Imagine if one out of every three people you know, love and care for were victims of physical and sexual violence. Now imagine that all those people, about whom you care, who suffered, were women and girls. And that the violence they experienced had an enduring impact upon all aspects of their lives, destructively impacting their basic rights, freedoms, health, mental well-being, education and work.
You would hope that in our day and age, there would be an effective response to almost completely prevent their suffering, to address the unprecedented scale of the problem. You would be horrified to discover that only a tiny fraction of abusers ever faced justice, that most people were bystanders to this tragedy with little or no training on how to intervene, and in fact that many communities routinely dismissed the issue as a private matter.
Unfortunately, we do not need to use our imagination. It is a disturbing and frightening reality for many women and girls in every culture and community. It is a sad fact that our world has tolerated and virtually normalised such suffering. This is unacceptable. We must change.
It is for precisely this reason why the Commonwealth is fully mobilised and committed to pushing for a new reality, one where women and girls are safe, valued and respected in every sphere of life.
Experience teaches us that addressing the devastating impacts of this hidden pandemic of physical and sexual violence requires a coordinated response, involving all sectors. In that respect, we have taken a multisectoral approach through our Commonwealth Says NO MORE campaign to challenge the status quo that abuse is inevitable and work towards a progressive shift in the societal attitudes that perpetuate the violence as well as the underlying inequalities that make women vulnerable.
By visiting the campaign website, governments, particularly those with more limited resources, can download culturally sensitive toolkits to establish local chapters to support victims and those at risk, train community leaders to counter harmful social norms and guide bystanders to intervene when they witness violence. Recognising that it often takes victims a long time to understand the insidious nature of the abuse, our resources are specifically designed to help them better identify the signs of abuse, which are often not limited to physical violence, and give them one-stop access to critical information, including local hotlines, shelters, safety plans and legal guidance.
While prevention is our priority, it is clear from the evidence that millions of women and girls around the world continue to suffer from abuse. To bring down these cases and keep them safe from future harm, there is an urgent need to ensure women from all backgrounds have effective and equal access to legal protections and services. Working with partners, including UN Women, we are providing support for countries to reform such legislation and laws which discriminate unjustly on grounds of gender so that women have equal rights to leave their abusive partners and seek justice. These interventions are further complemented by our legal handbooks, which are supporting judicial officers in sensitively handling cases of violence, including ways to tackle biases in court.
More importantly, we recognise abuse does not stop when women are removed from abusive homes. It is important, therefore, that the response should take into account the long-term needs of victims to recover from trauma and rebuild their lives. We have been accelerating our advocacy and policy efforts to ensure victims can access the healthcare they need, including mental health services, at a reasonable cost, as well as educational and economic opportunities to achieve their full potential.
I would also lay particular emphasis on the importance of mobilising practical action among our 56 Commonwealth countries through meetings and dialogues to share resources and experiences on how best to tackle and end this issue. It is encouraging, in this regard, that at our recent policy dialogue during the 2022 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Rwanda, we witnessed renewed commitment by governments through the endorsement of the Commonwealth Guidelines for a Whole System Approach Towards Addressing Violence Against Women and Girls.
Building on the best practices from various Commonwealth countries, the guidelines set out instructions on how to create a culture of change through actions such as designing and implementing national action plans, improving the way different public departments work together to support victims, and developing a set of indicators through which progress can be measured. As countries strive to act with greater urgency to protect women and girls from violence, we are encouraging them to also consider using the Commonwealth resources to adopt a more joined-up and systemwide approach towards preventing and tackling this pervasive violation.
So, while it is heartening that throughout the Commonwealth, we see promising initiatives and commitments by governments and organisations to bring down the cases of violence, we note with concern that in the face of depleting public resources, the world is sleepwalking into its old habits, which the pandemic showed us, were inadequate and ineffective.
Today, as we mark International Women’s Day, we must commit to transformative action that keeps ending violence against women and girls high on the agenda. This means each one of us needs to take responsibility, individually and collectively, by making our homes places of safety for women and girls, taking full advantage of the resources made available by the Commonwealth and other organisations. That is the only way to end violence in our neighbourhoods, communities and countries.
The task ahead of us is immense. However, with sustained conviction and commitment from everyone, together, it is foreseeable that one day in the not-too-distant future, we may awake to gender-based violence being relegated to the annals of history, where it belongs.
We must all say no more.