Gender-based violence (GBV) goes beyond social, economic, and geographic divides, and is one of the most widespread and persistent obstacles both to fulfilling girls and women’s human rights and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). GBV occurs in situations of inequity and emergency, is rooted in power imbalances, and disproportionately impacts girls and women. In all countries and contexts, the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the prevalence of GBV.
Critically, GBV is crosscutting, representing any harm that is perpetrated on the basis of gender, and compounded by the many factors that interact and shape how girls and women experience violence and oppression – including race, ethnicity, indigeneity, caste, gender and sexual identity, nationality, immigration status, disability status, and geographic location. Beyond physical and sexual violence and harassment, psychological violence, economic violence, and harmful cultural practices including female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) and child, early, and forced marriage also fall under the umbrella term, GBV.
Marissa Kokkoros: Initial data show that COVID-19 mitigation strategies – such as lockdowns and school closures – have contributed to a surge in gender-based violence worldwide. Still, the data we have are incomplete, with less than 40% of girls or women who experienced violence pre-COVID ever reporting crimes to local authorities or seeking other forms of help. This lack of data makes it difficult for decision-makers to design policies that effectively prevent and address gender-based violence—in all its forms. From your experience leading Nigeria’s foremost youth-led organization advocating against sexual violence, what role can and do grassroots women’s organizations play in supporting decision-makers in the prevention and eradication of GBV? Why should national governments and institutions listen to and fund local organizations, and particularly local youth-led and youth-serving organizations like STER to accelerate progress on ending GBV and achieving the SDGs?
Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi: Data collection and research are great tools to innovate and develop effective strategies and policies that will eliminate GBV. Organizations must purposefully collect data not only to indicate the prevalence of GBV, but to understand the patterns, scale, and demographic impacted by the issue. Understanding this can assist decision-makers in crafting holistic policy and programmatic responses. For instance, women in rural areas may experience GBV more frequently than women in urban areas. The development of generic programming that does not take the context in which different women live into account is not holistic, and cannot achieve the SDGs. Achieving the SDGs requires a conscious decision by national organizations, as well as the experts on the field who have direct access to those most impacted by GBV, to fund innovative programs and test new initiatives, while replicating and scaling service models that contribute to an effective national response.
Despite data showing that women and girls suffer most during crises because their access to services is cut-off, during COVID-19, many governments have failed to take into account expert opinions from women-led organizations calling for gender-centric COVID-19 national mitigation and response plans that recognize preventing and responding to GBV as an essential service. Eliminating GBV requires collective efforts from both civil society organizations (CSOs) and national governments. CSOs can only thrive if they receive the necessary support from national organizations and establishments for their programs.
Marissa Kokkoros: One in three women—some 1.3 billion girls and women worldwide—experience gender-based violence over their lifetime. With the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic and widespread stay-at-home orders, this number has only grown, trapping many girls and women at home with their abusers and isolated from the people and resources that could help them. Yet only 48 nations – less than a quarter – have deemed services which address violence against women and girls as a key element of their national and local COVID-19 response plans. As someone working in the GBV sector in Canada, I know that every day, domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centers see three women leave their facilities and another four arrive. Emergency housing and services for survivors and their children are indeed crucial, but just as urgent is the need to prevent violence before it rips through families and communities. Though we can’t see the impact of GBV education in real time, we know that it saves lives and is a powerful tool to prevent violence before it happens. What advice would you give to governments in order to effectively address GBV during COVID-19, but also in the long term?
Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi: For any government to effectively address GBV during any pandemic, essential services must compulsorily be included and adequately resourced in national response plans. For instance, even during lockdowns or other restrictions to movement, access to emergency medical services and shelters (among other things) must be accessible for all girls and women. But more than that, the government must improve the capacity of emergency service providers and grassroots/national organizations to provide prompt and safe services, leveraging the latest technology. There are innovative ways to prioritize emergency responses for women, and governments must take advantage of this. It is imperative to note that eliminating GBV is not a quick win. It requires research into long-standing intersecting inequities that exist in communities, work environments, and political spaces, in addition to the development, implementation, monitoring, evaluation, and scaling-up of successful initiatives and context specific frameworks. All of this cannot be done within a short period of time.
Marissa Kokkoros: Adolescence is a crucial and defining stage in every girl’s life that comes with, unfortunately, exposure to unique risks of GBV—including sexual violence, human trafficking, early and forced marriage, and other forms of exploitation and abuse. At Aura Freedom, we are big advocates for long-term prevention. We like to ‘zoom out’ and address the root causes of GBV with youth in order to create a generational change. What are some of the root causes of GBV? What are some actions that young people can take to get involved with eradicating GBV in their communities and globally?
Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi: GBV is rooted in patriarchal systems, gender-based discriminatory cultures, and social norms that perpetuate inequality. Young people are particularly at risk because they are not equipped with the comprehensive sexuality education needed to identify various patterns and forms of abuse, or to take steps when confronted with violent situations. Adolescence is a formative stage in which most young girls (i) get information about their bodies from peers who lack adequate knowledge; and (ii) interact with boys who are also ill-informed about gender equality and various forms of sexual violence. Young girls who are unaware of the signs to look out for will be unable to identify predatory behaviors, refuse sexual advances, and/or report such violations. Poverty, societal and community norms, and pressure further increase the chance of young girls experiencing GBV. For instance, in certain parts of Africa, young girls experience FGM/C at a very young age, and this has tremendous effects on their health and sexual well-being. In some other parts of Africa, adolescents are forced into irregular migration to uplift their families from poverty, with some unfortunately falling victim of human trafficking in the process. And in some rural communities, young girls without access to sanitary pads are lured by men who exploit their circumstance to abuse them.
