By Rebecca Harshbarger
UNITED NATIONS, New York (WOMENSENEWS)--Isatu Kalokoh, a 32-year-old mother of three, lives in the far-eastern suburbs of Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone.
In her community, 60 percent of the residents are women. Kalokoh is a housewife, but many of the women here making a living farming oysters, selling wood and working as petty traders of small retail goods.
Only about 100 women in her suburb can read, but a single female chief, elected over the resistance of many men, runs the community.
Despite this victory, many husbands in Kalokoh's neighborhood consider wives to be their property and beat them when they are home.
This was the case for Kalokoh in her second marriage to a man who often shows resentment towards her three children from a previous marriage.
"When my husband comes home from work, he grumbles about my children," she told researchers with Action Aid, based in Johannesburg, South Africa, the largest global anti-poverty agency. "When we go to bed at night, he forces me to have sex with him as much as he likes. My husband always promises to change his attitude, but will do the same things again. I feel very ashamed now."
Action Aid issued a report today in London that offers a sample of similar stories.
Although violence against women affects countries that are both rich and poor, and women of different backgrounds, authors of the Action Aid report say violence blocks progress in every major development target. This violence ranges from intimate partner violence in couples to sexual violence in the classroom.
The authors say violence--from rape during armed conflicts to domestic violence--is a leading cause of death and disability among women of all ages, and costs nations billions of dollars as it drains public resources and lowers economic productivity.
Skills Lost to Protect Safety
Action Aid argues that women, who represent half of the world's population, see their skills and talents drained away in efforts to protect their own safety.
Authors say well-intentioned policy often ignores the role of violence, pointing to efforts to close the gender gap in primary education as an example.
Action Aid researchers say governments have focused primarily on increasing girls' enrollment, rather than addressing deeper issues that contribute to female students' absences and drop outs.
USAID calculates that 60 million girls every year are sexually assaulted either at school or on the way to their classrooms. Girls are abducted on their walks to school. They are raped by teachers and classmates.
Many girls engage in transactional sex to meet the cost of school fees.
In maternal health, another major focus in development circles, progress remains far off-track.
The latest report on the U.N.'s eight Millennium Development Goals, which seek to eradicate global poverty by 2015, says goal five--to achieve universal access to reproductive health care and reduce maternal mortality deaths by three-quarters--has seen the least progress of all the goals.
More than half a million women still die every year from complications associated with pregnancy and childbirth, according to the United Kingdom's Department for International Development.
Action Aid says this is partly due to violence against pregnant women that gets overlooked by international aid policies.
The World Health Organization, WHO, estimates that 1-in-4 pregnant women worldwide suffer violence, often at the hands of a partner. World Bank researches also find violence against women intimately linked to maternal mortality during pregnancy and childbirth. In some communities, the WHO reports that women are not even targeted for violence until they become pregnant.
Violence Derails HIV/AIDS Efforts
Violence has also derailed global campaigns against HIV-AIDS, where the face of the pandemic is increasingly female.
Over 17 million women are living with HIV and an estimated 7,000 new women are infected daily. Among young adults in sub-Saharan Africa, three-quarters of those with HIV between 15 and 24 years old are female.
Action Aid's research finds the systematic abuse of women's rights has fueled the spread of HIV-AIDS on the continent.
Whether it comes to negotiating condom use or refusing to have sex at all--as in Kalokoh's case--gender inequality makes women much more vulnerable to HIV infection.
Conversely, a woman's ability to assert herself can be her protection.
Kalokoh, for instance, decided to join a women's anti-violence forum supported by Action Aid, which is how the organization and its partners heard her story.
At those meetings, Kalokoh says, members of the forum told her that if her husband inflicts violence, she can report him to the Family Support Unit at her local police station. She says she has warned her husband of the consequences of continuing to hurt her and now the beatings have stopped.
"If he does begin to mistreat me, I will not only leave him, but report him to the police," she said.
Concrete Remedial Action Scarce
In the report, Zohra Moose, a women's rights advisor for Action Aid, says women's organizations have drawn attention to the violence women face in all stages of their life, but concrete remedial action is still scarce.
The agency, which was based in the United Kingdom from 1972 until it moved to South Africa in 2003, hopes its research and call for action will push Great Britain to appoint a minister on women and girls and make ending violence against women more of a foreign policy priority.
Moose, who works in the group's London office, says violence against women is still too often seen as a private matter--hidden in the sanctity of a mother or daughter's home--or an aberration of war.
"It's getting more recognition in the area of conflict, but there's an idea that it's something extreme. But it's much more mainstream, much more normal," she said.
Around the world, about 1-in-3 women face violence in settings such as home, work and school.
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