Unhappily ever after: The staggering extent, cost of violence against women

Published on Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Published by Imrana Jalal on Wednesday, 25 November 2015

A woman on the street in Hoinara, Solomon Islands.
A woman on the street in Hoinara, Solomon Islands.

One of my first court cases as a barrister involved trying to get a protection order for a Fiji woman who had tried to leave her abusive husband more than 10 times. She had gone back each time because she had no right to matrimonial property, her parents told her she was besmirching her family's izzat (honor), and her husband would not share custody of their children. Each time she was beaten she stayed away from work whilst her wounds healed, meaning lost wages, and medical expenses on top of legal costs. She felt humiliated.

She is, unfortunately, far from being alone.

World Health Organization research from 2013 said more than 30% of women who had ever had a partner had suffered physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence with our region at 37%. In this part of the world, the spotlight has been on India with atrocities reported in the global media. Indeed, in 2014 the BBC reported that every 5 minutes an Indian woman reports domestic violence. However, the highest rates of violence against women are not in India but in the Pacific Islands. According to a recent UN Women study of lifetime physical or sexual violence committed on a woman by a partner in the region, prevalence ranged from 40% in Tonga to 68% in Kiribati. In Samoa the rate was 46%, Vanuatu 60%, Solomon Islands 64%, and Fiji 67%.

Among ADB developing member countries, the highest prevalence rates are in Kiribati (67.6%), while the lowest is in Georgia (9.1%). But it varies. In Tajikistan, one in 5 women report gender-based violence but that figure rises to 58% in the country’s Khatlon region. Bangladesh is at 53%, Japan 15%, the Maldives 19%, the Philippines 18% and Viet Nam at 34%. Gathering such prevalence data has enabled costing studies, even if methodology varies and some countries only consider direct and tangible medical and justice system costs, and not the considerable indirect, intangible and intergenerational costs.

The costs are simply staggering.

Data are most readily available in western nations. In Canada, the annual monetary cost of violence against women has been estimated at CA$684 million in the criminal justice system alone. In New Zealand, auditing firm Coopers & Lybrand then estimated the costs at NZ$5.3 billion ($3.4 billion) per annum.

In the developing world the data are not so easy to come by. Nevertheless, in Fiji in 2002, the central bank estimated using the New Zealand formula that violence against women cost the country FJ$500 million ($230.4 million) annually—equivalent to 7% of GDP—of which FJ$300 million was in direct costs. By 2011, the cost was still pegged at around 6.6% of GDP. In the Philippines, in 1998 a study estimated, the cost of treating survivors of violence against women was reckoned at P6 billion. This was only for medical, psychological and crisis intervention, and was  equivalent to the budget of one government line agency.

The economic cost is, of course far, far from the only reason to deal with violence against women. But address it we must. Development institutions should integrate gender designs into projects. More support to reform antiquated family law legislation would help – as ADB did in Fiji. We could consider the training of family court judges on issues of violence against women so they more clearly understood when ruling on protection orders, child custody or spousal support.

School curricula need to incorporate teaching on gender so boys learn that violence against women is wrong. Meanwhile, urban development and transport projects could include gender-sensitive safety audits which could result in paying close attention to women’s safety through better lighting, safe walkways and public toilets, more security personnel, and sexual harassment campaigns in public transport.

Court cases like the one I worked on all those years ago urgently need to become rarer, for economies and for the women who valiantly keep them running.

For #16days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence 25 November-10 December, share your #OrangetheWorld photo, story or video using the color designated by UN Women to symbolize a brighter future without violence on ADB’s gender equality Facebook page. More information on the competition here.