The global effort to end gender-based violence

It was an early August evening in Kenema, Sierra Leone, when 15-year-old Aminata* was sent by her aunt to go and buy some batteries. She didn’t make it home.

A man met her along the road and dragged her into his house. She tried to shout but he put a cloth into her mouth. Her aunt Yaema* explains what happened:

“He kept her all night in the house. In the morning he threw her out onto the street. She was afraid to turn home. One of my friends saw her and brought her to me.

“She was a virgin before the attack. Her pants were stained with blood. Her body was in a tough state.”

Aminata is not alone. The first sexual experience of around one in every three women in the world is forced. Forms of gender-based violence (GBV), of which rape is only one, are perpetrated every day around the world, from Sierra Leone, to Pakistan, to the UK.

Violence is directed at all kinds of gender identity. But, statistically speaking, it is women and girls who bear the brunt in most societies. The reason? Violence is a symptom of a wider dynamic of gender inequality, poverty and power.

The scale of gender-based violence can seem overwhelming. Incomprehensible. But, we cannot and will not give up the struggle to end it.

We all have a role to play. We can all stand up for what is right. We can all become activists, like Yaema.

Upholding the law

- Sierra Leone -

"I just wanted justice to prevail."

After Aminata’s rape, her aunt Yaema took her straight to the ‘pen center’, a survivors’ support station set up by FINE-SALON, a local organisation supported by VSO. The fifteen-year-old’s bloodied underwear was taken as evidence.

Staff from FINE-SALON, a local organisation supported by VSO to support survivors of gender based violence and work with men and boys to change attitudes ©VSO/Heather Alcock

Staff from FINE-SALON, a local organisation supported by VSO to support survivors of gender based violence and work with men and boys to change attitudes ©VSO/Heather Alcock

FINE-SALON offered counselling to both Aminata and Yaema, and supported them to liaise with the family support unit of the police. This was crucial, as both were under immense pressure in the community to drop the case, and settle out of court.

“We found the perpetrator and he confessed. The community were trying to get me to compromise but I knew that he would continue if he was not reprimanded. I just wanted justice to prevail,” says Yaema.

The man who raped Aminata was eventually imprisoned. This is unusual: local settlements, often with money changing hands, are a more common way of dealing with rape and violence against women and girls in Kenema. To change this, VSO has been supporting FINE-SALON to make men and women aware of the law in a novel way: ‘husband schools’.

‘Husband schools’

Aminata was raped by a near stranger. Women are, however, statistically most likely to experience violence at the hands of the people it may be most difficult to challenge or report: their intimate partners.

Karitu Joe works selling water in order to support six children aged between 2-15. She supports her husband too – despite the fact that until recently she only saw him when he came home to beat her.

“I was missing a tooth and had a broken arm. He said he wasn’t happy with the relationship,” she says.

Karitu Joe, whose husband beat her so hard he broke her arm, says things are "more peaceful now". ©VSO/Heather Alcock

Karitu Joe, whose husband beat her so hard he broke her arm, says things are "more peaceful now". ©VSO/Heather Alcock

When Karitu heard about FINE-SALON she turned to them in hope of help. Their remarkable ‘husband schools’ approach sees husbands like Karitu’s trained by volunteers to empathise with women and to control their anger. FINE-SALON worked with him and Karitu over a period of seven months:

“They explained to him about the impact of violence and the consequences of his actions. They also explained the legal consequences.

“Finally, he took an oath before the local authorities and promised not to beat me again. Things are more peaceful now.”

“All of us are changing- we are afraid of the laws now.”

FINE-SALON is making some progress: The local police station had 620 cases involving violence against women and girls referred in the six months to September 2016, compared with an average of 74 in districts where the project is not operating.

Local chief Mohamed Possible says men are more aware of the legal repercussions of violence ©VSO/Heather Alcock

Local chief Mohamed Possible says men are more aware of the legal repercussions of violence ©VSO/Heather Alcock

Local leaders, such as Chief Mohamed Possible, have come together to make local bye-laws against GBV and say men now know that atrocities such as rape and wife beating are crimes for which they will be prosecuted:

“Before this project started, we would make compromise marriages and settle cases out of court. But not now. All of us are changing –we are afraid of the laws. We know that if you commit that crime you will be punished.”

