Five steps to end violence in the world’s poorest countries

Ahead of the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, gender-based violence expert Lara Fergus shares what she’s learnt from working in one of the world’s least developed communities

1. Use data to your advantage

Identifying the problem is the first step towards change. Statistics can shock governments into action. This was the case in Kiribati.

A 2008 study found 68 per cent of girls and women who had been in an intimate relationship had experienced some form of violence. This figure gave the government – with the help of women’s organisations, the UN and international aid agencies – the impetus to try to bring about change.

2. Build on existing systems

Governments don’t always have the money to invest in new programmes – this was certainly the case in Kiribati. Instead, they need to tap into existing systems.

Of course, the police, justice, health and social welfare sectors must first work together to respond to existing violence. But to stop violence before it starts, the everyday work of sectors such as education, health and labour needs to be harnessed – to help build environments where girls and women are respected as equals, and violence is not accepted.

In response to that 2008 report, Kiribati’s schools are now changing their curriculums to include teaching about respectful relationships, gender equality and preventing violence. They’re also training teachers to counsel students who have experienced violence, or are living with it at home. This provides children and young people with alternative models, and the skills they need to create non-violent and equal relationships of their own.

Continuing support from trained specialists and women’s organisations is crucial to the success of this approach. Tapping into the experience of organisations such as the Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre and the Tongan Women and Children’s Crisis Centre, Kiribati stakeholders are working hard to establish their first independent and multi-disciplinary Women’s and Children’s Support Centre.

3. Tackle wider inequality issues

Individual programmes will only help the participants. There needs to be a more co-ordinated approach to tackle gender inequality, gender stereotyping and social norms around violence.

In Kiribati, the changes to the education curriculum can be backed up by increasing girls’ participation in sports clubs or a social marketing campaign. For adults it could involve working with faith and other community leaders, or going from village to village educating people about law reform and gender equality – something the Women’s Development Division and Kiribati police are doing on the outer islands.

The idea is to reach out to boys and men, and to empower girls and women by giving them knowledge and tools to shape their own futures.

4. Monitor short- and medium-term success indicators

Reducing levels of violence takes a long time: even well-funded initiatives might take five to 10 years to make a real impact – and they need to be carefully monitored to make sure the impact is the right one.

This can make it tough to maintain momentum, so you need to look at how to measure the progress that comes before that. Attitudinal surveys are one way to assess smaller developments such as acceptance of the issue and changing attitudes to gender equality.

In Kiribati, they’re only just starting the long journey toward social change. The changes outlined in points 2 and 3 are still in their infancy, but by transforming practices that keep girls and women from fully participating in schools and workplaces, they’re starting to see the progress that unfolds when girls and women are full contributors.

After three years they’ve found that people are starting to see there’s a problem and that they can do something about it. That’s progress – and it’s helping to maintain the momentum for change.

5. Be prepared for a backlash

See backlash as a sign of success. It means that people sense that things are changing. Change is always worrying for some members of any community. In Kiribati, when the Women’s Development Division raised awareness about domestic violence, some people would say things like: “You’re ruining our women,” or “This is our culture,” but really they’re just reacting to a change in the status quo. Donors and decision-makers must be prepared for this, and see it as a sign of progress. That’s why point four is so important if you’re going to see change through.

Above all, community conversations and debate about these issues must be welcomed and facilitated – with girls and women having a clear voice. They’re the key to creating lasting change.

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Lara would like to thank the Kiribati government, the UN, Kiribati women’s and human rights organisations and AusAid – as well as Sue Finucane and Felicity Rorke – for their work on this issue and in helping to frame these conclusions.