Illustration: María María Acha Kutscher
Nancy was only 14 years old when she kissed her mother goodbye and headed off for an afternoon of study with friends. That was the last that Marta Rebaldo (not her real name) would ever see of her.
One missed phone call could have yielded a clue as to the teenager’s final whereabouts.
But Rebaldo was working a 12-hour shift in one of Mexico’s many thousands of maquiladoras (import–export factories), so she could not answer her phone. “If I had been able to pick up the phone, would I have been able to help her?” she wonders. “I do not know.”
Today, that unanswered ring continues to haunt the 45-year-old mother of three. Mexico’s ongoing epidemic of femicide had swallowed yet another victim: one of an estimated 44,000 over the past three decades.
According to the Mexican government’s statistics, in 2015, the number of murdered women and girls reached seven every day. This does not count the tens of thousands of women who, like Nancy, simply disappeared.
Rebaldo now walks her remaining two daughters to school every morning and meets them every afternoon as they leave class. She shadows them on visits to friends and, much to their embarrassment, is only a few paces behind them when they go shopping. Although both are now in their teens, their mother even accompanies them to the corner store located a block away. Neither is ever alone.
Her vigilance however, comes at a stiff price. Rebaldo’s determination to protect her remaining daughters is complicated by the futile hunt for her vanished one — first to the police, then to the morgue and then to the fiscalia (district attorney) and back again, day after fruitless day. Exhausted, Rebaldo left her job.
The bank repossessed her tiny home. Her savings vaporized. She fears that her daughters will struggle as she has or, worse yet, become involved with gang members. The eldest sister was always so protective — admonishing her younger siblings to ignore the blandishments of the local thugs. “When Nancy disappeared, I lost my light,” she says, adding sadly: “and all of us lost our future.”
A driver of poverty
One story, but one of among millions around the world. For according to experts, not only does gender-based violence (GBV) destroy families and shatter the very foundation of a community, it is also a major driver of poverty. In addition to physical and psychological scars left on those immediately affected, gender-based violence has repercussions beyond local communities and that affect the ability of communities to fully recover after crisis.
Even in highly functioning economies in times of relative calm, domestic violence is major drain on national resources.
In Chile, a government study found that domestic violence costs the state the equivalent of US$ 1.56 billion — or more than 2 per cent — of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). And that is in the women’s lost salary alone. In the United States, the cost of violence against women by an intimate partner exceeds an estimated US$ 5.8 billion per year. Although much of the data revolves around domestic violence, studies suggest that all forms of GBV are correlated with a lower GDP. In South Africa, for example, researchers with KPMG, a professional service and auditing company, estimate that, between 2012 and 2013, violence against women and girls cost the country between 0.9 per cent and 1.3 per cent of its GDP — figures that researchers claim is likely a gross underestimate. In Latin America, where femicide and GBV are among the highest in the world, the toll on the economy is acute — not only driving families into ruin but even right out of their countries.
That violence has an economic impact that can be felt even in ‘El Norte’ — the United States — where in 2016, US border authorities in the south-west detained more than 70,000 families and just shy of 60,000 unaccompanied children. The costs of incarceration, family reunification and tracing, deportation, housing and food are astronomical.
Suffering: the intangible cost
Research and policy rarely reflect other more ‘intangible’ costs such as pain and suffering or the psychological impact on children that may affect their future earning power. Nor do they explore multi-generational losses — i.e., economic opportunity lost to children who witness extreme violence, whose mothers are murdered or who are pulled out of school because parents fear they will be sexually exploited, raped and/or killed.
These, according to Priyanka Bhalia, GBV adviser with the IFRC’s Asia–Pacific Region, can only be understood when examined over the long term, research that few international organizations, governments or educational institutions have thus far undertaken.
“Gender-based violence affects communities in every way,” she says. “There are psychological effects, economic effects. If they have to go to the police or incur medical costs, it can ruin a family.”
Bhalia notes that in many cases, stigma and silence mean that victims and their loved ones will opt not to file a case or seek medical attention. This is especially true of survivors living in states characterized by extreme poverty, humanitarian disasters, weak governments and high rates of violence against women and girls.
“The problem with international organizations is that we rarely see the long-term effects of gender-based violence,” Bhalia says. Typically speaking, the ‘horizon line’ for much international relief and development rarely extends beyond five years.
“The economic impact of GBV is something that happens over time,” she notes. “Unless you’re working within the community for a longer period of time and unless you keep going back, you simply won’t see it.”
Exacerbated by emergency
Similarly, in places hit by natural disaster or other crisis, there is often a dearth of reliable baseline data about the frequency of GBV, making it difficult to know precisely how violence changes in the aftermath of a shock. However, there is growing evidence that the impoverishment caused by emergencies increases both the incidence and the impact of GBV.
According to Unseen, unheard: Gender-based violence in disasters, a global study published by the IFRC in 2015, “the increased economic pressures caused by a disaster seem to intensify family tensions and GBV”.
Further, the way poverty is addressed (or not addressed) in the post-disaster context can also have an impact, the report continues. “Where they lack economic alternatives, women and girls in abusive relationships have little choice but to remain with their abuser,” in the aftermath of a disaster.
Poverty and desperation may also force many women and girls into child marriage or transactional sex (for money, food or protection), and they become more vulnerable to traffickers. On the other hand, programmes to help women “must be designed and implemented carefully, because new economic opportunities can expose girls and women to new risks (for example, if they need to travel to a new job).”
While GBV is often invisible to outside observers, the report urges humanitarian organizations and governments to operate on the assumption that it is happening. Many relief organizations, including the components of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, are doing more to make the protection of people from gender and sexual violence an integral part of their response to emergencies.
Before the hurricane season, for example, the Haiti National Red Cross Society uses radio, TV and mobile-phone SMS services to share information on how to prepare while also raising awareness around GBV.
With ICRC support, women in Casamance, Senegal, have diminished their risk of sexual violence via livelihood projects (donation of grain mills, seeds and agricultural equipment; support with creating market gardens and training, etc.). The projects reduced their need to leave their villages to forage for food and thus potentially fall prey to attackers.
These are just two in a growing list of efforts, backed up at the global level by a resolution, passed by states and the Movement at its 32nd International Conference in December 2015, that specifically condemns gender-based violence in all its forms — but particularly during disaster and conflict — and calls on Movement components and governments to do more to address the issue.
Such assistance, protection and prevention efforts, however, are motivated more by the need to safeguard the health and well-being of the victims than by the economic impact or the effect on overall community recovery.
Nevertheless, numerous studies on micro-credit projects focusing on women show how they play a critical role in economic and social cohesion of impoverished communities. For survivors of sexual violence — whose families and communities often marginalize or ostracize them — interventions that help protect their dignity and restart livelihoods are essential to helping them recover and, eventually, contribute to their local economies.
Women who are too terrified to venture out of the house or can focus only on the safety of their loved ones, cannot till fields, support their children or provide the love, support and protection that children require. In the wake of emergencies, protecting women is not only essential to the right to life and dignity of every woman but is also critical to the full recovery of an affected community.
As conflicts become longer, as violence in urban areas becomes increasingly entrenched and as climate change leads to intractable competition for scarce resources, the contribution that women make to the resilience of their communities is too often overlooked.
Or, like the daughter of Marta Rebaldo, it is disappeared. And the effects damage us all.
In the municipality of Djibidione, in Senegal’s Casamance region, an ICRC market garden programme allowed women to gain livelihoods within safer areas in the city, as opposed to riskier harvesting activities further from town. Here, women arrange the chillies they grew as part of the programme to dry in the sun. Photo: José Cendon/ICRC