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Opening Statement of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on the occasion of the Durban Review Conference Side Event "Double Odds: Women Overcoming Multiple Discrimination"

organized by the Women’s Rights and Gender Unit 21 April 2009, Palais des Nations, Geneva

The Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights and the Director of the European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency jointly call on European governments to remain engaged and involved in the preparations for a UN review conference against racism in April 2009.


I am very pleased to open this panel event, since the promotion of women’s rights and the elimination of entrenched, complex and multiple forms of discrimination is one of the key priorities of my Office.  As both the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and as a non-white woman raised under the apartheid regime, I am acutely aware that there are multiple forms of discrimination that may affect women.

We all know that racism and related intolerance do not affect all members of groups suffering from discrimination in the same way.  The Durban Declaration and Programme of Action focused attention on the issue of multiple, or aggravated forms of discrimination.  This multi-faceted discrimination is most significantly experienced by the most vulnerable members of society.  These may include women, but also persons with disabilities, or affected by HIV/AIDS, or children, or elderly people.   Marginalised individuals may be ostracised for one of these characteristics or for a combination of two or more of them.   To be sure, it is such people that are at greater risk of economic hardship, exclusion and violence.

Progress has undoubtedly been made in combating discrimination. Not only is equality between women and men firmly enshrined in international human rights law, but positive change is reflected in the reality of everyday life.  Many girls around the world now enjoy the right to free and compulsory education.  Women exercise their right to vote and run for office.  They have become decision-makers at the highest levels of policy formulation and leadership.  Women can be found at the helm of businesses all over the world.  Their visibility and influence shatter entrenched and die-hard stereotypes about women’s roles in society.

However, there exists also another, more grim, reality.  The majority of the world’s poorest people are still women; women still do not get equal pay for equal work; the violence which women throughout the world and in all cultures experience has been defined by the UN as a pandemic.  And women’s struggle to obtain justice is often obstructed by discriminatory obstacles – in law as well as in practice.   It is therefore not surprising that the intersection of discrimination based on race and gender has widespread and devastating effects. Women who are victims of trafficking frequently also suffer from racial discrimination.  Thus, they are oppressed and vulnerable on two accounts. Women who are discriminated against on the basis of both gender and race are frequently subject to violence, and so are women refugees and migrants who may also experience a lack of representation and limitations on their freedom of movement.  In armed conflicts, women are frequently and specifically targeted because of their ethnic background.

Let me reiterate that in the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, States recognized that racism and intolerance affect and compromise human rights in a differentiated manner for women and girls. 

Today, we are privileged to gather the views of some of the world’s most eminent female international human rights lawyers and experts on how to combat gender-based multiple discrimination.   We have the unique opportunity to hear personal testimonies from these distinguished women as to how they have witnessed or directly experienced such discrimination throughout their careers and lives, how it has affected them and how it can be overcome. Their experience will contribute to shed light on ways for the Durban Review Conference to take into full account the inter-section of discrimination on grounds of race and gender from the perspective and knowledge of women.

It is therefore with great pleasure that I turn the floor over to our panel moderator, Marcia Kran, Director of the Research and Right to Development Division, who has long-standing experience in women’s rights work in the context of both OHCHR and UNDP, including from the Balkans and South-East Asia.

I look forward to a highly interesting and topical panel debate.  And I thank you for your participation.