How can policymakers support the elimination of gender-based violence?

3 questions with our expert Julieta Marotta for the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women

According to UN Women, almost one in three women and girls have been “subjected to physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence, non-partner sexual violence, or both, at least once in their life.” And yet, just 5 percent of government aid is focused on tackling this issue.

In commemoration of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, which falls on 25 November 2023, our assistant professor and acting programme director of our Master in Science of Public Policy and Human Development Julieta Marotta speaks to this issue through a policymaking lens, honed from her years of research in the field.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Why is this observance day important to you?

This day is important for all of us because it helps us to remember that we need to continue working to eradicate violence against women. We know that the aggressor does thorough work to dominate the victim. In Spanish we say that they do “ant work,” and it takes also “ant work” for the victim to build back self-confidence. We see the same in society. Society has been built with a number of stereotypes to diminish gender and women.

This discrimination will persist if we don’t do something about that. There are a number of advances that society went through in order to eliminate violence and discrimination against women, but it will take a lot of work in order to eradicate this because it’s embedded in society. That’s why it’s important to commemorate this day – to think about this and to also reflect on which position we want to take.

Eighty-six percent of women and girls live in countries without legal protections against gender-based violence. What sorts of legal protections are needed most?

The right of women to a life free of violence advanced a lot in 1979 with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. This was a global policy to approach the right of women to a life free of discrimination and violence. We now see that countries have enacted domestic policy and domestic law in order to eradicate violence. Law is an important tool. We need to have a law, we need to have the standards, we need to have the enforcement mechanisms in order to punish the aggressors, and we need to have the tools to assist the victim to recover.

But we also need to have the chance for victims to become aware of their rights. I will say that there are three main pillars on this. One is to have a law that is comprehensive, that addresses violence in a comprehensive way, because violence is not only about punishment; it’s also about enabling the woman to become independent again from the aggressor. So that’s why it’s very important to aim to have a comprehensive law with a multidisciplinary approach to the conflict. The second aspect is to have trained providers who can understand the complexity of violence and who can address violence at a comprehensive level. We know that violence is cyclical and that victims often go back to the aggressors, and providers need to be patient enough to receive the victim over and over again, and still support them as many times as they reach out to them for help.

Then the third aspect is cooperation among different bodies of the government; we observe that the judiciary can enforce of laws, the congress can enact laws. But what the practitioners always stress is that executives play a key role. This is because violence doesn’t stop with a sentence. Violence doesn’t stop with a punishment. Violence continues. And the only way that violence stops is when executives take into consideration the situation of the victim and the aggressor to help them build their own capabilities and learn how to live a life free of violence, when through the educational systems we teach children to communicate in a peaceful and non-discriminatory way. And it takes time and resources to develop and implement a comprehensive policy that involves all sectors.

What are some of the most effective ways policymakers can be proactive against gender-based violence in their countries?

So the first element is a personal attitude. Policymakers need to condemn violence. There has to be a black-or-white element – it’s accepted or not accepted. And policymakers need to be very strong in not accepting violence and not executing violence themselves. This is quite difficult because of what I was saying before on societies being so embedded in stereotypes that they turn to be discriminatory. Vocabulary is discriminatory by essence. It has been built addressing mostly the male over the female. There are lots of things that need to be cleaned, but it’s very important that policymakers are aware of this, that they make an effort in order to not repeat stereotypes, and that they are conscious about this discrimination that is embedded in society. Policymakers need to be advocates on this, as the third sector has done for decades.

The second element is to continue enacting different policies to fight the problems that we are having now. There are a number of policies that were implemented in the last years – a number of them – and there is a need to evaluate these policies to see to what extent they work and what we need to do to continue working into that direction. We are not done with the work. There is a lot of work that needs to be done. We still see discrimination. We still see more men in powerful positions. We still see salary discrepancies…

I think that the last main element here is to democratize governmental bodies to have representation of different groups in society. Here I’m not including only women, but all the different diversities that are embedded in societies where we aim to have democratic policy that ensures all voices are heard.