Treating Violence Against Women and Girls as a Pandemic – an interview with our CEO

If you were First Minister of Wales, what is the one thing you would do to eradicate violence against women and girls?

This was the closing question posed to the panel at last week’s WEN Wales Café, a panel of which included Welsh Women’s Aid CEO Sara Kirkpatrick. Sara said that she would treat violence against women and girls (VAWG) as a pandemic.

As this sparked interest both from the group and widely online, we later unpacked her answer further.
Sara said: “For a long time, certainly since the first refuges opened, there has been a conversation within the global women’s sector and beyond around how structural inequality and oppression of women and girls is affecting the total health of society. Indeed, there have been campaigns that gender-based violence is an epidemic and must be tackled as such. What we are currently seeing across the world is how a pandemic can be responded to when eradication of something that harms society is needed- with commitment and consistency.”

This is a bold statement, but the language is not new. Experts have been referring to violence against women in this way for years. In 2014, Care International stated “gender-based violence is one of the worst global epidemics”and requires “committed and affective action”. In 2017, the World Health Organisation deemed violence against women “a major public health issue” and in 2018, the UN Chief referred to violence against women, again, as a “global pandemic”.

The VAWG pandemic has resulted in a truly appalling amount of death and injury to women and girls.

  • In 2018, the BBC reported that an average of 137 women across the world are killed by a partner or family member every day.
  • Between 2009-2018, The Femicide Census recorded 1,337 women murdered by men in the UK, with the actual number likely to be higher.
  • 1 in 3 women experience some form of violence or sexual abuse in their lifetime- in Wales, that equates to around 530,441 women experiencing abuse.

With the numbers so horrifyingly high, I asked Sara why she believes that VAWG has not yet received an outrage or response that in any way resembles what we are currently seeing with the COVID 19 pandemic.

She said; “Violence against women is unfortunately often accepted as part of the normal landscape. In our sector we have always talked about the eradication and elimination of gender-based violence, Welsh Women’s Aid’s vision for instance, is a world where women and girls live fear free from violence and abuse. We use words which have finality, but many systems and structures will instead focus on where the thresholds of harm lie and what is intolerable when it comes to gender-based violence. That isn’t good enough, tolerable and acceptance of any of VAWG cannot exist when the vision is one of eradication.”

In terms of tackling the VAWG as a pandemic, Sara had these thoughts;
“We should listen to the expertise from the sector and of those who have survived oppression, exploitation and abuse who say that violence against women and girls will not end unless we treat it as a systemic and social problem. As a whole society, we would need to commit to going down a path towards the elimination of VAWG, checking in at every step but not stopping or getting distracted by an easier or cheaper but less effective alternative, even if it gets uncomfortable or difficult.”

Sara also emphasised the role of community in the eradication process;
“Welsh Women’s Aid have been saying for a long time that violence against women is everybody’s business. The incredible sense of community that has been felt since the COVID 19 pandemic, the social reinforcement of us being in it together- we need that solidarity to tackle the pandemic of violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence. Our social conditioning and what we let slide has played a huge role in how far the VAWG pandemic spreads. We need to make sure that we are not facilitating inequality and that we call out every low-level misogynist comment and behaviour to stop inequality continuing to spread and getting worse, but much like social distancing, this won’t be effective unless all of us commit to it.”
Covid 19 Bystander Toolkit

During the current COVID 19 pandemic, gender- based violence has increased.
If you are affected by domestic abuse and or sexual violence you are not alone and there is help available.
Live Fear Free is operating as normal, providing advice and support 24/7 in English and Welsh.
Call 0808 80 10 800
Text 07800 77 333

By Sophie Weeks,
Media & External Relations Officer