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Preventing and responding to violence against women

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Speaker: The Ambassador for Women and Girls, Natasha Stott Despoja (check against delivery)

59th Session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women, New York

It is wonderful to be joined by all of you today to discuss the pressing, global problem of violence against women and girls through the lens of a special series of The Lancet.

Violence against women and girls is a serious global issue, affecting all countries of the world including Australia. Described by Margaret Chan, Director-General of WHO as a "global health problem of epidemic proportions", in Australia I consider violence against women a national emergency.

Despite the best efforts of many people, women in particular, over many decades, violence against women persists as one of the world's most heinous and prevalent human rights abuses.

There is an inextricable link between entrenched barriers to gender equality, negative social perceptions of women's status and role, and violence against women.

Shifting global attitudes on this issue have however urged reform in key areas of both policy and programs, including legislation, service provision and delivery, and access to health and justice.

123 countries have criminalised domestic violence over the past few decades. However, these laws are often not fully or effectively implemented. Additionally, 53 countries still do not recognise forced sex (rape) within marriage as a crime.

The Beijing Platform for Action, in 1995, called for action by governments, the international community and civil society, including non-governmental organisations and the private sector, to collect data relating to the prevalence of different forms of violence against women, the consequences of this violence and the effectiveness of measures implemented to prevent and redress violence against women.

Twenty years on, while action has been slow, there is a growing body of international evidence upon which action can be based.
A significant recent contribution is The Lancet series that we are here to discuss today.

This past November, a special series of The Lancet on Violence against Women and Girls was released. It was first launched globally in the UK in November, with a US launch in December at the George Washington University in Washington, DC. Australia was very proud to support this Lancet series. We value our partnership with the Global Women's Institute and commend its work.

The Lancet series includes five articles providing information on violence prevention, health sector responses to violence, working with men and boys to change norms which promote violence, and an important call to action.

Today's discussion will expand on three areas of research included in The Lancet series: the current evidence on rigorously-evaluated interventions to reduce violence against women and girls internationally; the health care response to violence against women and girls; and the call to action that summarises the main findings of the research presented in the series.

Publications like The Lancet series are essential of themselves and also for the discourse they generate.

Through this publication, we are able to connect research with action, and inform future programming and policy with a strong evidence base.

Sharing lessons learned across a variety of contexts contributes to both understanding and to the formulation of appropriate community, national and global responses.

For Australia, the Pacific is a particular priority as a region where we have longstanding and valuable partnerships to address our shared experiences of gender based violence.

With support from Australia's aid program, since 2008, ten Pacific Family Health and Safety Studies have been conducted. Drawing on World Health Organisation methodology, Pacific Family Health and Safety Studies have been conducted in Kiribati, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Fiji, Tonga, Nauru, Palau, Federated States of Micronesia, Republic of Marshall Islands and Cook Islands.

Results of the surveys are stark and demand a strong response. While the global average for intimate partner physical and or sexual violence against women is 30 per cent, in the Pacific, women report much higher levels of violence – for example, 40 per cent of women in Tonga and 68 per cent of women in Kiribati have suffered violence from their intimate partner.

The data has had an impact. The magnitude of the problem has been quantified and it is better understood because of the research. As a result, governments in the region are taking effective action.

For example, the 2010 Family Health and Support Study conducted in Kiribati has been catalytic in the Government of Kiribati's efforts to address violence against women and girls.

It has brought discussion of violence into the public domain. The Government unanimously endorsed the study findings and committed to a policy of 'zero tolerance' of sexual and gender based violence. Impressively, the Government translated the study findings into the National Policy and Strategic Action Plan 2011-2021.

Lancet's series on violence against women is a welcome contribution to the evidence base. It has significantly expanded our knowledge about the vital role of the health sector in care and prevention, and the need for men and women to be involved in effective programs.

I commend the series and related work to develop a call to action that provides key recommendations and guidance on tracking progress in a coordinated way.

Thank you.

Last Updated: 23 July 2015
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