Time to radically change the status quo

UNDP is working with women in indigenous rural communities on scaling local solutions that enabled women to break through gender barriers. Credit: UNDP Pakistan

The status quo is unacceptable. Globally, one out of three women experience physical and/or sexual violence at some point in their lives, the majority at the hands of an intimate partner.

The toll of violence on women’s health also creates significant costs for societies, and hinders development. Violence against women and girls is a human rights violation — and this should be enough to trigger dedicated action. Yet, in most countries women’s organizations, activists and movements struggle to mobilize sufficient social and political will to tackle issues of violence, harassment and structural inequities that contribute to the pervasiveness of it.

On International Human Rights Day and the last day of this year’s 16 Days of Activism, we invite you to a conversation about innovation and ending gender-based violence. Join us online live on 10 December 2018 at 12.30pm EST here.

Changing the status quo starts with imagining radically different future. In Georgia, UNDP and partners develop multiple future scenarios to improve planning — and to shift mindsets. Credit: UNDP Georgia

Systems-change and experiments

With roots in gender inequalities, structural and institutional inequities and intersections with other development challenges, gender-based violence is an archetypical complex problem. Like all wicked problems it seems intractable. Responses and prevention efforts need to go beyond technical solutions and incremental improvements. We argue that innovation to address GBV calls for a combination of systems-change design and ethical experiments.

Experiments that explore for example what enables women at risk to seek support, or men with a history of violence to enroll in prevention programmes can generate reliable data on what works. This would better connect survivors to vital servicers or reduce risk factors. Designing, executing and assessing experiments repeatedly could speed up progress in a field where progress has proven elusive. It will also generate data that can help to convince decision-makers to allocate funding to combat gender-based violence.

Such experiments, however, need to be elements in larger systems-change efforts. Mobilizing political will, advancing policy reforms, tackling underlying structural inequalities and investing in services are critical elements to success in the long-term, along with dedicated work to change social norms and behaviours. Testing and scaling new ways of working through experimentation can help to gradually improve larger systems. It can help legitimize and cultivate new solutions and new ways of working that help transform cultures. Such collaborations are sometimes struggles in the best sense and these struggles can pave the way for longer-term changes. For example, to identify what works to end female genital mutilation in one community implies taking into account not just programmatic interventions and policies, but also all the conversations and yes, struggles, within the community, between men and women, as well as opponents and supporters of the practice. This will influence the sustainability of the change and how other social challenges will be addressed.

But experimentation meets its limits when we pursue improvements to support survivors of violence: if government institutions are not worthy of trust, isolated tweaks cannot fix chauvinistic policies and practices. Well-intended interventions might help whitewash engrained structural problems or lead to isomorphic mimicry; institutions adopting ways of working based on an external push without having new practices sufficiently internalized.

Innovation to end gender-based violence

Shifting social norms takes time, but can lead to lasting changes for women and girls. Credit: UNDP Pakistan

Given the prevalence of GBV across the globe, there is a clear business case for innovation — for combining systems-change design with experiments to test and scale new solutions. Yet, introducing innovation entails challenging how business is done and this proves to be difficult in a field where practitioners must fight hard to obtain and maintain political support and funding. Innovators in the development and humanitarian fields often bring a can-do attitude but they can also bring insufficient understanding of the complexity of GBV, of the challenges to overcoming deeply engrained discriminatory social norms and structural violence that underpins GBV and the specific ethical requirements to work and innovate in the field.

In recent years, we are fortunately seeing a growing number of actors coming together, mainly to introduce concrete new ways to address GBV. The Humanitarian Innovation Fund has released a comprehensive Gap Analysis, highlighting opportunities for innovation to address GBV in humanitarian settings. This informed the funding strategy for a portfolio of experiments, following a thorough analysis of the humanitarian system. The European Commission published a report on using behavioural insights to reduce GBV, emphasizing the need to target specific behaviours, to work through context-specific behavioral levers and touch points, and set measurable and achievable outcomes. UN Women developed with partners a set of Gender Innovation Principles to provide private sector companies with benchmarks for how to include women throughout the innovation life cycle. With the International Development Innovation Alliance, UNDP recently published a Guide on Bridging Gender Equality and Innovation, providing development innovators with guidance on incorporating gender equality principles in their work, from early stage to sustainable scale. This also includes a set of principles to inform innovation for gender equality, calling upon innovators to address power and politics intersections with gender, to address gender equality barriers and leverage ecosystems for scalable solutions.

