It happens on the streets of every community, and for many women, in their very own homes.
It can occur on public transportation, like in the brutal rape and subsequent death of a young woman in New Delhi. It can flourish in the midst of war, as shown by countless women and girls fleeing sexual violence in Syria.
It doesn’t matter where you live, what you look like, or how much you have: One in three women will experience gender-based violence.
Each year on March 8th, we recognize the successes and contributions women have made to their societies and the continued challenges they face as part of International Women’s Day. The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is a global call to action to end violence against women.
The topic couldn’t be timelier, as President Obama signed the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act yesterday after more than a year of debates over the bill in Congress.
Gender-based violence is linked to a variety of negative health outcomes for women, including severe reproductive and maternal health consequences. Through violence or the threat of violence, women often lose the autonomy to make decisions about their reproductive health and plan their families. Women who experience physical violence or other forms of abuse in their relationships may have less ability to negotiate the use of contraceptives or condoms to protect themselves. The sexual nature of much of the violence women face puts them at risk for unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.
Some women choose to terminate pregnancies that result from rapes even if safe abortion options are unavailable, leading to a high risk of complications from unsafe procedures. Women who experience violence during their pregnancies face a number of other risks including low-birth weight babies, miscarriage and even maternal death (often as a direct result of violence). The fear that their HIV status may lead to increased violence from intimate partners or others keeps many women who may have contracted HIV through rape from getting tested and receiving treatment.
The root causes of violence against women are complex, and so are any effective long-term solutions. While continuing to work toward eliminating violence against women, immediate action is needed to reduce some of the consequences of gender-based violence. Survivors of gender-based violence need access to comprehensive care that addresses their physical, mental, emotional and legal needs. This must include accessible and confidential means of obtaining emergency contraceptives that can prevent women from becoming pregnant as a result of sexual violence, as well as HIV prevention, testing, and early treatment.
Together, we can help women break the silence of violence and regain their voice in making their own reproductive health care decisions.