Engaging the police

- Pakistan -

"I attempted to end my life after my rape. Now I know it wasn't my fault."

Raza* was a happy 17-year-old studying for university at Rawalpindi, in the Punjab in Pakistan, when her life changed forever.

"On Eid day, four boys raped me. After coming back home I cried a lot. I attempted to end my life right then. I felt that there is no one with whom I can share."

Less than one in ten women worldwide who experienced violence in 2015 went to the police for help. In our gender unequal societies, women may be shamed about their abuse, and under pressure to keep quiet and maintain 'honour'.

“It’s no surprise that women see the police as a last resort”

Bill Carr is an expert in improving the effectiveness of organisations. He is working as a VSO volunteer with local partner Rozan to help strengthen the Pakistan Forum on Democratic Policing (PFPD): a group of organisations working to support and encourage the police in better serving the needs of women here.

“Women in Pakistan live in what is very much a patriarchal society. Gender-based violence is often considered acceptable. It is an immense challenge,” says Bill.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan recorded 987 “honour” crimes in 2015 alone. These included murder, abduction and burning. Considering the tiny fraction of GBV that is reported, it is very likely that the true number of these crimes is many times higher. One of these crimes, an acid attack, was allegedly committed by a police constable on a 19-year old, who was permanently blinded.

“It’s no surprise that the police are seen by many women as a last resort. A woman turning to the police for support after suffering domestic violence can find herself further abused, or simply held whilst her husband or family are sent for to take her home,” adds Bill.

“Police are overworked and under-resourced. They have little relevant training. In any case, they are predominantly male.”

Rozan and the PFDP are trying to change this. They lobbied for recent legislation to protect women including laws on acid attack and early child marriage. Rozan also supports individual cases, such as Raza's.

"What happened with me wasn't my fault"

In the aftermath of her rape, Raza recalled an organisation whose session about sexual abuse she had attended previously: Rozan. She called them for help.

Bill Carr, a Scottish VSO volunteer, is bringing his organisational development experience to support the Pakistan Forum on Democratic Policing.

Bill Carr, a Scottish VSO volunteer, is bringing his organisational development experience to support the Pakistan Forum on Democratic Policing.

"They supported me to report the crime and endure the medico-legal process, which was quite painful."

"Rozan has a strong relationship with the police, so one of the culprits was arrested despite the fact that I, my family and members of the police and Rozan were receiving threats. He eventually went to jail for one year."

"Throughout the process I was disturbed, felt guilty and wanted to end my life. I started taking counselling sessions from Rozan that helped me get to a normal life. I became capable of studying again because what happened with me wasn’t my fault. Today, four years later, with the grace of Allah and Rozan’s help I am running my business successfully."

An immense challenge

Rozan and the PFDP are doing great work - but they are stretched. This is where Bill, who has previously strengthened organisations in Cameroon, India and Laos as a VSO volunteer, comes in.

“I’m working to help them learn from the experiences of similar networks, and supporting with the establishment of a provincial forum in Sindh that will help more women like Raza become aware of their rights and how to access them," he says.

“The PFDP has already made real progress in supporting police in knowing and playing their part. Hopefully my work here will in a small way add to that progress.”

Support for survivors

- Papua New Guinea -

"I wasn't even allowed to say hello to my friends. Now I encourage them to get help too."

When violence is the status quo

Papua New Guinea (PNG) has the world’s highest levels of violence against women for a country not at war. 6/10 men have participated in gang rape. 67% of wives have been beaten by their husbands. Marital violence is perpetrated with fists, machetes, clubs, rape.

VSO has been working in PNG since 1960 and has seen just how challenging it is to change violent behaviours – and the attitudes that underlie them.

Approaches to tackling violence have included training male leaders, community awareness raising, trying to raise women's economic status, and supporting survivors to seek justice and psycho-social support.

