On the night of November 28, the American Embassy in Islamabad was flooded with a bright orange light to mark the start of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence Campaign.
Since the inception of the 16 Days of Activism in 1991 by the United Nations, the colour orange has been used to symbolise a brighter future, free from violence, for all women and girls.
When women in society do better, countries, like America and Pakistan, do better. As Secretary of State John Kerry said, no society can get ahead if it leaves half of its population behind.
But gender equality cannot be achieved without addressing gender-based violence and its root causes. Such violence hinders all individuals, not just women and girls, from participating in and contributing fully to their families, communities, and nations.
Gender equality and women’s enablement are critical towards building resilient, democratic societies; supporting open and accountable governance; ending extreme poverty; developing vibrant market economies; providing healthcare and education to all; and furthering international peace and security.
An estimated one in three women worldwide will be physically or sexually abused in her lifetime, and one in five will experience rape or attempted rape. In some places, especially in conflict zones, these statistics are much higher.
This violence affects not only women and girls, but also precludes economic growth and fuels cycles of violence and conflict. A recent World Bank study showed that violence against women decreases economic growth, increases healthcare costs and results in decreased productivity and lost income for women and their families.
According to UN Women, violence against women causes more death and disability for women and girls between the ages of 15 and 44 than cancer, traffic accidents, malaria, and war combined. Violence against women can lock entire families into cycles of generational poverty and destabilise nations.
Gender-based violence can also be directed at men, boys, and transgender people, who also face harmful stereotypes and violence that hold them back from living their fullest life. December 10, the last day of the campaign, is Human Rights Day. This is no coincidence. Human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights. Preventing and responding to gender-based violence is a cornerstone of America’s commitment to advancing human rights, promoting gender equality, and the enablement of women and girls.
Catherine Russell, the American Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, said, “We…believe that advancing the status of women and girls worldwide is not only the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do.”
Around the world, America supports projects to raise awareness of gender-based violence; inform policymakers on the issue to build legislative support; train service providers on how best to address the needs of survivors; and increase justice and accountability. We help religious and community leaders mobilise to end gender-based violence.
The American embassy and our Pakistani partners have organised many activities over the past 16 days. We met community activists and visited women’s shelters and organisations throughout Pakistan. We organised social media campaigns, panel discussions, film screenings, art contests, and radio programmes to draw attention to the issue of gender-based violence.
In Sindh, US Consul General Grace Shelton opened a seminar on enhancing legal protection to end violence against women. In Islamabad and Karachi, concerts by American musician Mahogany Jones featured music with the message of eliminating gender-based violence.
Our work continues beyond these 16 days. Throughout the year, America joined hands with the government of Pakistan and civil society members to support women’s rights and empowerment.
We provided healthcare, legal services, and counselling to nearly 40,000 women survivors of gender-based violence. We have improved the livelihoods of more than 9,000 female dairy farmers in Punjab and helped more than 17,000 marginalised women connect with political parties. We have awarded more than 5,200 scholarships for young women to pursue higher education degrees in Pakistan.
Gender-based violence comes in many forms. But each form of violence is a violation of human rights, a barrier to peace and stability, and a call to action. Violence is not inevitable – each of us can and must do something to stop it. The 16-day campaign demands action from all of us – men and women, boys and girls, mothers and fathers, brothers, and sisters, government officials, and community leaders – to end gender-based violence around the world.
During my time in Pakistan, I have met many inspiring women and men who are advocating for the rights of women and gender and sexual minorities. Ultimately, gender-based violence will only end when all people, regardless of gender, are fully valued by society and able to participate.
The writer is the US ambassador to Pakistan.