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Addressing Violence Against Women and Children Is Critical to Achieving an AIDS-Free Generation and the Millennium Development Goals

During this week's 58th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, the global community will come together to reflect on key achievements and challenges in advancing progress toward the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for women and girls. This provides an opportune moment to examine the impact of one such challenge: violence against women and girls.

Violence against women and girls has impeded progress on nearly every MDG. This includes efforts to reach the MDG 6 target of halting and beginning to reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS--an epidemic that still disproportionally affects women and girls in many countries. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one in three women worldwide has experienced physical and/or sexual violence in her lifetime. Women who experience violence also often face serious health consequences, including higher rates of unintended pregnancies, mental health problems, and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV.

Significant evidence linking violence against women and HIV has emerged over the past decade. A recent analysis by the WHO shows that intimate partner violence increases women's risk for HIV infection by more than 50 percent, and in some instances by up to four-fold. Violence also affects women's willingness to seek HIV testing and counseling or to stay on lifelong anti-retroviral treatment. Studies in multiple countries have also found that adolescent girls who experience sexual violence are up to three times more likely to acquire HIV or other STIs. These are among the many reasons why, through a new consolidated Gender Strategy, the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) will require all its country programs to report the number, age, and sex of people that they support in accessing post-gender-based-violence care, as part of a comprehensive HIV/AIDS response.

We also recognize that every year up to one billion children face some form of violence. These experiences can impede their progress toward realizing healthy and productive futures--affecting everything from their ability to succeed at school to their vulnerability to infectious diseases, such as HIV. As girls enter adolescence, they are more vulnerable to the same types of violence experienced by women--namely sexual violence and intimate partner violence. Young and adolescent girls are also vulnerable to early or forced marriages and harmful practices such as female genital mutilation/cutting.

Early marriage is devastating to a girl's health and education, and exposes her to greater risk of abuse and violence. Girls who marry young and bear children are five times more likely to die during pregnancy or childbirth than women over the age of 20. The UN Population Fund states that every year 2 million girls between the ages of 10 and 14 give birth, and over 90 percent of these take place within marriage or some other form of union. Further, women who experienced violence as children are more likely to be in violent relationships as adults. Boys who experience or witness violence as children are also more likely to perpetrate violence in adulthood.

Launched in 2009, Together for Girls (TfG) is an innovative public-private partnership that is supporting efforts to addresses violence against children, particularly girls, by gathering data on its magnitude, nature, and consequences, and using these data to help mobilize national governments to take greater action. TfG brings together private sector partners, United Nations agencies, and the U.S. Government--through PEPFAR and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control's (CDC) Division of Violence Prevention, and in collaboration with the State Department's Office of Global Women's Issues.

Working with the CDC, TfG has provided national data on violence against children through the Violence Against Children Survey (VACS). For the first time, VACS have already been completed in four countries, and are at various stages of development and implementation in seven more, including in Haiti and Malawi. Results from completed VACS reveal that 26 to 38 percent of women and girls have experienced sexual violence before age 18, and well over half of them experienced more than one such incident. Moreover, 23 to 53 percent of women and girls reported that their first sexual intercourse before the age of 18 was unwanted. This is simply unacceptable.

Due in part to these findings, countries are stepping up their efforts to address violence against women and girls. Swaziland has launched a database to track cases of violence, has established courts that are friendly to women and girls, and is increasing post-rape care through one-stop centers. Governments in Tanzania, Kenya, and Zimbabwe are scaling up national violence prevention and action plans. In Nairobi, Child Protection Centres have been expanded to reach more than 2,200 children with protective services.

The U.S. government and its partners are deeply committed to helping address violence against women and girls, including by supporting countries that want to tackle these issues head-on. This is critical not only to ensure that all individuals can participate fully and safely in their families and communities, but also can access HIV-related and other essential health services. We are pleased to see the growing momentum around these issues, and hope that additional governments and partners will take similarly strong steps so that, ultimately, we can bring the global scourge of violence against women and girls to an end.

About the Authors: Cathy Russell serves as the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues at the U.S. Department of State. Deborah von Zinkernagel serves as the Acting U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator at the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (PEPFAR).

Editor's Note: This entry originally appeared in the Huffington Post.

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