UN Matters

When will violence against women and girls stop in developing countries? The struggle continues

APA representatives Juneau Gary and Neal Rubin describe the U.N.’s efforts to eliminate gender inequality and violence against women through the lens of ongoing struggles in Ukraine and Pakistan.

By Juneau Gary, PsyD, and Neal S. Rubin, PhD, ABPP

One seldom hears about the countries of Ukraine and Pakistan in the same sentence. They are disparate countries, located on different continents and share no similarities in history, culture or language. What connects them now? They are among the nations that share a history of violence against women, a violation of one of the basic human rights (UNiTE, 2013), and the focus of two programs co-sponsored by APA’s NGO representation at the United Nations.

At the U.N. 57th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW-57), convened in New York City on March 4-15, 2013, APA’s U.N. team co-sponsored two programs on stopping violence against women. The CSW, established in 1946, is the principle global policy-making body at the U.N. dedicated exclusively to gender equality and the advancement of women. Annually, CSW convenes representatives of Member States at the U.N. to evaluate progress on gender equality, identify challenges, set global standards, and formulate policies that promote gender equality and women's empowerment worldwide. Members make specific recommendations for implementation by governments, inter-governmental bodies and other stakeholders, to be implemented at the international, national, regional and local levels as well as establish a theme for the following year (CSW, n.d.).

CSW’s theme for 2013 is the elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls. Consistent with this theme, APA’s first of two co-sponsored presentations was “When Will the Violence against Women and Girls Stop? Global Solutions.” It focused on public and private violence against women in Ukraine (presented by Martha Kebalo) and strategies to convince men in developing countries to stop sexual violence (presented by Rehman Azhar). Janet Sigal, APA’s main representative to the U.N., moderated the event.

Mobilizing outrage: Women reacting to public and private violence in Ukraine

Kebalo’s portion of the presentation focused on domestic violence and human trafficking as well as unprovoked murders of women and girls in Ukraine. She explained that Ukraine is the first post-Soviet country to develop a national system against domestic violence as well as criminalize it. Specifically, the 2001 Law on the Prevention of Domestic Violence was the first piece of legislation to address domestic violence in a post-Soviet country (Hrycak, 2007). In 2005, the Law on Equal Opportunities for Women and Men defined gender equality and banned gender discrimination as well as called for the compilation of data on violence against women, the provision of relevant services for women, and the elimination of global trafficking of Ukrainian women (Hrycak).

Despite recent legislative advances, some Ukrainian men refer to some women, regardless of their status, as “Natasha.” This is a sexually derogatory term used for trafficked women (the second most profitable crime in Ukraine) and prostitutes. Kebalo further explained that “Natasha” is a very common “working name.” In spite of her academic credentials and professional accomplishments, she has been called “Natasha” by some men in Ukraine with whom she was not acquainted and they were not actually soliciting her for services.

Strategies to convince men in developing countries to stop sexual violence

Azhar, a civil rights lawyer and former news reporter, was raised in Pakistan. He explained that as a male child, he witnessed gender inequality within his extended family but did not perceive it as such because he was raised in a cultural “bubble” and had no other points of reference. He was raised to believe that men beat their wives because “that’s the only way they will understand.” It was not until he traveled abroad and returned to Pakistan as a news reporter that violence against women in particular, that once seemed “normal” in his youth, began to offend him. The offenses included domestic violence, sexual exploitation, murders of female relatives (often referred to as honor killings) and mutilation (e.g., throwing acid on a woman or girl). He became a civil rights lawyer in order to advocate for victims such as these, who were voiceless.

In a predominately rigid patriarchal society such as Pakistan, men are the primary rights holders, Azhar explained. They have no investment in “giving away” some of their rights nor in empowering women, and it can be difficult to overcome such longstanding social beliefs.

