Women are the cornerstone of society. Yet, women are still too often confronted with violence – whether in the form of physical, sexual, psychological and economic abuse, and/or other atrocities – in their homes and businesses, on the streets, in conflict zones, in schools, and as highlighted by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, “in the minds of people who allow violence to continue.” For that reason, IWD 2013, observed each year by the UN on 8 March, was themed “A promise is a promise: Time for action to end violence against women.”
According to UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet discrimination and violence against women and girls (VAW) have no place in the 21st century. The 2013 observance drew attention to the premise that all women and girls have a fundamental human right to live free of violence.In her message for the IWD, Ms. Bachelet spoke about hope and outrage: hope for rising action and awareness in terms of women’s rights; outrage for ongoing suffering as a result of discrimination, violence and exclusion.
• Today and every day we say NO to discrimination and violence against women and girls.
• NO to domestic violence and abuse.
• NO to rape and sexual violence.
• NO to human trafficking and sexual slavery.
• NO to female genital mutilation.
• NO to child brides and child marriage.
• NO to murders committed in the name of honour or passion.
• NO to femicide.
• NO to impunity.
• And we say YES to peace, human rights, justice and equality.
– Michele Bachelet, UN Women
At the official commemoration event in New York, Ms. Bachelet welcomed the commitments made by 50 governments and the European Union to take action against violence directed towards women and reminded the audience of the importance of moving forwards: “We cannot move backwards, we must keep moving forward. It is what we owe to millions of women fighting for their rights around the world.” She continued by noting that there can be no peace, no progress, no equality without women’s full and equal rights and participation; and there can be no gender equality without women’s realization.
The event, organized under the umbrella of the UNiTE Campaign, and attended by the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Gérard Araud, Permanent Representative of France to the UN, Member States, representatives of civil society and the private sector, further highlighted the importance of providing women with the opportunity to participate in decision-making processes within their communities and nations, and to offer them sufficient support when faced with violence and/or discrimination. The panel discussion in particular drew attention to the often dire situation faced by women living with HIV and AIDS and by international migrant women – vulnerable groups that time and again lack the protection from governments.
In terms of migrant women and girls, William Lacy Swing, Director General of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), explained that women migrants predominantly work in the informal sector – often in unregulated professions such as domestic work, agriculture or services – which makes them particularly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. In his IWD statement, he further said that “Men – as family members, co-workers, employers, public authorities or even strangers – are the main perpetrators of violence against women. It is therefore of paramount importance to involve them at the community level for effective prevention of violence against women.”
The latter was also emphasized at a commemoration event held in Geneva, where young people told UN representatives about how youth can become agents of change in ending violence against women and girls. The event, co-sponsored by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the World Health Organization (WHO), the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), The Graduate Institute, and the Permanent Missions of Mexico and the United States to the UN in Geneva, featured among other speakers, Olivier Rizzi Carlson, a young man from Switzerland, who experienced the consequences of VAW in his family. Mr. Carlson introduced the White Ribbon Campaign – a Swiss initiative that in particular aims to target men to end violence against women. Mr. Carlson underlined that it is important to step away from the “gender” stigma and to see both men and women as equal human beings. Kgothatso Elisa Mokoen, a young woman and VAW victim from South Africa, affirmed that men should become an integral part of the solution. She voiced: “I don’t think that men are not part of the problem, but they are a bigger part of the solution.” In addition, she highlighted the need for increased support for VAW survivors, such as psychosocial support, and the establishment counselling centres and places of safety.
The same event also underscored the necessity for legal change; yet emphasized that legal change alone is not enough. Michelle Freeman, a young woman from the United States, elaborated on how youth activism had helped influence national legislation in the United States. She welcomed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which was signed into law last week by US President Obama, and which is expected to improve the protection of all female victims of violence, including Native Americans, gay, lesbian and transgender victims and undocumented immigrants. Priscilla Gonzalez, a young woman from Mexico, spoke on the feminicide that is taking place in the north of Mexico, with one woman being killed nearly on a daily basis. She explained that among various efforts, Mexico has created a legal framework in accordance with every international convention on violence and discrimination against women. Yet, the result of all these efforts is not reaching the people that endure the difficulty of a gender-violent environment. Social change is needed, including through awareness raising initiatives, such as through social media.
Saba Joshi, a young woman from India said social media enables spontaneous and global activism and reports beyond mainstream media. However, she emphasized that such activism needs to be careful in sending out the correct messages. Messaging around violence against women should step away from the gender idea and portray women as human beings with equal human rights, rather than creating “protector” attitudes among men that are based on slogans like “it could have been your mother or sister” or “Women are goddesses.” She further emphasized that transformation through activism is not just about action, but also about introspection and re-evaluating where the problem truly lies.
VAW’s cross-cutting nature
The cross-cutting nature of the impacts of violence against women in terms of development was clearly brought to the fore, as almost every Head of a UN entity launched a statement on this day. For example, in Rome, the Heads of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) the World Food Programme (WFP) and the International Development Law Organization (IDLO) released a joint statement in which they noted with concern that little attention has been paid to the connection between gender, violence and food security. They explained that domestic violence does not only affect women as victims, but can also have an overall negative impact on family well-being (as seen in Mr. Carlson’s case above) and on agricultural and food production. Women collecting firewood for e.g. cooking purposes are still vulnerable to rape and other attacks; and e.g. in refugee situations, women can become forced to trade sex for food.
Guy Ryder, Director-General of the International Labour Organization (ILO), voiced that gender-based violence is clearly at odds with the meaning of decent work: full and productive employment for women and men in conditions of freedom, equity, security and human dignity. Identifying gender-based violence as exceptionally dehumanizing, pervasive and oppressive, Mr. Ryder called for action and prevention. He referred to ILO’s history in practical action against gender-based violence in the work place, both at policy and programme levels, and hailed the 2011 Convention on Domestic Workers, which requires that ratifying States along with trade unions and employers’ organizations take action against any form of violence, abuse and harassment at the domestic level.
In a background document, prepared for International Women’s Day 2013, the ILO notes that “sexual harassment and other forms of harassment and abuse (physical, verbal or psychological), bullying, mobbing, work-related stress and violence affect all professions and sectors, and both women and men.” For example, it shows that on average 40%-50% of women in countries of the European Union experience unwanted sexual advancements, physical contact or other forms of sexual harassment at their workplace. In the United States, 83% of girls aged 12-16 experience some form of sexual harassment in public schools. And also in other parts of the world, the situation is generally not much better.
Helen Clark, Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), called for the adoption and enforcement of national laws addressing and punishing all forms of violence against women and girls, as well as approaches that bring together governments, civil society organizations, law enforcement and judicial systems, to ensure that victims have access to legal services, justice systems and support and that perpetrators are punished. To support her call, she explained that in more than 35 countries, marital rape is not considered a criminal offense; and that more than 630 million women live in countries where domestic violence is not yet considered a crime.
For a full overview of UN statements for IWD 2013, click here.