Published September 2023
A high impact UN financing model for eliminating violence against women and girls and accelerating progress on the SDGs
By Heran Ayele and Alessandra Roccasalvo

Heran Ayele is the Capacity Development and Knowledge Management Specialist at the Spotlight Initiative Secretariat. She oversees the knowledge management portfolio, which includes providing technical advisory services for over 25 Spotlight Initiative country programmes on violence against women and girls. Heran Ayele has more than 12 years of experience within the United Nations on gender and violence against women and girls, including pertinent expertise in programme design and implementation, knowledge management, monitoring and research, with the aim of maximising programme impact, policy objectives and strategic partnerships. Prior to the UN, she has worked for various non-governmental organisations on social justice issues in Africa.

Alessandra Roccasalvo is the Spotlight Initiative Secretariat’s Head of Management Unit. Previous assignments include managing the Kosovo United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Office and being part of UNDP’s internal management consulting team, facilitating change processes globally. Alessandra Roccasalvo joined UNDP in 2005 as a Programme Officer at UNDP Indonesia, focusing on the post-tsunami recovery portfolio. In addition, she served several times as Surge Adviser in Afghanistan and Sudan. She started her career at McKinsey & Company in Germany and India. She holds a Master of Science in Development Studies from the London School of Economics, as well as a Master’s degree in economics and history from the University of Tübingen in Germany and the University of St. Andrews, Scotland.


Violence against women and girls remains a low priority in global financing and development agenda

Violence against women and girls (VAWG), the most pervasive human rights violation in the world, remains endemic and devastating and continues to be a significant barrier to development. Despite the progress made over the past three decades, the latest figure remains largely unchanged with 1 in 3 women worldwide subjected to violence in their lifetime.1 More than 4 million girls are at risk of female genital mutilation by 2023.2

The converging and multi-faceted crises of the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, conflict, growing economic inequalities and the rise of anti-rights tendencies are exacerbating all forms of violence. This toll has had ripple effects throughout society, impeding collective progress and many of the hard-won victories in education, justice, poverty reduction, and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a whole are at risk.

Achieving gender equality (Goal 5) is a prerequisite for attaining all the 17 SGDs. Despite the recognition that violence against women is a serious obstacle to development, it continues to have an unjustifiably low priority in assistance efforts. Noticeable cuts have been made to official development assistance (ODA) at a time when demand and needs have reached an all-time high. Programmes dedicated to gender equality remain at 4% of the total bilateral average ODA per year, and financial assistance for ending violence against women and girls has in fact decreased.3

Experts are unanimous in estimating that the resources required to eradicate violence against women amount to a fraction of the costs arising from its ramifications. The global cost of violence has previously been estimated at US$ 1.5 trillion, and it is expected to increase in the aftermath of the pandemic.4

The United Nations system strives for improved financing on gender equality and VAWG, as it is foundational to the efforts to build and deliver on the SDGs. Since a 2017 external review estimated only 2% of expenditures on gender equality, a series of measures have been taken, beginning with an overall increase in resource allocations within the UN entities and pooled funds.5 For example, the UN COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund and the Peacebuilding Fund have seen notable increases in resources allocated to programmes with gender equality as a primary target.

Despite this progress, UN and development financing currently directed towards violence eradication, and violence against women and girls in particular, remains disproportionate to the scale of the problem. Thus, there is a clear need for scaled-up, targeted financing and new approaches to funding.

Financing the UN development system reforms and SDG 5 to accelerate progress across the SDGs

Repositioning the UN to deliver on gender equality, and through this the whole 2030 Agenda, demands bold changes to the UN development system, enabling an entire-system approach which leverages the right capacities, coordinates for greater efficiency and effectiveness, and is backed by more coherent funding. In the past, most UN financing for gender-based violence took a siloed approach, delivering projectised, small-scale programming through bilateral or concentrated partnerships.

The Spotlight Initiative is a unique opportunity to move beyond the siloes to a comprehensive approach backed by significant funding and it is firmly placed within national development priorities and placing women and girls at the forefront of a new way of working across partnerships.6 It is the first large-scale initiative working on eliminating violence against women and girls and is a demonstration fund of the UN reforms.

