6. Systems and legal frameworks to address gender-based violence

Carolin Beck
Mollie Cretsinger
Valerie Frey
Hyeshin Park
Meeta Tarani

GBV against women and girls is a global issue, faced by countries everywhere and across socio-economic groups. Worldwide, nearly one in three women experience physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime (WHO, 2021[1]; Sardinha et al., 2022[2]). Women and girls also face other forms of GBV, including intimate-partner economic and psychological abuse, technology-facilitated violence, sexual exploitation abuse and harassment (SEAH), human trafficking, female genital mutilation (FGM), and forced marriage. In recent years, OECD countries have increased their awareness, prioritisation, and advocacy efforts to prevent GBV and to protect women’s safety. While progress has been made in terms of laws, strategic planning, policy co-ordination and long-term investment, the issue persists: GBV is perpetrated everywhere, in all countries, all societies, and is a systemic issue. GBV was further highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic, when it was labelled a shadow pandemic (OECD, 2019[3]; 2021[4]; UN Secretary General, 2019[5]; 2020[6]; GREVIO, 2019[7]). Effective government systems including whole-of-government strategies, holistic approaches, co-ordinated government efforts, ample funding and resources, data collection, and comprehensive laws and effective enforcement are critical to tackling GBV.

A clear vision of a government’s goals to address GBV is key to strategically prioritise policy needs and challenges in government action. With such a strategic framework, governments can delineate their scope of action in terms of the types and forms of GBV to be addressed as well as the range of interventions and stakeholders involved. Countries can take various approaches to develop such frameworks. Some countries have adopted overarching national strategies or action plans to tackle GBV, such as Canada’s ten-year “National Action Plan to End Gender-Based Violence” endorsed in 2022 and developed with the collaboration of federal, provincial and territorial governments (Government of Canada, 2022[8]). Another approach adopted by the majority of responding countries (21 OECD members) included the integration of GBV as a priority issue in their overarching national gender strategies (OECD, 2021[9]). Similarly, member countries of the OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC) have set strategic frameworks on ending SEAH in development assistance and humanitarian aid contexts, and they have also often adopted whole-of-government approaches.

GBV is a product of various cross-cutting factors at different levels of life (i.e. individual, interpersonal, community, and societal factors) (OECD, 2021[4]). There is therefore a strong need for a holistic approach to addressing GBV, with actions and result-oriented objectives taken across all levels of government and society. With such an approach, countries can take measured and evidence-informed steps at all stages of addressing GBV. For instance, at the prevention and risk management stage, interventions can include community- and education-based programmes promoting gender equality, non-violence and healthy relationship behaviours in society across all ages, as well as identifying at-risk behaviours to provide counselling and help. In a similar vein, countries can design actions and interventions to deal with the immediate and long-term implications of GBV, including protecting and supporting survivors/victims as well as their children. At this stage, a holistic approach also calls for actions to punish and rehabilitate perpetrators, to counter recidivism.

Adopting a holistic approach also entails recognising the diverse backgrounds, lived realities and contexts of women and girls (to be noted that this chapter focuses on women and girls within the broader framework of GBV, which in OECD’s understanding includes broader groups). This suggests that in any given society, various groups of women are at differentiated risks of facing GBV. Many countries in the OECD have adopted an intersectional approach when developing GBV strategies and action plans. An example is Te Aurorekura, New Zealand’s National Strategy for Eliminating Family Violence and Sexual Violence, launched in 2021. This 25-year strategy and its action plan acknowledge the need for an intersectional approach, underlining the disproportionate impact of family and sexual violence on women, children and young people, tangata whenua, Pacific peoples, disabled people, older people, LGBTQIA+ communities, ethnic communities, and people experiencing compounding forms of disadvantage and discrimination.

Dealing with the cross-cutting challenge of GBV requires co-ordinated government action, involving a wide range of stakeholders. such as central government bodies, parliaments and justice institutions, independent oversight institutions, and development agencies.

In many OECD countries, at the central/national level, the central gender equality institutions (CGI) have the responsibility for the development and implementation of GBV-related strategies, policies and action. In Canada and Mexico, for example, the CGI are respectively responsible for the implementation and monitoring of the country’s GBV strategy. Switzerland’s Federal Office for Gender Equality works with actors across the government, both horizontally and vertically, to support the implementation of GBV-related policies and actions. Additionally, line ministries and other bodies in relevant policy areas (e.g. health, education, employment, children’s affairs, justice and public safety) can also be engaged as part of the whole-of-government response to GBV to ensure policy coherence and co-ordination.

