CIVICUS speaks about civil society’s role in the fight against gender-based violence with Lina AbiRafeh, a feminist activist, women’s rights expert and Senior Advisor for Global Women’s Rights at the Arab Institute for Women at the Lebanese American University, where she served as Executive Director for seven years.
How big a problem is violence against women (VAW) at the global level?
VAW is a much bigger global problem than we tend to imagine: statistics show one in every three women and girls will experience violence in their lifetime. The fact so many women and girls are denied the right to live freely without facing restrictions and danger makes this a global crisis that needs urgent attention. I personally do not know a woman who has not been affected by some form of this insidious violence. Women have the right to feel free and safe in their own bodies, at home, in the streets and in any public spaces, but unfortunately that is not – and has never been – their reality.
VAW is a human rights violation that is embedded in our culture – and women are often silenced when they try to speak up. Women-led organisations and women’s rights groups and movements must be supported because they are the voice of these women and girls who are silenced. They are the voice of all women and girls.
Having worked to end VAW around the world for 25 years, I know this is a very hard problem to crack. VAW stems from a global context of gender inequality where women and girls are viewed as less than men, as second-class citizens. There is lack of awareness in our societies and lack of political will among our leaders. Existing laws don’t enable women to access justice, security, services, or support. Nothing works the way it should to put an end to this violence.
Women and girls remain unequal across every aspect of their lives – politics, economy, health, education and the law. Women and girls are the majority of the world’s poor. They are the majority of those who are illiterate. But they are a minority, an exception, and treated like an anomaly in every aspect of leadership and decision-making. Wage gaps are wide, and women are too often relegated to the informal sector. And they continue to bear the burden of unpaid care. In too many countries, women face discriminatory laws that refuse to recognise them as equals with men.
How much progress has been achieved so far?
Women and girls around the world still do not have the opportunity to participate fully in every aspect of social, economic and political life, despite their right to do so. We have made progress, but not enough.
Although advances have been made in trying to reduce VAW, cases continue, and are often perpetrated with impunity.
In many countries, women are being stripped of their sexual and reproductive rights, compromising their health and denying their right to decide about their own bodies and lives. In addition, the problem of girl-child marriage continues, and increased as a result of COVID-19, with 12 million girls under 18 being married off every year. For this and other forms of VAW, rhetoric doesn’t match reality. There is more talk than action.
Women-led organisations must be involved in policy decisions – and be given full leadership. There is a lot of talk about localisation, but this seems to just be a buzzword as most women’s rights and feminist organisations are marginalised and underfunded. This only sets them up for failure because it limits the scope of their work, keeping the support they offer out of reach for the majority of women and girls. We need to fund these organisations fully, and not with the typical short-term quick-fix project funding but with long-term, unrestricted, open-ended funding that can allow them to function and flourish. Local groups should dictate the agenda, not the donors who are holding the strings.
What work do you do to contribute to positive change?
I am committed to building a better world for women. I am a global women’s rights activist, author and speaker with decades of experience worldwide.
I worked for over 20 years as a humanitarian aid worker in contexts such as Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, Haiti and Papua New Guinea. I now work independently, advising organisations and companies to enhance their engagement with women’s rights and gender equality. I also serve as the Senior Advisor for Global Women’s Rights at the Arab Institute for Women at the Lebanese American University, where I was Executive Director until 2022. I am also the founder of Yalla, Feminists!, an online space and open platform dedicated to amplifying women’s voices worldwide.
I was honoured to be able to share my passion and experience in ending VAW on global stages including a TEDx talk, a Women Deliver PowerTalk and a keynote address for Swedish International Development Agency annual meeting, among others.
I’ve written two books: Gender and International Aid in Afghanistan and Freedom on the Frontlines. My next book outlines 50 years of Arab feminism and will be published in early 2023. I will keep using my voice in whatever ways I can to fight for women’s rights and remedy inequalities. That’s why I speak and publish everywhere I can and I serve on the board of numerous global women’s rights organisations.
What good practices should be implemented to prevent VAW?
We need to start believing survivors so that perpetrators can be brought to justice. When women see the law is on their side, more will be encouraged to speak up. We also need to make sure that survivors have access to the full range of services and support, and security systems handle their cases with care.
There is also a need to reform education so that more people are taught about VAW, consent, human rights and women’s rights – from a very young age. Education can bring us a step closer to defeating this scourge. We need men to step up to support women and speak up against perpetrators. And yes, we need data, but not at the expense of action. Anyway, data will always underestimate the reality. And what we know is that no country is immune. This affects women and girls everywhere, in every culture and context and community.
Get in touch with Lina AbiRafeh through her website or her Medium blog, and follow @LinaAbiRafeh on Twitter.