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Want to end violence against women and girls?

Following yet another year of world headlines recording horrific acts of violence against women and girls, during the 16 days of activism to end violence against women, which started on November 25 and will end on Human Rights Day, next Tuesday, the international community comes together to reaffirm and recommit to securing a world free of violence against women and girls.

Earlier this year, a United Nations study of more than 10,000 men across six countries in Asia-Pacific found that nearly half of the men reported using physical or sexual violence against a female partner and nearly a quarter reported raping a woman or girl. Half of those who admitted to rape said that they had done so when they were teenagers, and the vast majority did not face criminal charges. This study reminds us of the persisting culture of acceptance of violence against women.

The good news, though, is that these discriminatory attitudes are changing. In Thailand, a 2012 study amongst 574 young people aged 15-18 found that nearly 100 per cent of young people condemned violence against women and girls, even though among this very group, still too many felt that violence perpetrated by a partner might be justifiable when the woman has done something "wrong".

We all have to do much more to get to zero tolerance for all forms of violence against women which can take many forms, including trafficking, forced marriages, dowry-related violence, sexual assault and domestic violence. We know that gender inequality increases the likelihood of violence against women and that most such violence goes unreported or is dismissed as a private matter.

This view that violence against women by their partners is acceptable and a private matter is deeply dismaying. Far from being a domestic issue, violence against women and girls is a gross violation of human rights that also incurs significant economic costs for survivors and their families, communities and societies. It should outrage us all.

And yet there is room for hope, because we know what is needed to break the cycle of violence: we must adopt and enforce laws which criminalise violence and hold perpetrators to account. We must ensure that health, legal and other services are available and responsive to the needs of all women who have experienced violence. But most of all, we must raise awareness and promote zero tolerance of such violence, including among men and boys.

Where to start? At home and in our schools, by teaching our boys the importance of respectful and equal relationships with women and with each other. The focus must be on introducing healthy notions of what it means to be a man, notions that are non-violent, gender equitable and based on care and respect, not domination and control. We also need to empower young women to become self-confident citizens who speak out and exercise their right to live a life free of violence.

Earlier this year, the Commission on the Status of Women, the most important international policymaking body on furthering women's rights, held a special session on ending violence against women where it recognised the importance of prevention and working with men and boys so that they take an active part in the issue. Reaching out to young people is also a major focus for the UN Secretary General's campaign UNiTE to End Violence Against Women.

Thailand has set itself a high bar to eradicate violence against women. It pledged earlier this year to develop a comprehensive national strategy that will tackle core attitudes and responses to violence against women. This includes getting the legal framework right, engaging police officers and communities, and reviewing school curricula and educational materials to foster behavioural changes.

Demonstrating political leadership is also crucial. Starting with the rally held by the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security on November 17, many outreach events are being held here in Thailand. All these aim at raising awareness on the issue as well as calling for concrete actions to end violence against women; actions that government, communities and individuals can and should take.

As we approach the year 2015, we need to rethink our development challenges in the post- Millennium Development Goals era. The momentum is building to recognise gender equality as a development goal in its own right, and prioritise the eradication of violence against women. Doing so will benefit not only women, but our families, communities and societies as a whole. In the words of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, "When women's lives are free of violence and discrimination, nations thrive."

We all have a role to play in ending violence against women. The time to act is now, and the best place to start is right at home.

In 1999, the General Assembly designated November 25 as the United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, to direct the world's attention to the urgent priority of ending the pandemic of violence against women and girls, which devastates lives, fractures communities and stalls development. In the same year, the Thai Cabinet announced November of each year as a campaign month for ending violence against women. Visit endviolence.un.org and www.violence.in.th to see how you can help end violence against women.

Luc Stevens is the United Nations Resident Coordinator in Thailand.


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