In a traditional family, the wife is economically dependent on the husband and cannot afford to leave. This domestic pattern of female dependency cuts across all social classes. Most violent incidents against women are considered to be “private family matters” and seldom receive legal intervention (Zakar, Zakar, & Kraemer, 2011; Critelli & Willett, 2010). As such, there are few statistics or data on the incidence and prevalence of abuse in Pakistan. A daughter is often shunned from her family of origin if she musters the courage to flee from her husband and return to her parents. She is often illiterate, fears retribution and is unaware of limited legal rights (Critelli & Willett). When she returns to the husband, Azhar explained that she eventually adapts to a victim-centric mindset and remains in the marriage, suffering in silence and attempting to make peace with him (usually unsuccessfully).

If a woman seeks health care for injuries, she is typically re-victimized by the health care system in Pakistan (Zakar et al., 2011). She tends to encounter difficulty in receiving adequate health care and support services. Pakistani physicians and mental health staff (usually social workers) are often heavily influenced by the local customs and dominant societal ideology in which family privacy is honored and obedience to the husband is sacred (Zakar et al.). Their inculcation results in typically blaming and judging victims as well as maintaining negative stereotypes about abused women. When they treat women who seek care, they typically avoid inquiring about the cause of the trauma, preferring not to get involved in “non-medical issues” and seldom make referrals to support and therapeutic services (Zakar et al.). According to Critelli and Willett (2010), a dearth of private and state-supported women’s shelters exists and those that do, provide limited services to enable women to rebuild their lives independently. Pakistan’s abused women have few, if any, options.

Ukraine and Pakistan: What psychologists are doing to address gender inequality

Psychologists and other mental health professionals typically work alongside other locally- and internationally-sponsored professionals (e.g., lawyers, medical specialists, educators) to raise awareness of women’s rights. They also work through or in collaboration with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and U.N. agencies (e.g., U.N. Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM)) to provide services to local women’s shelters and crisis centers in both countries:

  • In Ukraine, psychologists have provided therapy to women and girls as well as to children who have witnessed abuse. Therapeutic services have helped to heal the emotional wounds of trauma and inculcate a foundation of empowerment. In addition to direct services, psychologists have also provided training in effective mental health service delivery and have advocated for women’s rights (Hrycak, 2007).
  • In Pakistan, most safe houses and shelters are privately run. Critelli and Willett (2010) have examined how one shelter, based on a human rights framework, operates within the Pakistani cultural context. Although therapy is uncommon in Pakistan, this specific shelter provides therapy, offered by a psychologist, who uses relaxation strategies and narrative psychology. The initial contact focuses on building trust and engaging in crisis work and later, social services are provided.

Recommendations to reduce violence against women and girls in developing countries

Changing the plight of women and girls in Pakistan, Ukraine and other developing countries requires systemic and multi-pronged cultural interventions sustained over multiple generations in order to re-shape each society. Kebalo declared that we must stop the talk and implement an aggressive and proactive action plan now; it is imperative that the cycle be broken. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s campaign to End Violence against Women and his push to “take action” (UNiTE, 2013) reiterate Kebalo’s personal decree for immediate action. The presenters offered several recommendations, which will impact the social, educational, business, religious and cultural systems and are supported by the professional literature and Ban Ki-moon’s campaign to end violence against women (UNiTE, 2013):

