By Kerry McQuillan, Deputy President, Stranmillis College
Gender-based violence is a massive global issue that continues unabated in every continent, country and culture worldwide. It takes a devastating toll on women’s lives, on their families, and on society as a whole, and yet we can often be somewhat oblivious to its very existence and ignorant to its heartbreaking consequences.
As many as one in every three women has been beaten, coerced into sex or abused in some other way – most often by someone she knows. To attempt to wrap our heads around the scale of this global problem we must familiarise ourselves with at least a few more figures: more than 700 million women alive today were married as children, 200 million women and girls have undergone female genital mutilation, and two out of every three child trafficking victims are female. Gender-based violence kills and disables as many women aged 15-44 as cancer, malaria, traffic accidents and war combined.
Gender based violence holds no frontiers, but women in developing countries and nations in conflict are perhaps more prone to specific types of gender based violence heightened by national poverty, violence caused by armed conflicts, gender, class and race inequities and the inability to access fundamental human rights.
The consequences of gender-based violence on a woman’s health are manifold. Survivors often experience, as a direct consequence of violence, life-long emotional distress, mental health problems and poor reproductive health. Abused women are also at higher risk of acquiring HIV and being infected by sexually transmitted infections. The impact of violence may also extend to future generations: Children who have witnessed abuse of their mothers are more likely to also be child victims of family violence, often suffer lasting psychological damage, and are more likely to become victims and perpetrators of violence in adulthood.
As a student, as a female, and most importantly as a human being, I believe I have a duty to use my privilege of freedom, influence, and a platform to speak up for justice. Justice means that no-one is denied a voice and a place; everyone has a right to live free from fear and to be valued for who they are. But in our world, women and girls are frequently denied that place and that voice: humiliated, marginalised, and made objects of violence.
Achieving gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls will require more vigorous efforts, including legal frameworks, improving their social, economic and political empowerment as well as increasing an awareness of their rights and improving education surrounding these issues.
Education is an area very close to my own heart. As a student studying to go into the teaching profession I believe there is so much value to be placed on both the preventative and reactive role it can play in educating children about issues as well as shaping morals, attitudes and values. Educating our girls is crucial for the eradication of global poverty. When societies don’t value girls and their futures, entire communities suffer and generations are mired in poverty. An educated girl will have healthier children, earn a greater income and is more likely to send her own children to school. Education has the power to teach all genders to respect each other, respect themselves, develop self-esteem and place value on their identities, relationships and bodies.
The eradication of Gender Based Violence is naturally the ultimate goal, but this is a multi-dimensional, complex issue which is entangled within cultures, traditions and religions. This does not make it acceptable in any way, but it does make it much harder to tackle, and the complexity and severity of the scale of it is not to be underestimated. Any attempt to tackle this issue may feel like a drop in the ocean, but drops cause ripples and ripples incite change. It is through the small actions we take, such as raising awareness, that we begin to see a shift in the big things; all we have to do is be willing to step out and speak up.