What gender-based violence tells us about progress.

Edith Permén

I come from the country with the highest rates of sexual violence in the world. On the other hand, I also come from a country that claims to have the first feministic government, has the world’s most expansive definition of rape and is progressive in combating gender inequality on all levels of society. After spending four months working for the United Nations in Armenia, my home country of Sweden has provided a useful reference for understanding how two countries, with seemingly different approaches to the gender-equality movement, tackle a problem that is evidently universal.

There are 66.5 reported rape cases per 100,000 population in Sweden.

Sexual violence falls under the category of gender-based violence, a widespread issue that is pandemic in scope; one out of three women in the world has been physically or sexually abused. It occurs in all countries regardless of culture, religion or traditions, but is far from universally reported or acknowledged. Knowing that, the existence of statistics may be understood as an indicator of societal perception and awareness, in addition to actually reflecting the issue itself.

An under-reporting of sexual violence displays several societal shortcomings: firstly, under-reporting can be a result of social stigmas around women speaking out against violence; secondly, it shows a high level of distrust between society and institutions, which can be a result of corruption or lack of gender sensitivity in the institutions; finally, it can be a result of low awareness in society, that is that the definition of gender-based violence is not communicated and therefore not recognized and continuously marginalised.

With this in mind, the high rates of reported sexual violence in Sweden, while highly alarming and serious, are important indicators of effective data collection and a high level of societal awareness of the issue. Furthermore, it displays a comprehensive, and hopefully realistic picture of the problem that enables effective counter-measures. In a country like Armenia, where the depth of the problem of gender-based violence continues to be shadowed by insufficient statistics, the issue remains marginalised. Improving the figures of gender-based violence is an important step that can contribute to breaking the deafening silence that otherwise dominates this topic.

Violence against women is normalised and perpetuated by structural inequalities in both Swedish and Armenian societies. The only way to combat such structural violence is to target all levels of society. In order to do that in Armenia, there is an urgent need to improve the data collection of the current situation of violence. However, along with the powerful tool of data collection, it is equally important to ensure that awareness of the issue is mutual in all parts. Otherwise the data can be counter-productive and end up reproducing harmful structures.

One out of three women in the world has been physically or sexually abused.

Doing an internship with UN Armenia has given me insight into the sensitive work of strengthening national protection mechanisms for gender-based violence, as well as developing those currently non-existent. Recognizing the necessity to act against the high rate of gender-based violence in Armenia, the United Nations works as broker and a convener, bringing together the government, civil society, women’s organizations, men, young people, the private sector and the media to find common solutions to this global problem. There is always room for improvement, especially as a bridging body in sensitive processes, but importantly, discussions and working groups exist with the right competencies and will to develop the tools needed for continuous learning.

Just recently a comprehensive household questionnaire on men’s attitudes and practices was conducted by UNFPA Armenia. The study reports on a wide variety of topics related to gender equality, among them gender-based violence. The questionnaire revealed that every second male respondent had used psychological violence towards a woman in his life. Already this timely survey data indicates several relevant focus areas in Armenia to prevent gender-based violence, and can be used to guide and support the advocacy work being done.

Every second male in Armenia has used psychological violence towards a woman in his life.

As a bridging body in Armenia, and a source of reliable statistics, the UN facilitates the work of relevant stakeholders in combating gender-based violence. As the goal is never to end up as the country with the highest level of sexual violence in the world, the improvement of data reporting can at least be a step on the way to ensuring that both women and men can enjoy a life free from violence.