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Gender-based violence and #AidToo: A time for reckoning and action in the development sector

Kenya Equator

To mark Canada's first Gender Equality Week 2018, MEDA is highlighting important issues and voices around women’s economic empowerment and gender equality in the area of economic development. This is the fifth instalment of our #EveryoneBenefits blog series. 

On the final day of Canada’s inaugural Gender Equality Week comes a topic that has received a great deal of media attention in 2018: Gender-based violence and the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment in the aid industry. Springing from the #MeToo movement - where a number of high-profile celebrities and public figures were thrust into the spotlight, their indiscretions exposed running the gamut from sexual harassment to sexual assault - came #AidToo. #AidToo was a discussion that developed from the Oxfam GB scandal [1]. Consequently, a space for dialogue has opened in the aid industry, meriting an in-depth examination of the effects of gender-based violence both in the communities we work within and within our industry.

GBV - What is it?

Gender-based violence, or GBV, is defined as involving “the use and abuse of power and control over another person and is perpetrated against someone based on their gender identity, gender expression or perceived gender” [2]. GBV includes “forms of violence or abuse that can result in physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering” such as physical and sexual violence, harassment, online violence or discrimination, financial abuse, and emotional or psychological violence”, among others [3]. Violence against women, or VAW, is one form of gender-based violence; nevertheless, GBV also greatly impacts other marginalized groups including the LGBTQ2 community [4]. Men and boys may also be victims of GBV, where sexual violence against men has been used as a weapon of war in conflict areas including Uganda and the Congo.

How big is the issue?

UN Women estimates that approximately 1 in 3 women or 35% of women worldwide will have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or sexual violence by a non-partner at some point in their lives [5].

In Sub-Saharan Africa where several of MEDA’s projects are located, domestic violence is widespread and is sometimes even normalized, as evidenced by a woman interviewee who indicated that in some Kenyan communities “physical abuse is thought to be a demonstration of love” [6]. A staggering 45.6% of women 15 years and older in Africa have experienced intimate partner violence, and in countries like Tanzania this number can be as high as 60% [7].

In Canada, marginalized individuals are disproportionately affected; indigenous women are more than three times as likely to report being a victim of spousal violence than non-indigenous women [8]. Canadian women living with cognitive or physical impairments are also two to three times more likely to be victims of violence than those without impairments [9].

How does it impact the people and businesses MEDA supports?

The economic costs of gender-based violence, as well as the personal toll on individuals and families, are immense. GBV violates basic human rights and the rights of women to live a life free of violence [10].

Globally, survivors of violence are almost twice as likely to experience depression, and depending on the region, women survivors are 1.5 times more likely to acquire HIV than women who have not experienced violence [11]. In 2016 the UN estimated that the economic repercussions of intimate partner violence resulted in a $5.8 billion and $1.16 billion deficit to the American and Canadian economies, respectfully [12].

Worldwide, the costs incurred by GBV are equivalent to approximately 2% of global GDP (roughly $1.5 trillion USD, the size of the Canadian economy) [13]. In the aid sector, data on the pervasiveness of GBV are not yet available, however investigations are ongoing as allegations continue to arise [14].

The ripple effects of GBV not only present a violation of the rights of the women and families we work with, but also a risk to MEDA’s programming with women and others who are exposed to violence. In Kenya, women entrepreneurs report being discouraged from obtaining loans as loan officers would ask for sexual favours in exchange [15]. In Nigeria, women and girls have been targeted by Boko Haram; over 9,000 have been kidnapped since 2011 [16]. Girls continue to be at risk of early and forced child marriage (EFCM); those who are selling or “hawking” small wares in local markets in particular are at risk of sexual exploitation.

How does MEDA respond to GBV through our economic development work?

MEDA recognizes the need to deepen our understanding of the impacts of GBV on our programming, and our projects in both Kenya and Nigeria are beginning to address these issues. In Kenya we are partnering with women’s business associations to raise gendered concerns to prominence and are supporting financial inclusion mechanisms that can meet women’s needs. In Nigeria we are promoting social dialogue with families and community leaders through our partners to discuss the negative impacts of EFCM and the risks to girls who are involved in street hawking.

MEDA is promoting greater awareness and action on the prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse (PSEA) by launching a revised staff code of conduct and instituting a suite of corporate policies touching on a range of these issues, including PSEA, gender equality, anti-violence and sexual harassment, and a human rights statement of commitment.

At the core of MEDA’s work on investment, entrepreneurial development and promoting inclusive market systems is our strategic emphasis on gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Gender-based violence presents a direct challenge to furthering gender equality and equitable economic growth, and an obstacle to women’s capacity to pursue personal, political and economic empowerment [17]. Freedom from the risk of violence, exercising voice and choice, and security and mobility are key to women’s ability to succeed as entrepreneurs and as individuals. MEDA recognizes that equipping staff with the tools to work safely and discuss these issues, educating women and girls on their rights, and engaging men and boys on the subject, is powerful and crucial to our organizational success.


  3. Ibid.
  4. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, intersex and two-spirit.
  7. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
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