VSO volunteers have also supported specialist health clinics for survivors. It means that many women who have been abused can now get tailored help from medical treatment, to emergency contraceptives, to counselling, to support writing a police statement.

"Every day I was afraid"

Alyce, a survivor of domestic violence in PNG talks about violence against women in her country

For 12 years, Alyce was trapped in an unhappy marriage that shattered her self-confidence. Her husband drank heavily and would come home in the evening to abuse her, in view of their only son.

“Once he broke my nose after he came home drunk. He just came in and threw his hands on me and I fell back and got a black eye.

“Every day I was afraid. There was no peace. I was always thinking about what he would do or say to me when he came home. My son saw all of these things,” says Alyce.

He took my rights from me

Alyce says that her experience is common among women in her country:

“There is violence in homes everywhere. Women in PNG don’t feel like they have the right to say yes or no; we just have to follow. I thought I knew my rights but my husband just took them from me.”

When Alyce came to Modilon General Hospital in Madang for an appointment, she met Catherine Bedford. The former psychiatrist from the UK was volunteering with VSO to set up the first ‘family support centre’ in PNG for survivors of family sexual violence.

Catherine counselled and supported Alyce in a process that culminated in her divorcing her husband.

“Now I can just get up and go, I can do what I want. I wasn’t even allowed to say hello to any of my friends before. Now I have encouraged them to look for help, too.”

Standing up to child marriages

- Bangladesh -

"I am happily married.
I have buried my dreams"

Though it may be painfully slow and difficult, around the world progress is being made on gender-based violence. But sometimes, it is two steps forward, one step back.

Bangladesh has the second highest rate of vulnerable children being married to adults in the world. It is currently considering lowering the minimum age at which marriage is legal.

'Marrying' a child is a violent act

Child marriage is, by definition, an act of force, since a child has limited ability to choose and resist. Girls who are married as children are also far more likely to experience violence and be forced to have unwanted sex with their partners. The resulting underage pregnancies can pose mortal danger to underdeveloped female bodies.

In an effort to tackle the infamy of being a child marriage capital of the world, Bangladesh has gradually increased the marriage age from 12 to 18 in a series of Acts. But the law is frequently ignored: 75% of girls in rural areas are married off before age 16.

Far from the cities, where 36% of people live on less than $2 per day, the financial appeal of the dowry that is paid to a girl’s family when she is married is very alluring. Motivations are not only coldly financial. For families living in poverty, there may be the hope that a ‘good’ marriage can secure a better future for a young daughter.

Suborna hopes that her marriage at 14 will mean her family has more money to support her sister's education. ©VSO/Tazeen Hossain

Suborna hopes that her marriage at 14 will mean her family has more money to support her sister's education. ©VSO/Tazeen Hossain

"I have buried my dreams"

Suborna is 15 years old and pregnant.

A year ago, she was studying at school and proud of her good grades. Her family lived a hand-to-mouth existence, but was in many respects happy.

Dreaming of finishing her studies, Suborna was shocked to find out about her father’s plan for her to marry. She knew it could be dangerous, but she could not deny her family.

She says:
"I love my family and care about all of them. I had always dreamed of doing something for them, but not marriage!

"Then I thought of my parent’s depressed faces and my cherished sister. I decided that if I get married it would give my father more of a chance to support my sister’s educational expenses, in the hope that she could find a beautiful, different life."

A year on, Suborna is carrying her first child, whilst running the household including caring for her in-laws and tough, physical work on the farm. Her husband spent 10 days in prison for marrying her. But she says she is now "delighted" with her new life. "Those thoughts of education are buried now," she says.

After several months of VSO's youth volunteers encountering cases like Suborna's in the communities they worked in, they came up with a new idea: a child marriage 'committee'.

Youth volunteers from Bangladesh and the UK sharing information with children and adults on the health risks of underage marriage.

Youth volunteers from Bangladesh and the UK sharing information with children and adults on the health risks of underage marriage.

Volunteers recruited 20 elders from the community, plus active members of the local youth club to take part. They held community awareness raising events and even distributed phone numbers inviting young people to call them if they found out an underage marriage was being planned for them.

