16 Days: Building More Bright Spots in GBV Activism and Action
Each year people around the globe participate in 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence (GBV), spanning the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (November 25) to International Human Rights Day (December 10).
I’m feeling an extra urgency about 16 Days this year. We are still catching up, given the “shadow pandemic” of GBV made worse by pandemic-related lockdowns; reduced social service availability; economic impact on countries, communities, and individuals; and the deprioritizing of GBV response by governments who were dealing with COVID-19. Meanwhile, many parts of the world continue to endure conflict and climate and other disasters, which also increase GBV while reducing the prevention and response efforts that are essential to survivors.
As I reflect on 16 Days, I realize that I have been involved in addressing violence against women since my first year in university 33 years ago. I joined other students in an organization called Project HEAR: Heightened Education about Acquaintance Rape. We used skits and role-plays to prompt conversation about consent and discussed bystander intervention and resources available on campus. It was intense, and it felt immediately relevant in an environment and at a time when an estimated one in five women on US college campuses was sexually assaulted (which doesn’t include the men and people of other genders who also experience sexual and gender-based violence).
After I graduated from university, I worked at an abortion clinic in North Carolina. There I met and provided counseling to students from nearby colleges who got pregnant after being raped or pressured into sex on their campuses. We provided referrals and immediate healthcare at the clinic, and I collaborated with students at one of the local universities to share resources and information on campus sexual assault prevention programs.
Throughout my many years working on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) around the world, sexual assault and GBV have been key themes. This isn’t surprising, as there are innumerable ways that sexual violence intersects with virtually every other aspect of SRHR. For example, women experiencing violence have less support during pregnancy, which may lead to poor pregnancy outcomes and health. An abusive partner may sabotage a woman’s use of contraception or not allow her to seek healthcare for contraception (or anything else). Women with HIV are at risk of abuse; sexual violence increases the risk of HIV. GBV is inextricably linked with every other aspect of maternal health and SRHR and with educational attainment, economic pursuits, housing and food security—everything.
The enormous need is, in many places, matched by bright spots of activism and action. When I traveled to Ethiopia in 2018, I heard from peer educators at a university there that some young women were moving to campus to attend university and didn’t know that they could say no to sex. These young women also weren’t aware of the signs of pregnancy, and the availability of safe, legal abortion care in their communities. The peer educators were truly saving lives by educating their community about their sexual and reproductive rights, and the available healthcare and services.
In May of this year, I had the privilege of being in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, with my colleagues from the EngenderHealth West and Central Africa team as we launched the Ensemble Initiative—a multi-country, multi-sectoral, survivor-centric initiative to address GBV in the region. Recent stakeholder consultations are demonstrating both the need and energy for a dynamic, partnership-based, and feminist approach to GBV prevention and response. Catalyzing this initiative is part of our commitment to the Generation Equality Forum, which aims to achieve “irreversible progress toward gender equality”—so that all people can live in a world free of sexual and gender-based violence, and achieve their full potential.
Over these 16 Days, my colleagues and many others around the world will raise their voices and apply their energy and skills to addressing the problem of GBV through prevention, response, support, advocacy, activism, research, and more. I hope you’ll join us.
Traci L. Baird,
President and CEO, EngenderHealth