UN calls for strong action to eliminate violence against women

25 November 2005 – The United Nations today marked the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women with calls for states to take legal action against the global scourge, for societies to change a mindset that permits such abuse, and for women themselves to stand up and speak out against a culture of shame.

“Violence against women remains pervasive worldwide,” Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in a message. “It is the most atrocious manifestation of the systemic discrimination and inequality women continue to face, in law and in their everyday lives, around the world. It occurs in every region, country, and culture, regardless of income, class, race or ethnicity.”

Noting that leaders at September’s UN World Summit pledged to redouble efforts to eliminate all forms of violence against women and the girls, he stressed that this required a change of the mindset, still all too common and deep-seated, that violence against women is acceptable.

“That means leadership in showing, by example, that when it comes to violence against women and girls, there are no grounds for tolerance and no tolerable excuses,” he declared.

The UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) said violence against women is both a cause and consequence of rising rates of HIV infection: a cause because rape and sexual assault pose a major risk factor for HIV transmission, and a consequence because HIV-positive status makes women more likely to be targeted for abuse.

“Violence against women is the most pervasive violation of human rights, occurring every day, in every country and every region, regardless of income or level of development,” UNIFEM Executive Director Noeleen Heyzer said, citing a UN World Health Organization (WHO) estimate that nearly one in four women will be raped, beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her lifetime, sometimes with fatal consequences.

She called for three major actions to break “this vicious cycle” of violence: countries must pass and enforce laws to deter acts of violence against women and reduce the spread of HIV; women who have suffered abuse must speak out to break the culture of shame and stigma; and awareness must be raised on the links between violence against women and HIV/AIDS, especially by the media.

“Together we must prevent and punish violence against women,” UN Population Fund (UNFPA) Executive Director Thoraya Ahmed Obaid said. “Social norms and attitudes that condone discrimination and violence against women and girls can be changed. This is the first step, which requires awareness raising, behaviour change and social mobilization.”

She, too, called for strengthened legal protections as well as the provision of health information and services.

Urging stronger efforts to fight violence against women, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour also called for a change of mindset.

“We urge States to challenge societal values that support discrimination against women and legitimize violence against them, adopt specific legislation addressing domestic violence and end impunity for crimes committed against women,” she said in a message co-signed by the Special Rapporteur of the UN Commission on Human Rights on violence against women, its causes and consequences, Yakin Ertürk.

The first-ever WHO study on domestic violence, released yesterday, shows that intimate partner violence is the most common form of violence in women’s lives - much more so than assault or rape by strangers or acquaintances. The study reports on the enormous toll physical and sexual violence by husbands and partners has on the health and well-being of women around the world and the extent to which partner violence is still largely hidden.

“This study shows that women are more at risk from violence at home than in the street and this has serious repercussions for women's health,” WHO Director-General Lee Jong-wook said. “The study also shows how important it is to shine a spotlight on domestic violence globally and treat it as a major public health issue.”

The Women's Health and Domestic Violence Against Women study, based on interviews with more than 24,000 women from rural and urban areas in 10 countries: Bangladesh, Brazil, Ethiopia, Japan, Namibia, Peru, Samoa, Serbia and Montenegro, Thailand and Tanzania, calls for action by policy makers and the public health sector, including integrating violence prevention into a range of social programmes.

Saying protecting refugee women from violence was one of his top priorities, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said in a message to all UNHCR staff: “We know that they are constantly subject to violence, abuse and exploitation in many operations around the world.”

“Discussions with women and girls across all regions, be it Colombia, Darfur, Bangladesh, (the former Yugoslav Republic of) Macedonia, or Pakistan, unfortunately confirm that in addition to rape and sexual abuse, girls can be harassed and subject to violence as they go to school, collect firewood, or go to work, as well as through traditional harmful practices and domestic violence."

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