In three months, the committee succeeded in convincing local families to halt or postpone three arranged marriages.

“Better to marry her off as soon as possible”

It seems that volunteer efforts are having some meaningful impacts, such as in the case of Shapla and her parents, who live in Durgapur, in Bangladesh’s rural northwest. She was 14 when she learned that her father was planning to marry her off to a 37-year-old man. Her father says:

“I earn a little money by driving my van. Sometimes I can’t buy her books and fulfil her needs. I thought it would be better if I marry my daughter off with someone as soon as possible.”

As she learned of her father’s plan, Shapla was reminded of what she had learned in an awareness session run by VSO youth volunteers some weeks previously, about the legal marriage age and her rights to decide if and when to be married, and to whom:

“When it matched with my own life, I realised that I have learnt a lot from these sessions. The local youth club members then helped me in convincing my parents.”

More than a year on, Shapla is still in school and enjoying her studies – and her childhood. She hopes to be a doctor one day, but first she would like to volunteer “to inspire other girls.” Her teacher uses her as an example in the classroom to show that girls can successfully resist early marriages. Her father has changed his perspective:

Shapla was inspired by volunteers to resist her parents' plans to marry her off at 14. A year on she's still in school and a role model to other girls. ©VSO/Tazeen Hossain

Shapla was inspired by volunteers to resist her parents' plans to marry her off at 14. A year on she's still in school and a role model to other girls. ©VSO/Tazeen Hossain

“My daughter’s learnings made me realize how brutal child marriage is and what health hazards a girl can face because of it. Now I don’t think of my daughter as a burden, I consider her as an asset who will do something for the people of my community.”

This work at the grassroots level, mobilising community members and young people to resist child marriage, can be very powerful. VSO also works at the opposite end of the scale: arguing fiercely as part of the Girls Not Brides alliance against the abuse of children through forced marriage anywhere in the world. The actions of governments and policy-makers have implications that can endanger thousands of lives: threats to lower the marriage age in Bangladesh and elsewhere must be challenged.

Take action on gender equality

Gender equality would benefit everyone. The world has committed to a fair future for all - women and men.

Stories of child marriage, domestic violence, rape, sexual assault, child abuse, female genital mutilation and workplace sexual harassment remind us never to be complacent. There is so much work to be done to change attitudes, empower women and realise full gender equality.

We all have a role to play in standing up to gender-based violence. VSO is committed to furthering social inclusion and gender equality through all its work across 24 countries across Africa, Asia and the Pacific.

You can play your part as an activist against GBV too. Through the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), every country has committed to 'achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls' by 2030 (SDG5) - and a specific target of ending GBV.


*Names have been changed to protect the anonymity of individuals

Reporting by Lucy Taylor
Graphics by Nick Adie

VSO owns the copyright to all photography used.

VSO would like to thank all contributors, including all our staff and volunteers working for a more peaceful and gender equal world.

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External references

Global statistics

UNICEF (2016). FemaleGenital Mutilation/Cutting: A global concern
UN Women Ending violence against women: Facts and figures (accessed 20/11/16)
End VAW Now Statistics on violence against women and girls (accessed 20/11/16)
Violence Against Women: An EU-Wide Survey (2014)
Note: Studies from different countries, using different definitions and methodologies have shown the numbers of women who were forced into their first sexual experience ranging from around one in ten, to one in three women.

Sierra Leone

WHO (2013) Global and regional estimates of violence against women: prevalence and health effects of intimate partner violence and non-partner violence.


United Nations Economic and Social Affairs (2015): The world’s women 2015: Trends and statistics
Human Rights Commission of Pakistan: AnnualReport 2015

Papua New Guinea

PNG Institute of Medical Research (1994), reported in IFC PNG Gender and Investment Climate Reform Assessment (accessed 20/11/16)
PNG Law Reform Commission(1992) Domestic violence survey


Girls Not Brides: Bangladesh factsheet (accessed 21/11/16)
UNICEF (2013): Ending child marriage: Progress and prospects