The best way to eradicate GBV is to foster its prevention through awareness-raising strategies, community mobilization, and effective, holistic support led by young people. This involves equipping young people with the information they need to educate their peers on actions that contribute to GBV, the importance of gender equality, and the support they need to engage community leaders with the power to push for the elimination of practices that are harmful to young people as highlighted by the Sustainable Development Goals. They must also push for policies and systems that ensure the safety of women and girls in public and private settings. Finally, young men specifically must begin to challenge deeply rooted social norms that reinforce inequalities and abuse.
Marissa Kokkoros: While data on the prevalence of GBV in humanitarian contexts are limited, research suggests that one in five internally displaced or refugee women living in humanitarian settings have experienced sexual violence. Why should GBV prevention and support services be prioritized, particularly in humanitarian settings and during times of crisis? What should organizations and national actors do to ensure that all programs, policies, and approaches to providing support to survivors of gender-based violence are barrier-free, trauma-informed, and survivor centered?
Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi: In most crises or conflicts, sexual violence is used as a weapon to maim and suppress. Unfortunately, women and girls are primarily affected as they are vulnerable during this period. During crisis, there is a breakdown of law and order, political and social systems, in addition to displacement – which in turn emboldens abusers to violate human rights with impunity. First responders in humanitarian settings have also exploited vulnerabilities and power imbalances to abuse women and girls. As such, mitigating, responding to, and addressing sexual violence is critical. National actors working in humanitarian settings must be knowledgeable, trained, and compassionate, in accordance with international standards to ensure that healthcare, psychosocial and social support, and legal redress respects the needs of survivors while preventing retraumatization. In addition, institutions must develop mechanisms to monitor, report, and seek redress for GBV and other human rights violations, and ensure adequate coordination among service providers in all settings.
Marissa Kokkoros: GBV occurs both in and outside of the home. An estimated 740 million girls and women globally, in carrying out a wide range of informal jobs ꟷ from domestic work to seasonal agriculture ꟷ work for lower wages, with limited legal protections, in unsafe conditions, including a heightened risk of GBV. In Nigeria and many other countries globally, the world has also witnessed an uptick in violence against peaceful protesters. Though international law lays out binding legal obligations for states to end GBV at home, at work, and in the streets, more needs to be done to amplify the voices of all girls and women. To fully understand the nature and scope of discrimination against women in every sphere, why is an intersectional approach, that brings all girls and all women to the table—and then listens to them—so important?
Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi: ‘There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives’ said feminist scholar and activist Audre Lorde in 1982. GBV can’t be fully addressed if the experiences of all girls and women aren’t at the center of every policy and program. An intersectional approach is the only just, viable, and sustainable path forward. By understanding the different ways in which violence is perpetuated and experienced, we are able to design and implement holistic programming and frameworks that redress the various forms of injustice women and girls face. This framework understands the complexities of women’s rights and the connection between various forms of injustice. Forms of injustice are intertwined. For instance, women who are sexually violated often face restrictions when accessing essential healthcare, including emergency contraception and safe abortion services, further traumatizing them.
An intersectional approach to addressing discrimination against girls and women with disabilities in the workplace, for example, should explore their vulnerability to experiencing sexual and domestic violence, as well as challenges to accessing context-specific support services. Any intervention that seeks to address one issue but fails to holistically address the various fall-out issues or root causes of a problem as complex and multifaceted as GBV will only achieve minimal change. An intersectional approach is critical to fully eliminating GBV in all its forms.
Marissa Kokkoros: This work is hard. As advocates for gender equality working to end gender-based violence, including sexual violence, it sometimes feels like we’re fighting an uphill battle. Any person working to address gender-based violence has fallen to their knees at some point and asked, “Is anything changing?” “Why do I bother?” I know I have. But then, we get back up. I call this ‘Relentless Resilience’. Since founding STER, what has energized you, or made you hopeful? What do you tell yourself when things get tough, and what advice would you give other young people working to advance gender equality in their own community?
Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi: Starting the national conversation to end gender-based violence in Nigeria through STER was one of the toughest, but important decisions I have made. Since founding STER six years ago, I have experienced a lot of professional and financial setbacks that sometimes make me think, “perhaps I am fighting a lost cause.” But when I see survivors speak up because of our advocacy work or hear testimonials from communities who have either abandoned a harmful practice or established a better system for women and girls, I am further reminded that the work we do is so vital and is making change. This encourages me a lot. I always remind myself that the work to achieve gender equality is not a short-term intervention and only those who are in it for the long-haul can really see its benefit. When things get extremely difficult, I remind myself of why I started the organization in the first place. I founded STER so that every young person coming behind me doesn’t have to experience sexual violence. Should anyone experience this brutal violation of human rights, STER is there to support and shield them. At the core of STER’s existence is ending sexual and gender-based violence and establishing a just and fair world for women and girls. Until we achieve this, my work is not done.
For other young people changing the status quo and redefining what our future should be, until the end goal is achieved, your work is not done. Keep engaging, changing, and instituting the differences that will be beneficial not just for women, but all persons. If you are a feminist like myself, own up to your glory and fight to take those patriarchal walls down! Remember to lead with focus, passion, and grace to transform your vision into a movement. But above all, remember to prioritize your mental health and take breaks where needed.