Co-ordination mechanisms and cross-governmental buy-in are prerequisite for an effective whole-of-government approach. Some OECD countries, such as Finland, Norway and Spain have established formal partnerships or co-ordinating bodies among key state actors to ensure a coherent implementation of the strategic goals regarding GBV. In Finland, for example, the Committee for Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence (NAPE) has members from various ministries and public institutions, including the Ministry of Justice, Statistics Finland, and the Ombudsman for Equality, and is responsible for the co-ordination, monitoring, and impact assessment of measures required for the implementation of the Istanbul Convention.

At the subnational levels, governments and legislatures serve as a link with the national/central authorities. In most countries they have an even greater role to play in the fight against GBV (OECD, 2023[10]). Due to their proximity to local communities, devolved responsibilities as part of the national GBV strategy can imply crucial roles for local governments, such as the dispensing of funds, capacity-building and community mobilisation, among others. As such, it becomes necessary to align the actions and goals at local, regional and national levels to sustain a co-ordinated government response to GBV. In development and humanitarian contexts, co-ordination between actors, including OECD Members, international organisations, civil society organisations, and local government authorities (when appropriate and safe), is critical to ensure coherent responses and comprehensive service provision for SEAH victim/survivors and GBV more broadly.

Parliaments and parliamentary committees can strengthen the legal approach to GBV response through reviews of proposed and existing laws. They can also serve as an oversight mechanism to monitor the implementation of government strategies, laws, and policies. Justice institutions, namely national justice ministries (usually responsible for legal, policy and judicial reforms) as well as courts and judges (who administer justice and interpret the law) are key in ensuring that the state’s response to GBV incidents is survivor/victim-centred. Similarly, as first responders, the police are usually the first point of contact within the system for victims/survivors and can help through reporting and investigating in a gender-sensitive manner, when an investigative process is sought by the victim/survivor.

The response measures to the COVID-19 pandemic illustrate that government systems, institutions, and strategies to fight GBV need to be prepared for atypical situations and crisis contexts. Several OECD countries recognised the need to address the rising risks of GBV during the pandemic and adopted measures ranging from broad gender-inclusive recovery plans and funds to fight against GBV (e.g. Australia, Canada, Iceland, Italy and Sweden) to specific (emergency) support for the continuation and adaptation of services for survivors. Chile and Spain adopted contingency plans against GBV. For example, Spain outlined strategic and operational measures to prevent, manage, and mitigate the negative consequences of GBV during confinement (Government of Spain, 2018[11]; 2020[12]). Some countries also engaged in data collection, the creation of special taskforces and increased inter-governmental co-operation (e.g. Canada, Greece, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Sweden and Switzerland). (OECD, 2020[13]; 2021[14]). Other countries strengthened judiciary support through the application of more severe criminal punishment for GBV cases (e.g. Costa Rica, the Czech Republic and Korea) (OECD, 2022[15]).

Ensuring adequate human, technical and financial resources is key to establish systems that are well-functioning and can effectively respond to GBV. Targeted support and resources across agencies is key to respond to the multifaceted needs of GBV survivors/victims, including in such areas as shelter and housing, counselling, and healthcare and justice services (OECD, 2023[10]). In the same vein, Box 6.1 stresses the specific issue of funding and resources to combat SEAH in development assistance and humanitarian aid contexts.

In view of the complex and pervasive nature of GBV, it is important that policies are based on an accurate understanding of trends in the specific socio-economic and political conditions in a country. Such an understanding requires a strong evidence base. Feeding good-quality data and evidence, especially gender-disaggregated data, into the policy making cycle can enhance gender sensitivity greatly. Prevention and risk management efforts around GBV require a good grasp of the situation of GBV within a country: its prevalent forms, rates of incidence, relevant demographics, etc. Data collection efforts should ideally consider the peculiarities of different forms of GBV. For instance, preventing femicides requires understanding the reasons why women and girls face gender-related risks of death, including by their intimate partners.

Achieving holistic action on GBV requires a wide range of quantitative and qualitative methods and tools for data collection. For instance, sources can include population-based surveys; targeted, qualitative interviews and testimonies of survivors/victims, government agents and service providers; and administrative data collected by government and other service providers. Such data are essential to inform policy making and to design appropriate responses.

Data collection efforts should be conducted over time and in a consistent manner to obtain comparable results, which provide a detailed look at the problem and its evolution. For example, in Spain a “Macro Survey on Violence Against Women” has been conducted every four years since 1999, encompassing physical, psychological, sexual and economic violence. Italy’s national statistics office conducted a survey on violence against women in 2006 and in 2014, covering physical, sexual and psychological violence against women over time. In June 2022, Italy’s parliament adopted a law on ensuring statistics related to GBV to inform policy making and monitoring of GBV.

