Remarks at “One Safe Place for Hope and Empowerment” International Conference

Delivered on November 15, 2018 at the International Conference: “One Safe Place for Hope and Empowerment” in Paris, France.

Thank you Marie-Aimée [Peyron, Mme le Bâtonnier de l’Ordre des Avocats de Paris]. It is an honor to join you here this morning to discuss such an important topic.

The OECD has been looking at gender issues across most public policy area for decades, and we’re seeing that true gender equality still doesn’t exist anywhere. Progress is slow and patchy.

What continues to shock me is violence against women, which is horrifyingly prevalent; OECD data shows that 31% of women worldwide have experienced violence at least once in their lifetime.[1] 15% of women experienced this in the past year alone.

This is happening in many OECD countries: for example, in some parts of my country Mexico, 80% of women in their 30s report having been victims of intimate partner violence.

This isn’t confined to the domestic sphere, where it might be harder to spot, public spaces are not always safe for women, either.

Data shows that most women who use public transport feel exposed to physical or verbal aggression[2]. In Latin America, 60% of women say they have been physically harassed while using public transport.

Where does this violence come from? It is rooted in power and control, in patriarchal and cultural norms and attitudes that do not respect women and impede their rights. These are worsened by negative stereotypes and unconscious biases that are deeply engrained in society, in both men and women.

And it’s this social acceptance that is disturbing.

The OECD’s Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI) indicates that 28% of women worldwide justify domestic violence under certain circumstances. In developing countries, such as Afghanistan, 80% of women believe domestic violence is justifiable.

We have to look at how these images of women are propagated, and ask ourselves whether the media plays a role.

In many media outlets, negative images of women are disseminated in films, soap operas, or advertising. Women are presented not as humans, but as products whose value depends on their image. Just look at some of the violent video games that children or young adults can access – where players can choose to enact extreme violence against women.

Countries should take a hard look at this: the UK, Norway and Denmark are taking measures to ban sexism in advertising, and gratuitous violence against women on screen is less and less accepted.

Violence can also be linked to weak judicial systems, as pursuing cases that happen behind close doors can be difficult. Not only in developing countries where institutions are weak, but even in advanced economies, where there is no culture to use a gender lens when dealing with legal cases.

Action and policy recommendations

So what would the OECD recommend? A genuine whole-of-society approach is needed. Actions could be grouped around prevention, protection and prostecution.

First, prevention: stronger legal frameworks and systems that criminalise violence against women are essential, but not all countries have them. Although every country has ratified conventions on this issue, only 74% of the 180 countries covered by OECD data criminalise domestic violence[3]. Just 61% make sexual harassment a criminal offense. The #MeToo movement showed the way in which legal instruments were used to provide impunity to perpetrators of aggression against women.

I was in Tunisia this week and was encouraged that Tunisia, Jordan and Lebanon have recently repealed laws that allowed rapists to escape punishment by marrying their victims. But this is recent. There are still 10 countries in the world where this is permitted. We are in the 21st Century, how can these barbaric practices still exist?

Again, it’s the cultural biases, gender norms and stereotypes. To address this, women’s rights and respect must be mainstreamed through education.

Teaching children, parents and teachers that men and women are equals from the start will help.

Public education campaigns and public investment in female rights and opportunities can also help raise awareness of the issue, which has historically received less attention than other types of violence. Campaigns can also raise awareness of the negative effects of showing degrading images of women and gratuitous violence in media.

Schools can also help instil self-confidence in girls from early on, so that they can report abuse, and feel the self-worth to stand up to bullies and violence, both on and offline. More role models – both male and female – can help, and men should also be encouraged to be agents of change.

Laws need to catch up to the reality of the present: despite increasing awareness about new forms of violence, less than a dozen countries in the world have laws addressing cyber-harassment and online violence[4]. We need greater regulation and protections on social networks, especially for young adults and children, who might be more vulnerable.

Children also need to be taught to be digitally wise and resilient online.

In our PISA for Wellbeing report we confirmed that cyberbulling can have a greater  effect on girls, as it is usually always linked to their physical appearance.

More disaggregated data is also needed to be able to have a better picture of the scope and type of violence perpetrated against women and girls.

Second, protection: countries must take an integrated approach to support victims. Support for victims must be easily accessible. More than 40% of survivors never seek help and less than 20% of women who do appealed to the police, medical personnel or lawyers[5]. Data show that leaving an abusive relationship is an extremely dangerous time: most murders of abused women occur while a woman is leaving or shortly after.

Having integrated service centres in place, such as a Family Justice Centre, can give a survivor a place to go to when she takes the first step in a very difficult journey. These centres could also include language services for non-native speakers.

In Mexico, most states have set up publicly-funded Women’s Justice Centres, adapted to local conditions. These multi-function centres cut across service delivery, political and jurisdictional silos to offer the best support. Legislators are working to ensure that there is at least one Women’s Justice Centre in every state.

Our institutions should also be modernised to have a gender-lens, and there should be culturally-sensitive and specialised trauma training for all those working with victims.

I am also a believer in the power of women’s economic empowerment – if women are financially independent, they can better protect themselves and may find it easier to leave an abusive domestic situation. Ensuring women know their financial rights and can access their accounts is also important, and should also be a factor of integrated services.

Third, prosecution: our legal systems must adequately punish perpetrators, and must take violence against women as seriously as other violent crimes.

For example, in France, domestic violence legislation covers physical, sexual and psychological abuse and foresees penalties of up to five years in prison and a fine of €75,000. Austria also has a policy of specially trained police officers who can help protect victims, assess and recommend additional safety.

Cases must be treated quickly. For example, specialised domestic violence courts, such as those in the UK, where victims are placed at the centre of the justice process can help. Victims are provided with comprehensive and immediate services, courthouses are secured to ensure protection of women’s privacy and safety, and cases are fast-tracked.

Perpetrators, once prosecuted, also need to be rehabilitated and re-educated. The UK has implemented a Violence against Women and Girls Strategy, which looks at new technology and rehabilitation methods to reduce reoffending cases, to break the abuse cycle.

Finally, we need international cooperation. The  majority of OECD countries have identified violence against women as their top gender priority[6], and last year G7 leaders agreed to a series of measures to eliminate violence against women and girls. The OECD has supported these efforts and we’re already working with France ahead of its G7 presidency to build on previous commitments[7].

All this can help, but policies only work if cultural norms and mindsets are also tackled. We need to ensure instituions are strong and that they take a gender lens to major challenges, to rise above engrained biases.

All levels of government and civil society must cooperate to ensure women’s rights are enshrined in law, that victims are supported and protected and that they are economically empowered in the first place to ensure independence.

Your work is incredibly important and inspiring. You make a real difference to victims of violence, and you contribute to building more peaceful societies and communities.

Do count on the OECD to continue providing the data, analysis, best practices and policy recommendations to inform your work. And let’s make violence a thing of the past.

Thank you.

[1] OECD, Gender Institutions and Development Database (GID-DB).

[2] ITF (2018), Women’s Safety and Security. A public transport priority, OECD Publishing, Paris


[4] 180 country notes will be available on December 7th.

[5] DHS (Wave 6, n.d.)

[6] OECD (2017), The Pursuit of Gender Equality: An Uphill Battle, OECD Publishing, Paris,

[7] The Charlevoix Commitment to End Sexual and Gender-Based Violence, Abuse and Harassment in Digital Contexts


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s