Youth can change the cultural DNA of GBV

Today's youth have the power to stop harmful gender norms from continuing to future generations beyond these 16 Days of Activism. Photo by Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash

Youth can change the cultural DNA of GBV

  • Roselle Agner
  • Dec 9, 2021

As we commemorate16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, Corus International's Senior Technical Advisor for Gender, Roselle Agner reflects on the opportunities for youth to change harmful gender norms. Corus International is an ensemble of global leaders in international development and humanitarian assistance, including public health agency IMA World Health, global non-governmental organization Lutheran World Relief, U.K.-based technology for development company CGA Technologies, impact investing group Ground Up Investing, and direct trade company Farmers Market Brands.

On September 21, 2021, I received a heartbreaking call from a friend in Afghanistan. She was sobbing and inconsolable as her 19-year-old niece, Palwasha was forcibly taken from her home by 15 Taliban fighters under the direct guidance of leadership command. After fighting off forced marriage for three years to an older man in her home province of Kunduz, she was no longer under anyone’s protection when the Taliban took control over Afghanistan. They broke into my friend’s home, and the future husband beat Palwasha into submission in front of my friend and her young children. There were no police to call, community to rally with or support from human rights defenders.

My friend was alone and helpless to protect her niece from several forms of gender-based violence (GBV), forced marriage being the start. Unfortunately, this is just one of the many stories of this pervasive endemic I’ve witnessed during my time working in Afghanistan and since the Taliban’s control over the country. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates one in three women have experienced GBV in their lifetime, 30% aged 15 and older. In Afghanistan alone, over 90% of women have experienced some form of violence in their lifetime.

The cost of gender-based violence

This pervasive endemic has gone unchecked and further exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic. GBV everywhere is rooted in harmful gender norms, abuse of power and gender inequities, the result of which has women and girls disproportionally affected by GBV. Men are taught to exercise coercive control, and sexual harassment is justified by how women and girls behave or dress. Today’s polarized climate foments social and cultural acceptability of GBV, as indicated by continuous allegations made against political leaders at the highest level that routinely go uninvestigated with no charges brought.

GBV not only has life-long repercussions but also extensive social and economic costs to families, communities and countries. The World Bank estimates GBV costs between 1.2 to 2% of a country’s GDP. This is equivalent to most governments’ spending on primary education in developing countries.

Today's youth have the power to change these harmful gender norms. Youth are more than just victims; they are key in driving change to combat GBV. Youth make up 16% of the global population. In Afghanistan, 63% of the population is below 25 years of age. Youth are taking charge in creating and realizing solutions to address challenges in their lives. Governments and development practitioners should take advantage of this youth bulge by investing in youth to drive change.

  • Invest in youth-focused programming that shifts gender roles and responsibilities within families and communities

  • Invest in comprehensive sexual and reproductive health that respects sexual health and rights

  • Promote positive masculinity such as supportive fathers, brothers, partners and mentors

  • Harness the collective voice of youth to advocate for policy, social and economic change

  • Identify and work with young leadership at community and national levels by sensitizing and promoting youth as transformational leaders

Youth can adopt healthy behaviors and positive gender perceptions that are transferred to their own families, breaking the generational cycle of GBV. In the case of Afghanistan, we need to sustain the gains made toward gender equality no matter who is in charge. Afghanistan may not be in the news as frequently these days, but their gains toward gender equality were not made in vain. Youth witnessed mothers, sisters and wives pursue education and gain jobs in places traditionally allocated for men. They themselves were empowered to pursue their own life path.

Amplifying voices of the next generation

These are the hard-fought gains made in the past several decades in Afghanistan that won’t go to waste in the hands of youth and have enabled youth like artist Shamsia Hassani, the Afghan robotics team and journalist Anisa Shahid to fight for a society they want to live in. It is time to stop underestimating the power of youth for transformational change. As painful as Palwasha’s kidnapping and forced marriage is, it is not the end of her story.

GBV is part of the culture in many communities and is acceptable even by survivors of GBV. Evoking traditional beliefs and practices on how women and girls should be treated are often used to justify GBV. We need to evolve from this cultural DNA and engage with the new generation to raise their voices for change.