GENDER-BASED violence is a global pandemic that cuts across ethnic, racial, socio-economic, and religious lines, and knows no borders. It affects women and girls in Pacific Island nations just as it does in the United States and every other nation.
It can threaten women and girls at any point in their life — from female feoticide and inadequate access to education and nutrition to child marriage, incest, and so-called "honour" killings.
It can take the form of dowry-related murder or domestic violence, rape, sexual exploitation and abuse, trafficking in persons, or the neglect and ostracism of widows.
One in three women around the world will experience some form of gender-based violence in her lifetime. Intimate partner violence is the most common form of violence. In some countries the percentage is as high as 70 per cent.
Women with disabilities are two to three times more likely to suffer physical and sexual abuse than women with no disability.
Gender-based violence extracts significant social cost as well. A 2004 study in the United Kingdom projected the total direct and indirect costs of domestic violence to 23 billion pounds per year, or 440 pounds per person ($65bn per year, or $1244 per person).
Preventing and prosecuting violence against women pays enormous dividends in the long run. The United States' Violence Against Women Act, which strengthened efforts to investigate and prosecute such crimes, is estimated to have saved more than $US16bn ($28bn) since its enactment in 1994.
We must recognise that violence against girls and women is, at root, a manifestation of the low status of women and girls around the world. Ending the violence requires elevating the status of women and girls and freeing their potential to be agents of change in their community.
The 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence, beginning on November 25, offer all of us an opportunity to renew our commitment to free women and girls from violence, whether it happens behind closed doors or as a public tactic of intimidation.
Whether it occurs in our own neighbourhood or on distant shores, violence against women and girls damage us all — men and women alike. As Secretary Hilary Clinton has stated, "It is time for all of us to assume our responsibility to go beyond condemning this behavior, to taking concrete steps to end it, to make it sociably unacceptable, to recognise it is not cultural; it is criminal."
We all need to work together — the international community, governments, multilateral organisations, and grassroots-level advocates to address and prevent violence from occurring.
Many nations in the Pacific, including Fiji, have passed legislation addressing gender-based violence. The next critical step is to work together to improve implementation of those laws in order to increase accountability and address impunity. We need increased advocacy and more interaction between policy makers and those who work in the field. We need to empower girls to speak up for themselves, and educate boys to speak up for their sisters.
We must support the inclusion of men, boys, and other critical community stakeholders - such as religious leaders — in addressing and preventing violence and changing gender attitudes. We must ultimately overcome the deep-rooted gender inequalities that either tacitly allow or actively promote violent, discriminatory practices.
The United States has made gender equality and women's empowerment a core focus of our foreign policy. In the Pacific, the US Embassy in Suva supports the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative's (ABA ROLI) Pacific Fellows and Women's Rights Program.
The program works with individuals interested in women's rights issues to create a stronger, better educated group of civil society advocates empowered to advance the legal rights of women, particularly women who have experienced violence. In April 2012, 12 young legal professionals selected from Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga, Timor-Leste, Palau, Federated States of Micronesia and Fiji travelled to the US for six-weeks of training as part of the program. In August 2012, six domestic violence experts from the United States conducted a two-day Women's Rights Workshop in collaboration with the University of the South Pacific's Law School in Suva to educate participants on steps they can take in their home countries to affect positive change towards the legal needs of women and their communities and empower women to demand their rights.
Countries cannot progress when half their populations are marginalised and mistreated, and subjected to discrimination. Evidence demonstrates that women's empowerment is critical to building stable, democratic societies; to supporting open and accountable governance; to further international peace and security; to growing vibrant market economies; and to addressing pressing health and educational challenges