05/17/2015 10:33 am ET Updated May 15, 2016

Banning Gender-Based Violence in Nigeria - A Major Step Forward

Last week, as word spread about girls kidnapped by Boko Haram last year returning to their communities having been raped and impregnated, the Nigerian Senate passed the Violence Against Persons Prohibition (VAPP) Bill, which seeks to prohibit multiple forms of gender-based violence including economic abuse, female genital mutilation, and depriving persons of their liberty among others.

Globally, 35 percent of women have experienced either intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime. Violence against women and girls is a worldwide problem that crosses cultures, religions, and regions. It is not only a gross human rights violation, it is a public health epidemic and a major impediment to global development efforts to reduce poverty.

Violence against women and girls affects their educational opportunities and their ability to strengthen their skills and to grow within the workforce, and contributes to chronic illnesses, sometimes, even death. Violence against women and girls not only harms the individual, it has significant costs that have ripple effects throughout society. It poses a major burden on the health care system and social support services, the justice system, the business community, through loss of economic output, and expenditures for programs and services to prevent and respond to violence.

If signed into law, this bill would be a major gain not only for Nigeria's women and girls, but for the global movement to end gender-based violence. International agreements like the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) encourage states to repeal discriminatory laws and promulgate new ones that dismantle gender-based discrimination, violence and coercion, as this one seeks to. The U.S. could support such efforts by passing the International Violence Against Women Act (I-VAWA), a bill that would make ending violence against women and girls a top diplomatic priority and ensure that the government has a long-term strategy to prevent and respond to gender-based violence globally.

Yet while legislative measures are a must, it is important to acknowledge that laws alone will not end gender-based violence. It is crucial that we work to shift the social norms that underpin violence against women and girls in order to eliminate this harmful practice. Doing so requires a multi-sectoral approach involving laws and policies, as well as community level engagement and programs that work to empower women and girls directly. Tackling gender-based violence holistically involves a combination of efforts at community level that address social roles and educational and labor force opportunities, work with school systems and the media, promote reporting and the prosecution of perpetrators, and address stigma.

We must also not forget the survivors of gender-based violence. For the women and girls who have escaped or been rescued from Boko Haram, as well as the millions of other girls and women who have faced violence, we must ensure safe and secure access to a wide range of health and social support services that address their needs including access to safe abortion.

Twenty years since the international community denounced all forms of violence against women through the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, it is time we prioritize the rights of women and girls. Ensuring that the basic human rights of women and girls are protected means flourishing economies, healthy communities - it means a brighter future for us all.

Stella Mukasa is the director of gender, violence and rights at the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), a Washington, D.C.-based global research institute focused on women and girls.