Empowering girls makes them safer

Late last month — on the International Day to End Violence Against Women — the U.N. released a study with a shocking but unsurprising conclusion: The most dangerous place for a woman is inside her home.

This conclusion is not surprising because data from the World Health Organization tells us that, globally, 1 in 3 women will experience intimate partner violence, which most often occurs in the home, in her lifetime. In some countries, that figure is as high as 2 women out of 3.

In the United States, 20 people per minute are victimized by an intimate partner violence — over 10 million people per year. And while men are also victims, the burden of IPV is shared overwhelmingly by women. In fact, over the course of their lives in the U.S., one-third of all women will experience IPV; 1 in 4 will experience severe IPV; and each year, nearly half of the rapes of women in America will be perpetrated by an intimate partner.

The toll this violence takes on victims is astounding — up to 60 percent of all women will lose their jobs in the year following a violent attack. Victims face heightened risk of developing anxiety, PTSD and depression, and they are more likely to attempt suicide. And from a financial perspective, this country will spend $8.3 billion annually on costs directly and indirectly associated with IPV.

Perhaps most heartbreaking of all: the youngest among us, women between the ages of 18-24, are at greatest risk of violence from an intimate partner. In fact, entering a relationship is statistically one of the most life-threatening things a young woman can do. Yet, as a society, we do little to arm our young women and girls with the knowledge and support needed to recognize risky behavior in the partners they choose, and how to extract themselves from a potentially dangerous situation early and cleanly — because the spectrum of violence against women does not start with physical or sexual violence, it merely ends there.

That spectrum of violence against women lives on the same continuum as gender equality, because at its core, violence against women is simply the most extreme manifestation of gender inequality in existence. And the method by which we move our women and girls away from the sharp and battering end of that continuum is empowerment. Empowerment in all aspects of life, including in her home, her family, her relationships, her workplace or school, and her community.

We empower women and girls by giving them more opportunities to make choices for themselves and to act on those choices. We empower women and girls by strengthening their voices at all levels, including leadership in private and public business, institutions and government, which can help shift power imbalances to increase gender equality for all. We empower women and girls by encouraging the good men who choose to stand with us — because men of quality always support women and girls when they seek equality — to continue engaging positively as agents of change to reduce the burden of violence against women.

When we actively work to build gender equality and equity into our society and institutions, when we give women and girls the power to exercise choice in their own lives — to make whatever decisions are best for them — when we raise women and girls who feel empowered to stand up for themselves, empowered to speak their minds, and empowered to lead, we effectively inoculate them against violence.

I encourage you, and especially those of you with young women and girls at home, to think actively about the ways we can better educate women and girls about healthy, safe and nurturing intimate relationships. I also encourage you to actively build an empowering environment for those same women and girls. Make them feel encouraged, supported and valued; give them the confidence to make and act on the decisions that are right for them. And take the time to encourage the young men and boys in your home to do the same. Because individually we can each make a difference in our homes, communities, workplaces and institutions for women, but together we can make change in each of those places as well — change that will make our country better, stronger and safer for every woman and girl.

Louise A. Flavahan (lflavah1@jhu.edu) is a senior public policy analyst to former Sen. Barbara Mikulski in her work at the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences within Johns Hopkins University. She directed the Forum on Global Violence Prevention at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

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