The 500 million euro Spotlight Initiative has been an ambitious attempt by the European Commission, together with the UN, to ensure that women and girls around the world live free from violence and harmful practices.

However, according to a new report by the European Court of Auditors, this flagship EU programme for combating sexual and gender-based violence has shown little impact to date in terms of improving the situation of those it is intended to help.

In spite of positive achievements, the auditors found that the initiative could be managed more efficiently and could provide better value for money, as well as increasing the share of funding that reaches final beneficiaries to help more women and girls.

The Spotlight Initiative is a global strategic partnership between the EU and the UN to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls in partner countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Pacific and the Caribbean. Initially launched in 2017 for a period of four years, it was extended to the end of 2023 due to delays.

“Violence against women and girls has no place in the world, and no woman or girl should be left behind,” said Bettina Jakobsen, the ECA member in charge of the report.

“Through the Spotlight Initiative, the EU has put more money than ever into ending such abuse, but more should reach final beneficiaries and we still need to see more impact,” Jakobsen said.

The auditors acknowledge that the initiative has benefited women and girls globally and helped to address violence.

For instance, it has supported activities to prevent violence against women and girls, such as training and awareness campaigns, and services to victims of violence in all African and Latin American countries, albeit to different degrees and with varying levels of success.

However, the initiative’s set-up only allows for a limited assessment of performance.

Moreover, given its short time span and the fact that data are incomplete, it has not yet been possible to measure the improvement for beneficiaries, such as victims of violence or participants in training courses, and it is difficult to assess the extent to which it has achieved its intended results. There is no evidence that violence against women and girls has fallen in the countries covered.

External and internal factors led to challenges and delays in implementation. These included not only the Covid-19 pandemic, natural disasters, and domestic political changes, but also complex governance arrangements due to the number of UN organisations involved.

The European Commission’s choice of the UN as its implementing partner was a political decision in support of multilateralism. However, the UN’s costs of administering the initiative totalled $155 million (i.e. 31 per cent of the initiative’s total budget), leaving $351 million for the implementing partners and beneficiaries.

Although the EU’s executive was aware that UN involvement entailed higher costs, it did not thoroughly compare the alternatives.

In spite of being the sole funder, the EU has not always been given sufficient credit for funding visibility.

Moreover, although the EU’s contribution was intended as seed funding to attract additional investors, no new donors have been found, and so results may not be sustained.

The auditors also emphasise that the programme is not long enough to create lasting change on a complex issue which requires long-term actions and additional resources.