  • Use men to talk directly to men in Pakistan. They listen only to other men. Discuss how men can and should change their behavior while retaining their masculinity, without the use of domestic violence. Discuss how they can share (and not lose) power and redefine who they are as men.
  • Start early in a child’s developmental process with cultural interventions that stress equality, respect and options in family lifestyles. For instance, if boys are socialized at home to respect women and girls, they will be less likely to grow into abusers. If girls are educated at home about cultural and societal options and self-empowerment, they might begin to think and “act as if” gender equality existed.
  • Support schools that educate young girls (boys typically receive some education in Pakistan while girls typically do not). If girls are educated, they have options that might include employment, empowerment and self-sufficiency. Education is one means to break the cycle of dependence and abuse.
  • Train the police force and officers of the court to take seriously all accusations of abuse and murder (UNiTE, 2013). In Pakistan, for instance, women typically encounter indifference or bias from police and judicial officers when they attempt to press charges of abuse (Critelli & Willett, 2010). Once a strong legal system is implemented, encourage women and girls to seek the support of and protection by the police force and courts.
  • Use external and international pressure (e.g., NGOs, U.N.) as well as internal pressure and activism (e.g., Ukraine’s Orange Revolution) to insist that each government (1) prosecute abusers of “private family matters,” (2) enforce consequences, (3) compile accurate statistics, and (4) provide relevant services to victims. In doing so, the awareness of the incidence and prevalence of abuse will be increased, especially in the prosecution of high profile crimes (Critelli & Willett, 2010; Hrycak, 2007; UNiTE, 2013).
  • Educate government employees and clergy about adverse effects of abuse and how to actively assist abused women and girls to seek safety, services and support.
  • Improve the health care system to be prepared to address women’s health issues, including the trauma of abuse. Medical and mental health specialists must be educated about making referrals to women’s shelters, safe houses and support services (Critelli & Willett, 2010).
  • Expand adequate health care in rural areas of Pakistan with medical and mental health specialists trained to treat trauma and provide emotional support. This is where 66% of the population resides (Zakar et al., 2011). Moreover, female medical specialists must be encouraged and supported to practice in rural areas and provide women’s health care services in particular.
  • Increase the number of women’s shelters in Pakistan and fund them adequately. Educate shelter workers about (1) the psychosocial impact of abuse, (2) the value of listening, talking and acceptance using a strengths-based model, (3) how to support women through the crisis and healing process, and (4) how to empower women to continue living and make decisions regarding their lives (Critelli & Willett, 2010).
  • Institute a zero tolerance policy to protect victims of human trafficking in developing countries.
  • Implement a zero tolerance policy to stop gender discrimination and harassment in the work force (UNiTE, 2013).

Conclusion: The struggle continues

The change process and protection of basic human rights in some developing countries will not be instantaneous or easy. It will be a slow, multi-generational process that disrupts current social, cultural, religious, educational and business systems. It will also consist of hardships and catastrophes along the journey. The well-publicized recent attempted murder of Malala in Pakistan (for attending school), is a hardship that girls and women will face and have already endured. Similarly, the recent murders of (1) NGO health care workers in Pakistan (who were administering immunizations) and (2) U.S. humanitarian aid workers in Afghanistan (who were delivering native-language books) demonstrates more risks and catastrophes encountered by those who advocate for basic human rights in some developing countries.

International psychologists, in collaboration with other international professionals, U.N. agencies, NGOs and the UNiTE Campaign (UNiTE, 2013), have begun to identify culturally-sensitive interventions to facilitate the change process and protect basic human rights of women and girls in particular, in developing countries. We hope they will continue to do so. The struggle continues.


Critelli, F., & Willett, J. (2010). Creating a safe haven in Pakistan. International Social Work, 53(3), 407-422.

CSW. (n.d.). Commission on the Status of Women.

Hrycak, A. (2007). Seeing orange: Women’s activism and Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. Women’s Studies Quarterly, 35(3/4), 208-225.

UNiTE (2013). Human rights violation

UNiTE (2013). Take action.

UNiTE (2013). United Nations Secretary-General’s Campaign to End Violence Against Women.

Zakar, R., Zakar, M., & Kraemer, A. (2011). Primary health care physicians’ response to the victims of spousal violence against women in Pakistan. Health Care for Women International, 32, 811-832.

About the co-editors

Juneau Gary, PsyD (APA main representative to DPI), is a professor in the Department of Counselor Education at Kean University in New Jersey. Neal S. Rubin, PhD, ABPP (APA representative to DPI) is a professor at the Illinois School of Professional Psychology of Argosy University in Chicago. Both are APA NGO representatives to the United Nations Department of Public Information and are co-editors of this column.