#SpeakerSpotlight: Avni Amin

I recently read a series of WHO Global estimates, the statistics of which put the extent of gender-based violence and harassment into stark clarity. Globally 1 in 3 women experience physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime. This estimate does not include sexual harassment.[1]  In addition, UN data show that 49 countries currently have no laws protecting women from domestic violence, and only 52% of married women make their own decisions about sexual relations, contraceptive use and health care[2]. Today I wanted to look at it through the lens of the health sector; its role in responding to violence against women, and the workplace sexual harassment that exists within the health sector itself. 

To dive a little deeper into the issue, I spoke to Avni Amin, from the WHO’s Department of Reproductive Health and Research on violence against women, who explained WHO’s work to me; focusing first on generating evidence and data on the prevalence of violence against women, its health and socio-economic consequences, and then looking at the best means to prevent and respond to it. ‘Violence against women cuts across all social economic groups and all sub-groups… there is not one group of people that is not in some way affected’, Avni told me, going on to explain that certain groups experience a disproportionate burden of violence based on factors such as childhood exposure, or presence of harmful gender norms that condone violence and male privilege over women. ‘Countries that have policies in place to promote gender equality including those giving women equal rights to inheritance and assets tend to have lower rates of violence.’ explains Avni.

Workplaces with unequal gender attitudes are not conducive for women to attain leadership positions. These may also be spaces where women are likely to experience sexual harassment. ‘Sexual harassment is just the tip of the iceberg.’ says Avni, ‘It represents an extreme manifestation of an environment in which a range of other microaggressions or sexist behaviors towards women may be prevalent and tolerated. It’s not an issue of women’s ability, it is an issue of an environment which doesn't allow them to thrive’. The consequences of workplace violence are not left at one’s desk, they infiltrate the women’s life outside it including their physical and mental health, economic and career development opportunities.  

Duty bearers must be held accountable for women affected by violence both within and outside the workplace. However, creating a culture where violence against women is not tolerated or accepted is everyone’s responsibility, starting with the household.’ Avni tells me, ‘children learn from a young age that violence and dominance may be an acceptable way to behave towards women when they see these behaviors enacted in the family and between parents. Parents can act as role models either negatively or positively. Violence is a learnt behavior; it is nothing innate or genetic. It's not that men are predisposed to it, because in most societies, a majority of men do not perpetrate violence’.

One of the most important protective tools against violence is changing and role modelling equitable gender attitudes and beliefs – at home, in schools and in communities.  Parents and teachers must communicate and role model that violence and dominance over women and girls are not acceptable. Schools must create safe spaces for children. Health workers play an important role in responding to women and girls subjected to violence and to promote messages in the community about the unacceptability of violence and sexist behaviors towards women.  As Avni explains, ‘women subjected to violence are more likely to use health services even if they don’t disclose this and they often identify health workers as a trusted source to whom they would be open to disclosing their experiences to’.  At the same time, it is important to recognize that female health workers may also experience sexual harassment in the work place and violence in their intimate lives at home and need to be supported and such violence prevented.

Global Health 50/50 published a recent report citing that only 1 in 3 organizations publish their sexual harassment policies online.[3] It’s evident that more needs to be done in driving awareness of gender-based harassment or violence, both in and outside the workplace. Conferences like Women Leaders in Global Health (WLGH) will be a platform from which policymakers, sector influencers and emerging leaders in the sector can advance this discussion on a global scale. Avni will join the WLGH panel ‘Gender based violence and workplace harassment’. For more information about the WLGH19 speakers, agenda and how to register, visit: www.wlghconferences.org .

 

[1] WHO, LSHTM, SAMRC, 2013, Global and regional estimates of violence against women: prevalence and health burden of intimate partner violence and non-partner sexual violence. Geneva: WHO.

[2] UN Sustainable Development Goals, Achieve Gender Equality and Empower all Women and Girls

[3] Global Health 50/50, ‘The Global Health 50/50 Report 2019: Equality Works’, London, UK,

2019.

Laura Wotton