The last three decades have seen progress in addressing violence against women and girls (VAWG) around the world. Feminist analysis and activism, along with strong local, national and international women’s movements have elevated VAWG–including in armed conflict and natural
disasters – into the public domain. In humanitarian and development work, a focus on VAWG without a socio-political analysis of gender inequality or a fully articulated theory of violence has led to interventions that do not address the lived experiences of women and girls, and do not recognize the constraints which prevent them from being able to realize their rights. This contributes to a failure to link acts of sexual or physical violence to the broader context of intersecting oppressions of race, class, patriarchy and post-colonial power. Global north agendas and interventions that heavily focus on research, cost, and market growth can undermine or even close space for initiatives that are women and girls’-centred, women and girls’-led, and rights-driven. As donors seek a “silver bullet” to ending VAWG, there has been a proliferation of male focused programming, exemplified by these agendas and interventions. This often results in the leadership and voices of women and girls being muted or, yet again, silenced altogether.
Against this backdrop of concerns, a small group of academics, activists and practitioners from around the world held a two-day convening in New York in 2016 to further articulate and assess the problem at hand and agree on concrete next steps to place women and girls at the centre of efforts to end violence against them. The purpose of the convening was to generate preliminary strategies, based on an intersectional feminist analysis, to ensure women and girls are consistently centred in humanitarian and development efforts to prevent and respond to the violence they face. An additional focus was to consider ways to scale up real time response actions when systems and/or individuals overlook how patriarchy, power, and privilege prevent diverse women and girls from realizing their rights and/or put them at risk for violence.
Participants at the convening agreed that the shrinking space and undermining of work with women and girls are manifesting in multiple ways but are all linked by the depoliticizing of VAWG. This manifests in multiple and interconnected challenges, including:
- The rise of gender neutrality within humanitarian discourse and practice;
- The emergence of competition around victimhood;
- A shift from women and girl led movements and activism to a technocratic approach to ending violence;
- Different interpretations of what “gender-based violence” (GBV) entails;
- A lack of clarity about how VAWG intersects with other forms of interpersonal and collective violence; and
- A lack of analysis of how to include men and boys in work to eradicate VAWG in a way that is accountable to women and girls.
There was a strong sense that this meeting was both a continuation of efforts, but also a beginning. It was a continuation of the struggle for equality that women all over the world have been engaged in for generations –which has set the path we now walk. This convening was also a beginning point for amplifying conversations women are having around the world to highlight their concerns about stalled progress in achieving equality. A beginning of forging new alliances to counter the challenges we are facing in keeping women and girls centred in humanitarian and development spheres. A beginning of saying, “No more business as usual, when that business is failing women and girls.” Although COFEM didn’t officially form until funding was obtained over a year later, this convening was the catalyst for COFEM’s creation, and the issues discussed at the meeting continue to be at the heart of COFEM’s advocacy efforts.