In his second decade of leading international work at a successful Fortune 500 company, Gary Cohen, Executive Vice President of the global medical technology company BD, found himself coming up on a “consistent, concerning problem.”
Through his company’s support of health systems strengthening and expanding HIV/AIDS diagnostic capacity in Sub-Saharan Africa in the mid-2000s, Cohen discovered that girls and young women were being disproportionately infected with HIV compared to boys and young men. The more he dug into the unique vulnerabilities and circumstances impacting girls, the more he learned of the other unjust “social underpinnings” of the disease spread that he could not ignore.
Adolescent girls and young women subjected to sexual violence were being affected in many devastating ways; such as contracting infectious diseases, having unwanted pregnancies, dying in childbirth, experiencing chronic depression and dropping out of school. Cohen was alarmed to learn that “over half of all sexual assaults were committed against girls fifteen and younger.” Through these findings, he realized “…that five perhaps even six of the eight Millennium Development Goals were impaired by this problem… [and] he felt something needed to be done.”
Violence Knows No Borders discussion event hosted by Together For Girls, New York, Tuesday, March 13, 2018. (Photo/Stuart Ramson for Together for Girls)
In 2009, in the absence of finding an organization that exclusively focused its efforts on addressing sexual violence programming around girls, he convened what is now the Together for Girls partnership. Together for Girls is a cross-sector collaboration between the private sector, six UN agencies including UNICEF, UNAIDS, UNFPA, UN Women, the World Health Organization, and the Special Representative to the Secretary General on Violence Against Children (SRSG VAC), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), USAID, the U.S. Department of State, the Government of Canada and other partners to mobilize a three-pillar methodology to address gender based violence and violence against children, particularly sexual violence against girls.
Fast forward to today, Together for Girls operates in 20+ countries across Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. Through the leadership of national governments, the CDC and other partners, Together for Girls has collected data on over 10% of the world’s youth population aged 13-24 using the Violence Against Children Survey (VACS), which are led by CDC as part of the Together for Girls Partnership. These gender-disaggregated data help better inform preventative advocacy and action plans for the public, private and government sectors when considering how to end sexual violence against girls and boys around the world.
With the current women’s movement in full revival, and during the United Nation’s 62nd Commission on the Status of Women, Global Daily sat down with Cohen to hear more about his motivation for creating Together for Girls and how we can engage more men in these important conversations around preventing sexual harassment/assault today. This interview has been lightly edited to fit Global Daily’s format.
(At centre, with microphone) Becton, Dickinson and Company Executive Vice President and Together for Girls Founder Gary Cohen speaks at the panel discussion during the high-level forum Empowering Adolescent Girls: Ending the Cycle of Violence, at UNICEF House. Seated with him on the dais are: (left-right) Camfed International Chief Executive Officer Lucy Lake; UNFPA Executive Director Babatunde Osotimehin; UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka; India Centre for Equity Studies Director Harsh Mander; and UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Geeta Rao Gupta, who moderated the panel event.
Global Daily: How can we bring more men like yourself into conversations around disrupting the cycles of violence against girls?
Gary: There are a few factors at play here. I didn’t come to this issue expecting to become a women’s advocate. I didn’t think of myself as an advocate for any particular population group, in fact. But what I was and still am is someone who has an absolute intolerance for injustice. The circumstances fueling the magnitude of the HIV epidemic on girls and young women were, and sadly still are, devastating. Therefore, I was willing to go way outside of my comfort zone to do something about it and take on a very challenging issue. So, part of this is identifying the men who have an orientation towards fighting injustice.
It’s critical that more men perceive the opportunity and recognize the positive side of empowering and enabling girls – which ultimately becomes enabling to the world. Data shows that when adolescent girls earn money, they invest significantly more resources into their families and communities compared with boys. Another study showed that for every 10% of additional girls kept in school, the GDP of a country goes up by .3%. It’s known. It’s proven. Adolescents girls are key for the future of their countries and for the world.
Global Daily: On the heels of the current women’s movement around #Metoo and #TimesUp, what personal changes have you noticed in the way men are navigating women’s empowerment?
Gary: This is a tough issue in my opinion in the sense that this is a fundamental correction to expectations of behavior. Part of dealing with this issue has been raising the specter of consequences. Men were able to get away with this behavior because they didn’t face consequences. And consequences are the reason women and girls didn’t speak up, because if they did, there was a high likelihood that they would be further victimized.
And by the way, we can’t only talk in past tense, it’s still that way today. To me, that’s what #MeToo is changing. It’s establishing a set of standards of behavior and conduct. If it’s known that perpetrators will be shamed, potentially prosecuted and could lose their job, behavior will change, and over time the changes in behavior will be what adjusts mindset. People assume that you have to change mindset to change behavior – when in fact you have to change behavior to change mindset. So, I see what’s happening now as forcing that change in behavior, requiring men to exhibit self-control. That’s how I look at it.
Global Daily: Have you seen a difference in the way corporations engage (or don’t) in this current women’s movement? Are you seeing progress?
Gary: I’m more encouraged in the progress companies are making in pushing, promoting and pursuing gender diversity, which I don’t think is an outcome of the #MeToo movement, though it supports it. It is something that started prior to that, and it’s an unstoppable force now, and it’s great.
Companies are recognizing that it’s in their own interest and the interest of their workforces to be able to create environments that enable women to be fully successful and achieve their human potential working within the company.