Backed by seed investment of €500 million by the European Union (EU), the initiative was launched in 2017 in more than 25 countries across five regions, gathering the UN, governments, civil society organisations and the EU. The initiative is historic in size, scope and ambition, and led from the highest UN and EU political levels. By bringing together collective expertise, institutional knowledge, existing resources and coordination mechanisms under a ‘one UN’ interface under the leadership of the Resident Coordinator (RC), the Spotlight Initiative facilitates an integrated model that fosters coherence and accountability. In doing so, it provides a flagship showcasing the UN reforms aimed at maximising the effectiveness of efforts to end violence against women and girls.

Central to its work the Initiative applied UN reform tools – including the Business Operations Strategy – to identify new and innovative ways to of increase operational and programmatic efficiency. A recent review of the initiative found that the closer collaboration among UN agencies has led to greater efficiency – representing a competitive advantage compared to other joint UN programmes.7

This model is a testament to the effectiveness of implementing programmes through the UN reform mechanism. It echoes the findings of the Quadrennial Comprehensive Policy Review (QCPR), which decisively underscored the value of pooled funding in bringing entities together to deliver collective results, as well as the effective leadership of Resident Coordinators.8

Box 1: Knock-on effects: Spotlight Initiative in Tajikistan and Samoa

The Spotlight Initiative has had significant knock-on effects, influencing the broader UN system to adopt key Spotlight Initiative principles. For example, in Tajikistan, the Joint Programme of the Migration Multi-Partner Trust Fund adopted several Spotlight Initiative approaches, including instituting a Civil Society Reference Group, interagency task forces, and a new, more joined-up way of working across agencies. In Samoa, the UN country team engaged the Spotlight Initiative Civil Society Reference Group to facilitate community consultations on the UN Sustainable Development Cooperation Framework.

Sources: Spotlight Initiative, ‘Global Annual Narrative Progress Report, 01 January 2021–31 December 2021’ 2022; and Spotlight Initiative, ‘Annual Narrative Programme Report: Spotlight Initiative Samoa, 01 January 2022–31 December 2022’, 2023

Innovative financing of civil society partners for transformative change: A model for localisation

While funding for local civil society has long been recognised as a key element of localisation and shifting of power within development efforts, nowhere is the evidence base for transformative and sustainable impacts stronger than in the role of women’s rights organisations in relation to ending gender-based violence.

For decades, civil society organisations have called for a paradigm shift when it comes to resourcing their activities, including greater flexibility and sustainable, long-term core funding. Oftentimes, their contribution is under-resourced, consigning them to the implementation of small-scale, projectised work, and being donor-driven rather than delivering on self-defined and constituency priorities. Lessons from the Spotlight Initiative demonstrate the UN’s capability to design innovative financing models.

The partnership with civil society is a fundamental dimension of the Spotlight Initiative’s structure and functioning. Guided by a desire for broad-based national ownership and the principle of leaving no one behind, representatives of civil society and women’s rights groups have been critically engaged in shaping the Initiative through governance, advisory roles and holding the initiative accountable to its commitments.

This approach has modelled a new way of working with civil society, ensuring meaningful engagement in governance, giving space for political influence and decision-making, and strengthening civic space. Furthermore, by earmarking a certain percentage of the funding – through a dedicated pillar on women’s movements, as well as through cross-cutting investment across other pillars – the initiative has allocated half of its activity funds (US$ 190 million) to civil society organisations. Some 79% of this has reached national, local and grassroots organisations, while 34% has gone to new partners of the UN diversifying the civil society base.9 By shifting power and localising resources, this intentional investment in women’s organisations is accelerating transformative changes in the lives of women and girls, with ripple effects across society.

An SDG model fund: Placing VAWG at the heart of development priorities

Prioritising gender-based violence at the heart of national development plans and through a whole society, govern-ment, and taking a UN approach, with the full partner ship of civil society, has the potential to move the needle on SDG 5 and all the SDGs.

For example, the Spotlight Initiative’s advocacy for greater budget allocations for women’s rights and ending violence against women and girls as a priority for national development has resulted in a tenfold increase in national budgets in some countries.

In Timor-Leste, there was a drastic reduction in state funding for gender equality from 0.6% to 0.1% of the national budget in 2020. Through the Spotlight Initiative, the budget allocation for women’s rights and ending violence against women and girls significantly increased, with more than 12% of the 2022 national budget allocated to gender equality and women and girls’ social inclusion. The initiative has also provided clear data on the relationship between investments in women and girls and accelerated progress on the SDGs more broadly.

