Violence against women and girls touches Rwanda just as it does every other nation. Gender-based violence is a global pandemic that cuts across all borders - ethnicity, race, socio-economic status, and religion.
It can threaten women and girls at any point in their life- from female feticide and inadequate access to education and nutrition to child marriage, incest, and so-called “honor” killings.
It can take the form of dowry -related murder or domestic violence, rape (including spousal rape), sexual exploitation and abuse, trafficking in persons, or the neglect and ostracism of widows. One in three women around the world will experience some form of gender-based violence in her lifetime.
In Rwanda, according to the Rwanda Men’s Resource Center (RWAMREC), a survey found that 57% of women had experienced domestic violence at the hands of their partners, primarily in the form of forced sex (32%) and slapping (30%). In some countries that number is as high as 70 percent.
This year, we once again mark “16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence,” commencing on November 25 with the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and ending December 10 with International Human Rights Day.
It is clear that the international community must offer up more than words to answer the call to free women and girls from violence. Whether it happens behind closed doors or as a public tactic of intimidation, whether down the street of our own neighborhood or on distant shores, violence against women and girls damages us all -men and women alike.
We must stand up to the impunity that too often leaves the most egregious perpetrators unaccountable for their crimes. We must redress the low status of women and girls around the world that renders them undervalued and vulnerable.
Further, we must support the inclusion of men and boys in addressing and preventing violence and changing gender attitudes, increase accountability and commitment by community and government leaders on this issue, as well as highlight and promote effective programs that are already successfully at work.
These 16 Days are a sobering reminder that gender-based violence cannot be treated as solely a women’s issue - it is a profound challenge for the entire world. Gender-based violence is not just an affront to human rights and dignity - it adversely impacts the welfare of our communities.
When women and girls are abused, businesses close, incomes shrink, families go hungry, and children grow up internalizing behavior that perpetuates the cycle of violence. There is no end to the economic and detrimental social and health costs that come along with this brutality.
Consider the costs incurred for substantial medical and legal services as a result of injury and abuse. Or calculate the costs of lost household productivity and reduced income stemming from the forfeit of paid working days.
As many women often work in “the informal economy” selling market goods or working as domestics, such costs are often hidden - even in plain sight.
This damage is passed on to the rest of the community as judicial, health and security services are strained. Violence effectively acts as a cancer on societies, causing enormous upheaval in the progress of social and economic development.
Physical violence vastly increases women’s risk for a range of serious conditions, including reproductive health problems, miscarriages and sexually transmitted diseases, such as HIV. There are also strong linkages to maternal mortality, as well as poor child health and morbidity.
Beyond the individual pain and suffering, gender-based violence has a range of economic effects at the national level, such as foregone foreign investment and reduced confidence in a given country’s institutions.
No country or part of the world is immune to these costs. In the United States, the cost of violence against women alone exceeds $5.8 billion per year. Another $4.1 billion is spent on direct medical and health care services, with productivity losses accounting for another $1.8 billion.
In a time of strained budgets, some may paint efforts at intervention as prohibitively expensive. Although investing resources in the prevention and prosecution of acts of aggression against women may cost money upfront, it pays enormous dividends in the long run.
The United States’ Violence Against Women Act, which strengthened efforts to investigate and prosecute such crimes, has been estimated to have saved more than $16 billion since its enactment in 1994. The majority of these savings have stemmed from averted survivors’ costs.
Rwanda has taken great strides toward gender equality. In addition to having the highest percentage of women Members of Parliament in the world (56.3%), the government is a strong proponent of educating about and legislating against sexual- and gender-based violence.
Domestic violence has been criminalized with culprits receiving severe penalties, including prison sentences. The successful One Stop Centre model is being installed around the country, offering investigative, medical and legal support to victims.
Also, in an effort to understand the scope of the problem, the government promotes research, collects data and compiles statistics on domestic violence. We applaud Rwanda’s work in this area.
These 16 days offer an opportunity to renew the commitment to free women and girls from the nightmare of violence, whether the abuse occurs in the home behind closed doors, or in the open fields of armed conflict. Countries cannot progress when half their populations are marginalized and mistreated, and subjected to discrimination. When women and girls are accorded their rights and afforded equal opportunities in education, healthcare, employment, and political participation, they lift up their families, their communities, and their nations - and act as agents of change.
As Secretary Clinton recently noted, “Investing in the potential of the world’s women and girls is one of the surest ways to achieve global economic progress, political stability, and greater prosperity for women - and men - the world over.”
Donald Koran is US Ambassador to Rwanda