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[Findings from The Asia Foundation’s Nabilan survey confirm that rates of violence against women, in particular violence from an intimate partner, are high in Timor-Leste. Photo/Conor Ashleigh]

From September 18-21, more than 500 researchers, practitioners, policy makers, and activists gathered in Rio de Janeiro for the 5th Sexual Violence Research Initiative (SVRI) Forum, to share quantitative and qualitative data about the characteristics of sexual and intimate partner violence across settings, and evidence of what works for the prevention and response to violence against women and girls. We were invited to present The Asia Foundation’s research from Timor-Leste and China, and were joined by participants representing over 65 countries, from the Americas, Africa, Europe, and Asia. Over the course of four days and 345 presentations, the following four key takeaways stood out.

Violence against women is preventable. During her opening remarks on the first day of the forum, Emma Fulu, director and founder of the Equality Institute, argued that “we have pretty much proven that violence against women is preventable” and that it is possible to reduce rates of violence against women in years, not generations. A few days later, Mary Ellsberg, director of George Washington University’s Global Women’s Institute, reinforced this point when sharing data from Nicaragua that showed rates of intimate partner violence were halved in the space of 20 years, though emphasized that “it requires coordinated actions on all levels.”

Evidence shows that comprehensive, community-wide interventions that address behaviors as well as attitudes and norms are critical. The SASA! approach is one such example, that was designed by Raising Voices in Uganda, and addresses the root causes of violence against women through a community-wide exploration of power, including “what it is, who has it, how it is used, how it is abused and how power dynamics between women and men can change for the better.” Since a pair-matched cluster randomized controlled trial in eight communities in Kampala found that the level of physical partner violence against women was 52 percent lower in SASA! communities than in control communities, the SASA! approach has been adapted for use in over 20 countries.

Intimate partner violence (IPV) and violence against children are linked. Studies from South Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as well as our own research in Timor-Leste and Cambodia demonstrate the intergenerational nature of IPV, and how childhood exposure to violence and/or a child’s direct experience of violence increases their risk of experiencing and perpetrating IPV in adulthood. These findings from around the world clearly demonstrate the need to guarantee provision of quality psychosocial support for children who experience or witness violence. In China, where more than 43 percent of children between 10-17 years old were abused by one or both parents in the form of corporal punishment or verbal and/or psychological abuses and nearly one in four women experience domestic violence, our programs are grounded in this evidence, and engage social worker organizations, in collaboration with the local women’s federation and the police to strengthen both community-based assistance and victim-centered assistance to women, men, and children who experience domestic violence.

Mental health issues are associated with both IPV experience and perpetration. A study from a peri-urban settlement near Johannesburg, South Africa, that collected data from 2,603 men, found that every single adverse childhood experience (i.e., physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, emotional neglect, physical neglect) is associated with men’s adult perpetration of IPV, as well as rape of a non-partner, and that each additional type of childhood or adult trauma raised the likelihood of perpetrating IPV by 23 percent. In Timor-Leste, our research found that more than half of all Timorese women experienced symptoms of depression, and women who experience IPV were twice as likely to have depression and 5.5 times more likely to have suicidal thoughts. Women with symptoms of depression were more likely to have experienced IPV (and non-partner rape) during their lives, compared to women without depression. Men who perpetrated IPV were also more likely to have symptoms of depression than men who did not, and men with symptoms of trauma were more than two times more likely to perpetrate IPV. It is difficult to overstate the challenge of addressing these intersections in countries where you can count the certified psychiatrists and social workers on one hand, and impossible to overstate the need. Several tools were shared to support these efforts, including UNFPA’s online curriculum for essential social services for women and girls who are subject to violence.

Violence against women is political. Evidence from across countries and regions showed that addressing factors associated with violence without tackling the root causes—gender and power inequality—is ineffective. Many individuals and organizations underscored the need to bring violence prevention work back to its feminist roots. Among them was the Coalition of Feminists for Social Change (COFEM), a collective of over 80 practitioners, academics, and activists, which was created earlier this year to reassert a feminist perspective in work to address violence against women and girls. While increased donor commitment to ending gender-based violence brings new and necessary opportunities to expand the evidence base and make progress on prevention and response, a COFEM paper launched at SVRI noted that the “evolving definitions of GBV have shifted away from a specific focus on women and girls,” which risks allowing the patriarchal and discriminatory systems that perpetuate systemic violence against women and girls to remain unchecked, and violence against women to persist.

Fortunately, if the energy at SVRI was any indication, the individuals, organizations, and approaches represented at the forum are not about to let that happen.

This was first published by The Asia Foundation. Permission to publish on the SVRI Blog was given by the authors.

Written by Barbara Rodriguez, Chen Tingting and Xian Warner, The Asia Foundation


Thank you to the Lotus Circle for supporting the research in China, and to Trustee Emeritus Gina Lin Chu’s Gender Smart Initiative for supporting the Foundation’s staff travel to the SVRI forum.

Barbara Rodriguez is associate director of The Asia Foundation’s Women’s Empowerment Program, Chen Tingting is program officer for women’s empowerment in China, and Xian Warner is the Foundation’s prevention coordinator for Nabilan in Timor-Leste. Secundino Rangel, the Foundation’s partnership deputy coordinator for Nabilan in Timor-Leste contributed. The Nabilan Program is generously funded by the Australia government. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.

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