For example, a recent impact modelling study on the Spotlight Initiative indicated preventing and addressing violence against women and girls can contribute to millions more girls completing school, reduction of household poverty, greater health for millions of women and girls, and strengthened institutions and resilience of communities.10

Spotlight Initiative’s comprehensive approach, which is predicated on multiple, mutually reinforcing pillars such as laws, institutions, prevention, services, data and the women’s movement in a manner that is locally informed and meaningfully engages the whole of society and government, magnifies the impact of each intervention.

The modelling study highlighted that the initiative is 70–90% more effective in reducing the prevalence of violence compared to a model focused on a single pillar. Additionally, the initiative’s model, centred around women and girls’ experiences and needs, enables adaptability across contexts. Faced by the devastating consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, natural disasters and conflicts undercutting the prospects of sustainable development, the initiative has demonstrated its unique ability to work across the development–humanitarian–peace nexus, supporting gender-responsive efforts, reallocating funds to meet immediate needs and shifting delivery modality.

In calling for increased financing to end violence against women and girls, UN programmes must vocalise, above all else, the unparalleled position of gender equality in driving forward progress on the 2030 Agenda.

‘Let’s consign violence against women and girls to the history books.’

UN Secretary-General António Guterres

Box 2: Unprecedented results of the Spotlight Initiative since 2019

  • Conviction rates for gender-based violence doubled across 12 countries.
  • 477 laws or policies were signed or strengthened to end violence against women and girls.
  • National budgets to address gender-based violence increased tenfold across 14 countries.
  • 2.5 million women and girls have accessed gender- based violence services.
  • 260 million people were reached by gender-based violence prevention campaigns.

Source: Spotlight Initiative, ‘Global Annual Narrative Progress Report, 01 January 2022–31 December 2022’, 2023


What is at stake?

Women and girls continue to be subjected to violence everywhere and every day. When half the global population do not live a life free from violence, with freedom and a sense of dignity, the question of realising the SDGs and SDG 5 is inconceivable. While global funds such as the Spotlight Initiative has been a transformative demonstration and innovative fund for the reform and the SDGs, the required investment for eradicating violence against women and girls is enormous.

Today, more than ever, urgent and sustained action and investment is needed to transform the structures, institutions and norms that are holding back progress. The Spotlight Initiative has been selected as one of the 12 ‘High Impact Initiatives’ in the lead-up to the SDG Summit and the midway point on the SDGs in September 2023.11 As the only cross-cutting initiative, it offers a unique opportunity for a transformative change and to accelerate progress on the whole 2030 Agenda. The time to invest for the elimination of violence against women and girls once and for all is now!



World Health Organization (WHO), Violence Against Women Prevalence Estimates, 2018: Global, Regional and National Prevalence Estimates for Intimate Partner Violence Against Women and Global and Regional Prevalence Estimates for Non-partner Sexual Violence Against Women (Geneva: WHO, 2021),


United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), ‘UNFPA Research on FGM Highlights Increased Risk: A Call for Evidence and Action to End Female Genital Mutilation by 2030’, UNFPA Technical Brief, 2023,….


Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, ‘Official Development Assistance for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment: A Snapshot’, 2023,


United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women), ‘COVID-19 and Ending Violence Against Women And Girls’, 2020,….

UN Women, ‘Financing for Gender Equality and the Implementation of the Women, Peace, and Security Agenda: Assessment on the Implementation of a Minimum 15 per cent Financial Target’, Issue Brief, 2023,….

The global Spotlight Initiative to eliminate violence against women and girls is a UN initiative in partnership with the EU and other partners. For more information, see


Spotlight Initiative, ‘Meta Review of the Spotlight Initiative: Latin America and Africa’, March 2022,….

UN Economic and Social Council, ‘2023 Secretary-General’s report on the implementation of the QCPR’, 2023,….

Spotlight Initiative, ‘Global Annual Narrative Progress Report: 01 January 2022–31 December 2022’, 2023,… SPOTLIGHT%20GLOBAL%20ANNUAL%20REPORT.pdf.


Swetha Totapally, Shruthi Jayaram and Akanksha Agarwal, ‘Imperative to Invest; How Addressing Violence against Women and Girls Today Reduces Violence Over Time, Fosters Peace and Stability, and Enables People to Reach Their Full Potential – All of Which Advances Us Towards the SDGs’, Dalberg and Spotlight Initiative, 2022,….

United Nations SDG Summit 2023, ‘High Impact Initiatives’,