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NOVEMBER 25, yesterday, marked the beginning of an annual global 16-day observation of a societal scourge which has been so well-justified, culturally or religiously, that facts like one in three women worldwide have experienced physical or sexual violence do not raise eyebrows anymore.


Some argue the information highway has rendered our generation self-centred empty shells who don't feel for issues like violence against women and girls, particularly if they are not directly touched by it.

For some, violence against women and girls is a norm, explaining them away as "the woman needed to be taught a lesson" or "my dinner was not ready", accepted even by women themselves as justification for their beating, according to recent violence against women prevalence studies in Pacific Island countries.

Violence against women is one of the most pervasive human rights violations in the world, one of the least prosecuted crimes, and one of the greatest threats to lasting peace and development.

The personal is political in that the violence perpetrated behind closed doors, in whatever form, be it verbal abuse or inflicting physical harm has an impact at every level of our society including national economic performance.

The actual violent act however is more of a manifestation of pervading deep-rooted culturally-endorsed patriarchal fundamentalism which nurtures enabling environment for such violence to continue unabated that in turn entrenches barriers to, say, increased women representation in Parliament.

Apart from the physical and verbal forms of violence, violence against women can also be about their inability to enjoy basic human rights like inaccessibility to services related to family planning. In Fiji's context, the right to "conditions and facilities necessary for good health, health care services including reproductive health care" is actually provided for specifically in Section 38(1) of the Constitution.

The Pacific has some of the world's highest documented rates of violence against women and girls with two in three women having experienced some kind of violence during their lifetime, twice the global average.

The United Nations Population Fund Pacific sub-regional office has been providing both financial and technical support to Pacific Island nations in the past few years to conduct studies on the prevalence of violence against women in their communities - the last five countries being Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Palau and the Republic of Marshall Islands, covering related issues like attitudes towards violence, the costs, and risk and protection factors.

In terms of the forms of violence inflicted, studies in Fiji (64 per cent), Solomon Islands (64 per cent), Kiribati (68 per cent), and Vanuatu (60 per cent) showed a higher level of physical and/or sexual violence by partners and husbands while Samoa (62 per cent) and Tonga (68 per cent) showed higher levels of physical violence from a non-partner, for example, family members.

Part of the reason violence against women and girls is so high in the Pacific is because of how accepted it is. It is often seen as a method of disciplining a "disobedient" wife or partner. For example, 65 per cent of women in the Republic of Marshall Islands agree physical violence from a partner is acceptable under certain circumstances. And 63 per cent of women in the Federated States of Micronesia agree a good wife obeys her husband even if she disagrees.

Generally speaking, many women do not tell anyone about the violence or abuse they have experienced, and in most cases the vast majority do not seek help from formal services. For example, in Solomon Islands, 82 per cent of women who had reported experiencing abuse did not seek help from formal services or people in authority; 70 per cent never told anyone at all.

In most countries, fewer than four in 10 survivors of such violence seek help. Violence against women and girls includes domestic and sexual violence, human trafficking and harmful practices, such as forced child marriage, gender-based infanticide and female genital mutilation.

Globally, over 140 million girls and women have undergone some form of female genital mutilation. In developing countries, one in every three girls is married before reaching 18, and one in nine before 15. The studies in the Pacific report that approximately a third of women's first sexual experience was coerced or forced - 38 per cent of women in Solomon Islands and 28 per cent of women in Vanuatu.

"Violence deprives women and girls of their human rights to health, education and participation in the affairs of their communities and nations. The health effects of violence are immense from forced pregnancies to lifelong physical injuries and trauma and survivors often lead lives shadowed by fear and stigma," UNFPA Pacific Sub-Regional Office director and representative Dr Laurent Zessler said.

"We must strengthen our partnerships to end gender violence, for if the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are to have a meaningful, positive impact, actions must be taken to break the cycle of violence against women that denies millions of women and girls their fundamental human rights and their ability to contribute to the economic and social progress of their nations."

The UNFPA works to prevent and respond to gender-based violence in 135 countries, and 43 of these are countries affected by crises which exacerbate women's and girls' vulnerability. In the Pacific, the UNFPA partners with 14 countries for various development programming including gender equality-related projects.

The UNFPA renews its commitment to protect the health and rights of women and girls as the world embarks on the 16 Days of Activism to End Gender Violence. Working with the UN and other partners, UNFPA has developed global standards for essential services for women and girls subject to violence and comprehensive technical guidelines to help countries implement them.

We need to do more, all of us, and leave no one behind. Every woman and girl has the right to live free of gender-based discrimination and violence. This is an imperative not only for the dignity, human rights and well-being of women and girls, but for our common humanity and our common future.

Ending violence against women should be a priority for every human being. This is not only a women's issue, it affects all of us. As long as the dignity and wellbeing of half of humanity is at risk, peace, security and sustainable development will remain out of reach.