UN marks International Women’s Day with spotlight on curbing gender-based violence

8 March 2007 – From the violence-scarred cities of Afghanistan to the rape-wracked lands of Darfur, from the teeming Palestinian refugee camps of Gaza to the lofty halls of its Headquarters in New York, the United Nations system today marked International Women’s Day with the focus on ending impunity for violence against women and girls.

“Violence against women and girls continues unabated in every continent, country and culture,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a message, calling on Governments, international organizations, civil society and the private sector to work for a transformation in relations between women and men, at all levels of society.

“It takes a devastating toll on women’s lives, on their families and on society as a whole. Most societies prohibit such violence, yet the reality is that, too often, it is covered up or tacitly condoned. The United Nations must be at the forefront of those endeavours,” he added, stressing also that in almost all countries, women continue to be underrepresented in decision-making positions, while their work continues to be undervalued, underpaid or not paid at all.

Among the many special events marking the day was a panel discussion at Headquarters addressed by Mr. Ban and other senior UN officials.

In Sudan’s Darfur region, where nearly four years of fighting between the Government, allied militias and rebels seeking greater autonomy has already killed over 200,000 people and uprooted 2.5 million more amid charges of massacres and mass rape, the UN refugee agency highlighted its work in providing counselling and psycho-social support at centres for internally displaced women and refugees.

To date, some 80,000 women have benefited from the service provided by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), contributing to a gradual change in the perception amongst displaced men and women about sexual violence in conflict.

“This centre is vital for us,” one beneficiary, Fatma, said at a camp in West Darfur. “Some people may think that we just need food and water to survive. But what we are doing here is also a very important kind of assistance.”

By its very nature, UNHCR’s observation of the day was spread widely across the world, from the many camps where it hosts those uprooted from their homes to its headquarters in Geneva, where High Commissioner António Guterres announced that his agency was joining nine sister UN agencies to take concerted action against sexual violence in conflict and post-conflict situations.

“I hope these actions will make it absolutely clear that prevention and response to sexual and gender-based violence is a UNHCR priority,” he said of The Stop Rape Now campaign co-launched by the agency in Nairobi, Geneva and New York.

In a UN school, a 15-year-old Palestinian refugee girl summed up the hopes for her sex. “I want to be the first Palestinian woman to become president,” Suha said at the school run by the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).

“Today we not only commemorate but also celebrate your spirit,” UNRWA Commissioner-General Karen Koning AbuZayd said in a message to Palestinian women. “It is your strength, your courage and your steadfastness that have kept hope alive in Palestine.”

In another troubled land, hundreds of women joined the UN mission at events held across Afghanistan. In Kabul, the capital, women streamed into the Women’s Garden to mark the day with a UN fair, a film show and a photo exhibition highlighting the daily realities of the lives of Afghanistan’s women and girls. In the southern city of Kandahar the mission screened a film on the life of Afghan women’s advocate Safia Ama Jan who was murdered last year for her tireless efforts.

Messages came in from the heads of all major UN agencies and departments. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour called violence against women a scourge “of pandemic proportion… rightly termed the most common but least punished crime in the world.”

UN Population Fund (UNFPA) Executive Director Thoraya Ahmed Obaid noted that while progress has been made in the adoption of laws, much greater action is needed to ensure laws are enforced. “Everyone should understand that violence against women and girls is unacceptable and will no longer be tolerated,” she said.

UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) Executive Director Noeleen Heyzer stressed that all the progress made in advancing women’s rights could be destroyed by continuing violence against women, while UN World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Margaret Chan noted that intimate partner violence was the most common form of abuse, much more so than assault or rape by strangers or acquaintances.

UN Development Programme (UNDP) Administrator Kemal Dervis noted that at least one of every three women faces some form of violence in her lifetime, regardless of culture, religion, socio-economic class or education, while UN World Food Programme (WFP) Deputy Executive Director Sheila Sisulu stressed how lack of adequate food often creates situations in which women and girls are vulnerable to all forms of violence.

The UN International Labour Organization (ILO) highlighted the persistent gap in status, job security, wages and education between women and men that contributes to the “feminization of working poverty.”

For its part, the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) pledged to enhance further the role of women in tourism, stressing their role as agents for sustainable tourism.

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