While the need for better data on GBV is well-recognised, all countries face challenges in data collection (OECD Family Database, 2020[17]). Underreporting and non-disclosure due to fear of further violence or retaliation; lack of trust in and knowledge of the police and justice systems; and stigma, are just a few of the reasons why official estimates of GBV present low estimates of the actual prevalence of violence. When data do exist, comparability across countries and over time is challenging due to differences in definitions, questions, and survey methods used. When it comes to administrative data, due to the range of actors involved in their collection, there are consistency gaps across levels of governments, sectors, and regions (OECD, 2023[10]). Lack of capacities for data collection among national statistical offices, particularly skills and knowledge specific to GBV data collection, is also a barrier in many countries. Box 6.2 presents a few country practices related to collection and co-ordination of administrative data on GBV.

Additionally, monitoring and evaluation of interventions and policies can yield crucial information regarding persisting needs, gaps and emerging challenges in eliminating GBV. Institutional mechanisms, systems and interventions established to prevent and address GBV should be regularly evaluated and monitored. In recent years, OECD DAC Members have increased their efforts to improve their monitoring and evaluation of systems to respond to and prevent SEAH. This includes reviewing policy responses, support, and follow-up through methods encompassing independent progress and impact assessments, evaluations, as well as review mechanisms on best practices, lessons learned and common definitions. Part of evaluating effective responses should engage the communities and local actors involved in development and humanitarian programming as well as victim/survivors themselves, on a voluntary basis.

While legislation alone will not eradicate GBV, comprehensive legal frameworks that protect women and girls from all forms of GBV constitute a vital step to putting an end to impunity and societal acceptance of GBV. The legislation not only sends a strong signal that GBV is a serious crime but also contributes to changing social norms so that victims/survivors enjoy effective protection of their human rights. The OECD’s Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI) (Box 6.3) assesses how comprehensively a country’s legal framework protects girls and women from GBV. In the best case, the law protects women and girls from all the following forms of violence: honour crimes; intimate partner violence; rape, including marital rape; and sexual harassment – without any exceptions or legal loopholes. For instance, this requires that laws on domestic violence define and criminalise all types of abuse (physical, sexual, psychological and economic violence) and that laws on sexual harassment apply in all places (including not only the workplace, but also educational establishments, online settings and the public place).

Several countries have updated or enacted laws that comprehensively protect girls and women from all forms of violence. Malta, Uruguay, Costa Rica and France appear as the countries where women experience the lowest levels of discrimination regarding GBV – as measured by the SIGI, this encompasses to what extent laws effectively protect women and girls from violence; to what extent the population tolerates the use of physical violence by a husband against his wife; and the share of women that experienced intimate-partner violence in their lifetime (OECD Development Centre/OECD, 2023[21]). Canada has implemented several strategies and action plans to address different manifestations of GBV, including SEAH. The strategy to combat GBV mentions the promotion of a responsive legal system that takes into consideration the needs and diverse experiences of survivor/victims of GBV by strengthening family and criminal laws and providing, for instance, gender and diversity trainings for judges (Government of Canada, 2021[22]).

Other countries have recently made progress in strengthening the legislative framework to address GBV. In 2021, the United States of America signed the “STOP FGM Act” (Public Law No. 116-309) into law. It amends the previous legislation on FGM criminalising it with an updated definition of the practice, clarification for accountable parties under the law and reporting requirements for federal agencies (Government of the United States of America, 2021[23]). In 2021, Colombia enacted specific legislation on the creation and role of the family commissioners to provide women, adolescents and girls with better access to justice and protection mechanisms in the context of domestic violence (Government of Colombia, 2021[24]). In 2022, Spain passed the so-called “Only yes means yes” law, removing the distinction between sexual abuse and sexual aggression (rape) and clearly regulating that explicit expression of consent is required for sexual relations (Government of Spain, 2022[25]).

Despite the progress countries made to strengthen their laws on gender-based violence, further efforts are needed to ensure that legal frameworks are fully comprehensive. This also requires accounting for newer forms of violence such as cyber-harassment or cyberstalking, which is currently only covered by 31 countries. Another example is domestic violence: a comprehensive law would explicitly prohibit all types of abuse: physical, sexual, psychological and economic abuse. In 26 countries, the law on domestic violence does not include at least one of the mentioned forms of abuse, leaving victims/survivors without the necessary protection. Legal exceptions continue to undermine girls’ and women’s rights and safety: in the case of rape, the law in ten countries permits the reduction or removal of legal punishment if the perpetrator marries the victim/survivor (OECD Development Centre/OECD, 2023[21]). Plural legal systems represent a further challenge to ensure that laws on GBV protect all women and girls. In countries where different legal codes apply to different groups of the population – based on e.g. ethnicity, religion, or location – certain groups of women will not enjoy the same rights and legal protection as others. Finally, informal laws could undermine the reach and enforcement of statutory laws. This is particularly the case when such traditional, customary or religious rules and laws protect women and girls to a lesser extent against all forms of violence than the formal legal framework.


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