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Defeating discrimination: how to end violence against women

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“Violence against women is rooted in deeply ingrained social norms that portray women as less than men.” Writing on International Women’s Day for Skoll World Forum, Gro Harlem Brundtland argues that to end the violence affecting millions of women worldwide, we must transform the conditions that make this violence possible.


Violence, sadly, is one thing that unites women around the world. One in three women will experience violence in her lifetime. That is one billion women.

International Women’s Day 2013 comes a few months after an unprecedented wave of global outrage at the rape and murder of a young woman in Delhi. Before that, the shooting of 15-year old Malala Yousafzai provoked protests across Pakistan and a feeling of shock, and solidarity with her plight, around the world. While the reaction has been unprecedented, this kind of violence – to our shame – is not at all rare.

Women and men are increasingly united in our call to end violence against women. To achieve this, we need to completely transform the conditions, the environment, that actually makes this violence possible.

A global blight

Violence against women and girls is a global problem, and ending it requires a ‘big picture’ approach. A common theme is the need for institutional reform: victims of violence often find it extremely difficult to obtain justice, whether due to inadequate legal frameworks or to failures by the police and judiciary. In some countries, domestic violence isn’t even recognised as a crime. It is sadly not surprising that much violence that women suffer is never reported to the authorities, and that perpetrators go unpunished.

Conflict and environmental degradation compound the problem in many contexts, leaving women even more vulnerable to violence. Soldiers and militias commonly use rape as a weapon of war. As climate change affects the availability of water, food and firewood, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, women have to travel longer distances to fetch supplies, putting them at greater risk of molestation, harassment, rape and beatings.

We cannot treat these issues in isolation; they are part of a bigger picture of systemic discrimination against women. Different forms of violence against women, in different places, are all rooted in deeply ingrained social norms that portray women as less than men.

Gro Harlem Brundtland, October 2012

Gro Harlem Brundtland, October 2012

Discrimination runs deep

These norms, often embedded in traditional or religious discourses, create an environment where unequal treatment is acceptable. They strip away women’s autonomy, denying their fundamental right to self-determination. Violence – whether in the form of beatings, bullying, forced marriage or female infanticide – becomes a tool to keep women and girls ‘in their place’.

This discrimination runs so deep that it negatively affects every aspect of women’s lives – and undermines development efforts. We cannot succeed in giving girls and boys equal access to education when 60 million girls are sexually assaulted on their way to school – or even at school – every year. We cannot improve maternal health when 25,000 girls are married every day before they turn 18, often leading them to bear children before their bodies are ready. We cannot expect women to contribute to the economic development of their communities when they may not even have agency within their families, or their marriages.

Yet it is precisely because these norms affect every aspect of society – indeed, every aspect of girls’ and women’s lives – that we stand to make the most significant change by addressing them.

We must address these root causes

Clearly, we must recognise violence against women as a development issue. But what does that mean in practice? Because these social norms are so pervasive, they can be extremely difficult to challenge. Development practitioners are well aware that they cannot just enter a community and turn its traditions and values upside down.

As a member of The Elders, which initiated the global Girls Not Brides coalition, I have witnessed the profound impact that we can make when we work with communities to tackle harmful traditional practices like child marriage. For example in northern Ethiopia, community workers are engaging whole villages – young girls, parents, married women, husbands, religious and community leaders – in open, informed dialogues on issues like sexual health, gender equality and women’s rights. Similar work is being done in rural Senegal, working with male community leaders to end female genital cutting.

Gro Harlem Brundtland with fellow Elders Desmond Tutu and Mary Robinson, hearing from a women who was married as a child, Ethiopia, June 2011

Gro Harlem Brundtland with fellow Elders Desmond Tutu and Mary Robinson, hearing from a women who was married as a child, Ethiopia, June 2011

Experience shows that development funding that tackles the root causes of violence against women, including challenging entrenched beliefs and practices, can actually be more successful than funding institutional reform. Donors should help to scale up successful community mobilisation projects, and allocate a greater proportion of development assistance to addressing social norms that harm women and girls.

We know that educated, empowered women are more likely to earn a decent income, raise healthy children and invest back into their families and communities. This means ensuring that women enjoy the same rights and opportunities as men. Women must feel safe on the streets and in their homes – and have control over their own bodies. Ending violence against women is not just a moral imperative in its own right; it is essential for building fair and prosperous societies.

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