Women’s organizations and GBV frontline workers have been pursuing innovation for years. This includes testing comprehensive approaches to shift social norms in communities, such as SASA! in Uganda. The campaign successfully shifted gender norms and reduced intimate partner violence. Such interventions take years to produce visible results and test a hypothesis such as: if trained volunteers mobilize and engage the community with a critical eye on power relations, community members will change their attitudes and behaviours.


On 10 December, we will highlight a few novel methods to address gender-based violence. This selection is by no means exhaustive but a starting point for discussion. These distinct approaches can complement each other in a portfolio that pursues systems-change:

1. Design ethical experiments and apply behavioral insights to improve the diagnosis of behavioral challenges and to identify what works. In Georgia, South Africa and Egypt, UNDP works with the Behavioral Insights Team and local partners to improve GBV prevention and response, for example, by nudging bystander behavior. In Serbia, UNDP is collaborating with government and academic partners on a policy experiment to test the effects of a Universal Basic Income. A similar experiment had initial positive effects on the prevalence of GBV in Kenya.

2. Tapping into the creative problem-solving potential of activists, innovators and the people directly affected by development challenges through crowdsourcing and open innovation challenges. The USAID Global Development Lab recently announced the winners of the WomenConnect Challenge. This Challenge invited innovators to propose solutions to remove barriers to women’s participation in everyday life by meaningfully changing the ways women and girls access and use technology.

3. Redesigning public services with survivors — and with perpetrators — of violence. In New York City, the Public Policy Lab is engaging survivors as well as perpetrators in collaborative service design to improve public services. In Argentina, UNDP, the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, and the NGOs “Enlaces Territoriales para la Equidad de Género” and FUNDASOR collaborated to increase access to justice for deaf and hard of hearing GBV survivors, combining user-centred design, sign language and ICT.

4. Complementing available data with real time insights and predictive analysis to address the sexist data crisis. Data often drives decisions, but most data about women and girls is either incomplete or fully missing. UN Global Pulse is working with partners across the UN system to improve how we can measure progress and gain better insights. This year, UN Global Pulse and UN Women released the report ‘Gender Equality and Big Data’ to highlight ongoing initiatives such as applied data mining techniques to unveil complex anomalous spatio-temporal patterns of sexual violence in El Salvador.

5. Mobilize new forms of financing. The Criterion Institute is working with investors, philanthropists and diverse social change experts on multiple strategies to unlock and use finance. This includes creating visible portfolios with explicit goals to reduce GBV. The recently published results of a development impact bond for girls’ education in India, for example, encourage the design of outcome-based payment vehicles to advance gender equality.

The conversation with our partners will highlight these and further approaches. For example, UNDP works with partners on dedicated solution search approaches. In Pakistan we explore the strategies of women who broke through gender barriers in rural indigenous areas to identify scalable tactics. UN Women in Moldova is working with survivors of GBV through a positive deviance approach. This in turn inspired UNDP and UN Women to work with young men who are outspoken advocates for gender equality, in Gaza to advance gender equality. Equipped with new skills, the young men become agents for change and influence their family, friends and community members to embrace gender-equitable norms.

A key challenge for successful innovation lies in the ability of our organizations to design ‘intelligence assemblies’ that combine insights from multiple actors, including such positive outliers and the ones furthest left behind with expert knowledge — as well as findings from data and results from algorithmic processing. UNDP is gearing up to rollout SDG Acceleration Labs to help curate collective intelligence and help infuse new ways of working to advance transformative changes across systems.

From isolated initiatives to a portfolio with transformation potential

The Honduran communities of Villanueva and Nueva Suyapa come together to create graffiti and other actions to help end violence against women and girls during the #orangeurhood campaign. Credit:CPTRT

The various approaches all bear the potential to improve prevention and response to GBV. But how do seemingly isolated experiments and approaches fit into a larger systems-transformation design? How do they complement each other and how to bring them from the edge to the core?


Benjamin Kumpf is the UNDP Innovation Facility Lead. 
Follow him on Twitter: @bkumpf