The Spotlight Initiative: Eliminating Violence and Harmful Practices Against Women and Girls

Joint op-ed by UN Women, UNFPA and UNDP

The numbers are shocking: at least one in three women on the planet has suffered physical or sexual violence, usually at the hands of a family member or intimate partner. More than 700 million women alive today were married as children.  Up to 250 million women and girls have undergone female genital mutilation.

Although violence against women and girls is widely recognised as a global pandemic, the response has ranged from indifferent to sporadic to inadequate, with weak enforcement of laws, the continued impunity of perpetrators and limited resources to address the issue.

But less than a year ago, something significant emerged: The Spotlight Initiative, an unprecedented, multi-year partnership between the European Union and the United Nations, with 500 million euros in seed funding from the EU. Comprehensive in scope, targeted in focus, it is changing how we do business across the UN system and across countries and regions.

We recognise that violence against women and girls is a complex phenomenon deeply embedded in unequal power relations between men and women, and persistent social norms, practices and behaviours that discriminate against women at home, in the workplace, and in society at large. Several factors can further heighten the risk of women and girls facing violence, such as their ethnicity, religion, age, income, immigrant status, disability, and sexual orientation. Those who are most vulnerable to violence are very often those whose lives are under threat in other ways, through poverty or lack of access to health or education. They are often those who society has left out. They are also those who, through Spotlight, we will not allow to be left behind, following the central tenet of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Until now, investments in prevention and essential services for survivors of violence and their families have been insufficient or uneven across or within countries. We know that the solutions rely on working at multiple levels and bringing many different players to the table. We need to hold the uncomfortable conversations that address the root causes of such violence and extend rights and opportunities to those who have previously been excluded.

Since its launch, the Spotlight Initiative has been working closely with countries in Asia (the Safe and Fair programme for migrant women workers), Africa (with a focus on sexual and gender-based violence and harmful practices), and Latin America (focusing on femicide) with plans to extend activities to the Pacific and the Caribbean in the months ahead.


The planning phase has been nothing less than inspiring: government officials from multiple departments breaking through silos with international partners from different UN agencies and the EU, civil society and activists who are usually excluded from the tables of decision-making and project design. Each country programme is being led by the UN Regional Coordinator, in line with the latest UN reform efforts to make the initiative more collaborative, transparent, and effective.

In Malawi, through Spotlight, we are supporting dialogue on discriminatory social norms, for example, through community theatre, engaging traditional leaders and educators to teach their communities how to build non-violent, respectful and equitable relationships from early childhood onwards.

In Mexico, we are training health care workers to identify early signs of abuse and prevent violence against women through school-based campaigns to raise awareness about gender stereotypes and negative ideas about masculinity.

In Niger, we are engaging men and boys and strengthening the ability of women’s rights defenders to advocate policy reform and hold decision-makers accountable. The focus in Niger, as in the other seven participating countries in Africa, is on sexual and gender-based violence, harmful practices (such as child marriage and female genital mutilation) as well as sexual and reproductive health rights.

In Zimbabwe, we are using radio and other media to spread awareness on the issue. To ensure that services are accessible to all women and girls, including those with disabilities, we are introducing measures such as access ramps at service centres, sign language, braille and audio versions of information materials.

Guided by common principles of human rights, the benefits of multilateralism, as well as the objectives set out by the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Spotlight Initiative reflects a deep commitment to eliminating gender-based violence across the globe. The Initiative is a flagship programme for UN reform to deliver in an integrated way on the SDGs.

Violence against women has been ignored or kept in the shadows for far too long. The name of the Initiative – Spotlight –symbolises the importance of driving this issue into the light so it can be seen, tackled and eliminated.  The UN and participating countries are willing to spread that light. Now it is time for everyone to join us.