All the while, civil society carries the burden by providing crucial services and raising their own resources, usually from international donors, in order to meet the needs of victims. Relations between NGOs and government are frequently strained, with civil society being seen as antagonist towards government, primarily because civil society is never afraid to call government to account. Over many decades, civil society has campaigned to ensure government develops appropriate policies and programmes to end gender-based violence and to monitor implementation of what already exists.

One such campaign is the call for a National Strategic Plan on Gender Based Violence (NSPGBV) which launched in 2014. With a coalition of over thirty organisations, the NSPGBV campaign has a clear vision; to create public and political will to develop and implement a fully-funded, inclusive and multi-sectoral NSPGBV which will serve as a roadmap to align the country around strategic priorities, while ensuring funding is earmarked for prevention and services as part of the national budget. Ideally, this plan should not only address violence against women and children but also gender-based violence experienced by other marginalized groups such as sex workers and LGBTIQ persons, who suffer some of the most brutal forms of gender violence in this country but who cannot access appropriate services and are hardly accounted for in existing legislation.

If the government truly wants to see a South Africa free from gender-based violence, they should heed the calls of civil society to put their money where their programs and plans are: Fund the many organizations and shelters currently facing closure due to dwindling donor support and poor economic climate. Ensure that government departments like health, police and justice work in a coordinated manner and are well resourced. Failure to do this will mean that year upon year, we will see the creation of new and unnecessary structures to confront gender-based violence while civil society actually does the increasingly difficult work of bringing justice and services to an ever more desperate society.