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How to better protect women in Asia-Pacific? More legal aid — ADB

Two years before reaching the deadline for the Millennium Development Goals, 40 percent of of women in the Asia-Pacific region are still experiencing violence, insecurity and poor quality of life. This is higher than the global average of 35 percent and undermining the objectives of sustainable development.

To address the issue, aid donors should focus their money on guiding governments to craft more effective policies geared towards the welfare of women and making cities and other areas safe for them, especially in the legal arena, according to an expert from the Asian Development Bank.

"Development agencies can assist countries to develop better laws, better implementation of existing laws, reform the justice system and support harsher penalties for perpetrators," Shireen Lateef, ADB's senior advisor for gender issues, told Devex. "The social and economic costs of violence [against women] are enormous and stall all other development efforts."

Despite the region's efforts to fast-track the achievement of the MDGs, including women's protection and empowerment, there is still a long way to go. But can more legal aid for women shift these initiatives into a higher gear?

Here are a few excerpts of our conversation with Lateef:

Recently, several high-profile incidents of violence against women have occured in urban areas. Are we witnessing an upsurge?

There are many reasons or explanations for why incidences of violence against women occur in any given country. Violence against women is endemic and a global phenomenon. It occurs everywhere — in all countries.

Asia must confront the grim reality that three of the world's top five most dangerous countries for women, according to a Reuters poll, happen to be in this region [Afghanistan, India, Pakistan]. But the rest of Asia-Pacific is not off the hook. Sexual assault, harassment, intimate partner violence, trafficking of women and girls and pre-natal sex selection is evident across the Asia-Pacific region: around 30 percent of women in Vietnam, East Timor and Samoa, more than 40 percent in Bangladesh, and more than 60 percent in Kiribati, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.

Also, [the issue] is not confined to remote, rural, traditionally conservative areas. It is happening in the urban center and cities. In fact, women in urban areas are twice as likely as men to experience violence.

In some countries, culture plays a part in women's insecurity and lack of safety. How can this be addressed?

Cultural and traditional practices and attitudes certainly contribute to how women are perceived, treated and sometimes even [leads to] the acceptance of violence against women. [Changing cultural practices] may be daunting but are not impossible. Culture is not fossilized or cast in stone. Cultures change and are shaped over time. Unacceptable cultural and social practices that disrespect and demean women and violate their fundamental human rights must be tackled head on and slowly chipped away.

Women's education and economic empowerment will change over time the value placed on women and girls, giving them a voice in households and communities and empowering them. In some societies, girls are less valued than boys because they are seen as economic liabilities and not economic assets. However, if women are educated, enter employment and earn incomes, their economic status within the household can improve.

What should be done for cities in the Asia-Pacific region in order to make them safer for women?

Across the region, women's safety and security in public spaces is still not guaranteed. Cities can be made safer for women by improving street lighting in train and bus stations, [as well as] surrounding areas; new roads to shorten journeys; paved sidewalks; public safety audits; safe public transport services [and] regular, efficient publicized services; separate ticketing queues and waiting areas; women-only carriages on trains and metros especially at night; use of modern technology such as mobile phones to map incidences of sexual harassment on public transportation. The protection of the region's women and girls is of the utmost urgency and requires immediate attention.

How important is the issue to the region's pursuit of sustainable and inclusive development?

The safety and security of women is critical to gender equality and women's empowerment. Despite the magnitude of the problem, violence against women occupies a marginal space in public policy and development agendas. Yet, the social and economic costs of violence — both to the individual and society — are enormous and stall all other development efforts: it reduces human capital, decreases productivity, negatively impacts educational outcomes, reinforces inequalities, reduces progress towards the MDGs and slows down poverty reduction.

What can the aid community do to help push initiatives forward?

Invest in women and girls education, health, economic, social and political empowerment. In the long term, this will result in change and will also deliver immeasurable social and economic returns for the individual, the community and the economy overall.

More specifically on preventing violence against women, development agencies can assist countries to develop better laws, to better implementat existing laws, reform the police and justice systems, and support harsher penalties for perpetrators. These are certainly the first and necessary steps. But, laws and justice systems are only one piece of the puzzle. The complexity and root causes of violence need to be better understood and require a multi-pronged approach that tackles the multi-faceted nature of the issue.

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