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How can policy-makers help protect women and girls from violence?

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Thursday, 14 March, 2013

“People can change their attitudes. We have to help them do it.” Speaking at an inquiry of the UK International Development Committee, Gro Harlem Brundtland discusses what parliamentarians and policy-makers can do to ensure development programming tackles gender-based violence.

With violence against women and girls a major focus of both International Women’s Day last Friday and of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) currently underway in New York, Gro Harlem Brundtland gave evidence on Tuesday at a UK parliamentary committee on this topic, drawing on The Elders’ experience of initiating Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage.

The International Development Committee oversees the policy and spending of the UK Department for International Development – its inquiries are an important way for expert witnesses to share their experience.

Backlash against women’s equality

As the first female Prime Minister of Norway – a country with a strong record on gender equality which recently marked 100 years since women were first able to vote – Dr Brundtland warned that while many societies have made great progress on women’s rights, the continuing prevalence of gender-based violence in all its forms around the world means the UK and others cannot afford to be complacent.

“If we don’t keep the issue of violence against women on the agenda,” she said, “we will face backlashes.” Although women’s rights are enshrined in international agreements like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Dr Brundtland said that the attempt by some countries to override these principles in the name of ‘national sovereignty’ or ‘culture’ is “absolutely unacceptable”.

Work directly with communities

Dr Brundtland told the Committee about The Elders’ strategy of focusing on child marriage as an “entry point” into tackling systemic discrimination, including norms which permit violence against girls and women. Asked by MPs Malcolm Bruce and Michael McCann what the UK government can do and where its development assistance should be focused, she described how organisations in India and Ethiopia are working directly with girls, families and local leaders to provide information about the dangers of child marriage, and support communities who decide collectively to end the practice.

She recommended that the UK fund programmes like these that have already proven to be successful, helping to create space for dialogue in the communities worst affected by violence against girls and women.

Dr Brundtland: “When you dare to speak, and talk to people about the dangers [of female genital cutting or child marriage], they start to open their minds and ask questions. People can change their attitudes. We have to help them do it.”

Watch the video of the full hearing below:  

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