Mind the Gap

Karen Sherman
4 min readMar 8, 2020

March 8th, International Women’s Day, has become a day to showcase female achievements and advocate for greater gender equality. It is also a day for taking stock. A recent Index authored by Georgetown University’s Institute for Women, Peace, and Security does just that by ranking the best and worst countries to be a woman and the places where there are still gaps.

Norway, interestingly, scores highest on the gender equality front; the United States is a distant 19th.

I’ve worked in many of those worst countries, conflict-ridden places like Afghanistan, Congo, and South Sudan, where women’s security, inclusion, and access to justice are limited.

While the Index points to women’s education, legal status, and parliamentary representation as positive trends, other areas are more mixed or lagging. Gender-based violence is one of them. It remains a global scourge for women and girls, and the numbers are staggering.

In Afghanistan, for example, the UN finds that 87 percent of women have experienced some form of abuse; at least half of them at home. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, more than two million women have been raped over the country’s protracted war, a scale that defies comprehension. And in South Sudan, where over decades of war and conflict, women and girls have increasingly become targets of sexual violence as a deliberate means of destroying families and communities.

It might be easy to downplay the prevalence of violence or to think of it as something that primarily afflicts war-torn nations or the developing world, or a discrete number of #MeToo accusers, but that is not the case.

Elvert Barnes from Baltimore, Maryland, USA / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

A new study in JAMA Internal Medicine published by the American Medical Association shows that one in sixteen American women experience rape as their first sexual encounter. Gender-based violence is everywhere.

For all the progress for women — and there has been progress — the safety gap for women and girls is still far too wide.

Today, women aged 15–44 are more at risk from rape and domestic violence than from cancer, malaria, car accidents, even war (UN).

We must change these statistics. But how?

First, end the culture of impunity for perpetrators once and for all by setting a clear and enforceable global standard for treating all forms of violence against women.

This will spur the creation of and adherence to national laws by justice systems in each country.

When a survivor in Rwanda told me how her husband beat her with all his strength until she miscarried her first child, and how he continued to beat her until she finally reported him to the local authorities, I lauded her courage.

Rwanda is one of the few countries where a woman can report cases of rape and abuse via a police hotline, and perpetrators receive actual jail sentences.

Second, continue to press for changes to social norms which consistently tolerate violence.

Long-held attitudes and biases are not easily shifted. It requires leadership and the vigilance of those who most want change.

When women in Nigeria formed a human circle around the home of their friend, who was being beaten repeatedly by her husband, they took justice into their own hands, telling the man that if he continued to beat his wife, he would have to beat them all. This stopped the violence.

Third, better engage men as allies in this fight.

If more men took up the mantle of women’s rights, and shared those messages with their families, their sons might develop more compassion for their mothers and sisters, perhaps their future girlfriends and wives. With time others might see that there is a different way to think about and behave with women.

In South Sudan, one man I met refused to allow his wife to join a training program run by Women for Women International, thinking it would turn her against him. But when he heard what the women were learning from others in his village, he came himself and asked them to train her.

It’s time to move beyond sharing stories to create real legal protections for all women.

#MeToo has helped fuel a new global women’s movement, catalyzed by the shared experiences of women across continents and cultures who are demanding the right to live their lives free from violence, abuse, and harassment, in peace and with dignity. Global movements have pressured governments to end the use of landmines and reduce tobacco consumption. Why not to end violence against women?

Marching in South Sudan during my time with Women for Women International in Rwanda.

In 2020, the 25th anniversary of the United Nations World Conference on Women will take place. The United States will also elect a new president. Both events present opportunities to tackle the unfinished business of gender equality. The Index shows us what that is and where more work is needed.

On International Women’s Day, let’s recommit ourselves to ending this most egregious human rights violation, to heeding women’s voices and choices.

Women voters, all voters really, should insist on it.



Karen Sherman

President of @akilahinstitute. AUTHOR. ADVOCATE. UPSTANDER. 2020 Book Release: “Brick by Brick: Building Hope and Opportunity for Women Survivors Everywhere”