The Recipe for a Better World? Ending Violence Against Women and Girls

57th Commission on the Status of Women at the UN
At the 57th Commission on the Status of Women at the UN, a panel with top UN officials was held on March 5, 2013. Among the speakers, from left, were Rebeca Grynspan of the UN Development Program; Irina Bokova of Unesco; Ban Ki-moon, secretary-general; and Michelle Bachelet of UN Women. CATIANNE TIJERINA/UN WOMEN

Thousands of women worldwide flock to the Commission on the Status of Women’s conference at the United Nations every March, and this year is no exception, for good reason: the theme is eliminating and preventing all violence against women and girls. Violence is a phenomenon that all females can relate to day after day, however subtle or hidden its shape and form.

While the Security Council clamored on tightening sanctions on North Korea, the rest of the UN swarmed with women (some men espied) on the convention’s opening day, March 4, and days after in an amazing variety of dress and appearance. The women were there to remind one another that being subjected to violence — economic, physical, sexual and psychological — is totally unacceptable, even though it continues year after year, a universal problem with no boundaries.

Panelists at the dozens of discussions this week have been pointing to gender inequality and poverty as the culprits. They emphasize that without equal rights — including income parity and access to reproductive health — women and girls will suffer discrimination in not only patriarchal societies but also more democratic ones.

The conference’s opening day is a “historical opportunity to show courage, action, determination and the heart it takes to do all the work we can to put an end to those pervasive violations of human rights and dignity,” said Michelle Bachelet, the executive director of UN Women, in a press briefing on March 4.

The World Health Organization says that violence affects up to 7 in 10 women globally, and Bachelet reiterated that the violence also affects all countries financially — billions of dollars — in lost productivity and health costs.

Bachelet, who dodged a reporter’s question at the briefing on whether she will run for president again of Chile this fall, is the champion of women’s causes at the UN, and her agency organized the 10-day conference. Her star power radiates as she dashes from one panel talk to another, with a bevy of followers chasing her. Bachelet may have had to temper her remarks while working at the UN in the last two years, but her passion and intellect remain intact. [On March 15, Bachelet announced her resignation as UN Women chief.]

“During the past decades, we have made progress in the articulation of international norms and standards, and in national laws and policies,” she said in a statement. “But violence against women and girls remains widespread, and impunity is still the norm rather than the exception.” Carrying out the laws, she added, must now be addressed, though she said in her briefing that the political will to do so — by governments, judiciary and police — is severely lacking.

UN Women began an initiative called Commit in November to encourage political leaders to create new concrete national actions to end the “scourge” of violence. Forty-one countries have pledged their participation so far, but as to how Commit will work with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw), an international treaty, is unclear. Commit, Bachelet said, will focus on such “violence” issues as prevention, protection and justice, stronger prosecution, advocacy campaigns, training programs and expanded public services, like shelters for women.

One criticism Bachelet faced at the briefing was whether her office could produce a strong outcome document this year as opposed to last year’s Commission on the Status of Women, when the delegates could not agree on one. With Russia’s permanent representative, Vitaly Churkin, saying publicly an hour earlier that the document should not tinker with a country’s traditions, which could be a euphemism for almost anything, Bachelet cited her work this fall, holding meetings in Africa, Asia and Latin America to create “momentum” to produce a solid framework.

“I believe that we shouldn’t use as an excuse culture, traditions, social norms, religion because there is no religion or no culture that supports violence against women and girls,” Bachelet added.

Yet she conceded that in discussions of human rights and resolutions at the UN, an important group of countries stresses “respecting” culture, tradition, religion and sovereignty. (The countries include Russia and Saudi Arabia.) In some countries, women still believe they deserve to be hurt, say, if they burn their husband’s dinner. “That’s the kind of culture attitude we have to confront,” Bachelet said.

She also noted that more data are needed in combating violence, since many countries do not have such baseline statistics.

The forms of violence range wide and far: female cutting and mutilation, femicide, forced marriage, gang rape, individual rape, date rape, honor killing, forced sex in marriage, verbal and physical abuse, trafficking, sexual slavery, race and age discrimination, stalking, female infanticide, sexual harassment and forced sterilization.

“It is violence directed against women because they are women” that manifests in an “imbalance of power” and “unequal opportunities for women and men,” says the Council of Europe’s Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence.

The hundreds of panel lineups through March 15 reflect the endless dimensions of how women and girls are routinely violated. The discussions started with high-level roundtables at the UN itself, with countries given five minutes to speak (mostly government ministers, primarily all women), to smaller, riveting meetings at the Church Center across the street from the UN and other sites.

The UN roundtable was a chance for countries to highlight their programs, though some politicized the moment, like Russia’s referring to violence against its children adopted abroad. On the positive side, Luxembourg, for example, runs a 10-day expulsion program that forces the perpetrator of violence from the home to cool off. Poland’s official bemoaned the “silent consent” to myths and stereotypes surrounding women, such as women must sacrifice themselves to their family no matter what and male aggression is natural.

A discussion on March 5 on literacy and women’s rights in Cuba, sponsored by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and others, was framed around a documentary on how the revolutionary government in 1961 recruited hundreds of young women volunteers to teach mostly rural adults to read and write and the life-long satisfaction the teachers derived from their work.

Other programs have focused on the UN peacekeeping agency’s “gender response” practice for women in South Sudan; the Millennium Development Goals post 2015; the lethal consequences of weapons on women; Middle East and North Africa political transitions’ effects on women; “best practices” for a violent-free Uganda; and using the media to fight violence against women in conflicts and the safety of women journalists.

At a human security meeting on countering extreme violence, or terrorism, put on by the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders and the International Civil Society Action Network, panelists debated if it was ever appropriate to negotiate with terrorists. (There were lots of qualifications.) And Mavic Cabrera-Balleza, the international coordinator for the Global Network group, pointed out that women need to participate not only at grass-roots-level peace talks but also, more important, at national talks, where the big decisions involving the military are made.

So far, women have been kept on the sidelines of top negotiations, with the exception of Colombia, where plans to be more inclusive are theoretically in the works, a Norwegian government minister told an audience recently at the International Peace Institute in New York.

With so many angles at the conference’s sessions, it is easy to miss the main messages often deep inside the speeches of participants, and that is that women must be treated with equal respect in all layers of society and that stereotypes of women must be banished. The price to pay is a huge toll on human development for everyone.

As Rebeca Grynspan, an under secretary general at the UN Development Program and a former vice president of Costa Rica, said with vehemence in her speech on March 5 that despite the “millions of recipes given” to address economic downturns and crises around the world, “not one of them talk about ending violence against women.”

“If you take these numbers” — 3 out of 10 women, about 1 billion people, have reported experiencing physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, Grynspan added, then productivity losses are enormous. So “there is one thing that will bring productivity up” — stopping violence against women.

“That is the recipe we have to give,” she said.

[This article was updated on March 8 and March 15, 2013.]

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