DESA News Vol. 10, No. 6 November-December 2006


Violence against women Violence against women, causes and costs of a global curse

Violence against women is not confined to a specific culture, region, or country, or to a particular group of women within a society. Quite the reverse. Violence against women is truly a global phenomenon. Complex, pervasive, persistent, pernicious. It occurs in different settings, takes many different manifestations, and evolves and emerges in new forms. The way that women the world over experience it is influenced by a range of factors, such as age, class, disability, ethnicity, and economic status. On average, at least one in three women is subject to violence at some point in her lifetime.

Any and all violence against women is unacceptable, whether perpetrated by the State and its agents, by family members or strangers, in the public or private sphere, in peacetime or in times of conflict. Violence against women endangers women’s lives, violates their rights as citizens and human beings, harms their families and communities, and poses an affront to humanity itself. It tears at the fabric of all societies. And so all societies must take responsibility to deal and do away with it. And all States have a particular obligation to protect women from violence, to hold perpetrators accountable, and to provide justice and remedies to victims.

The toll taken by violence against women goes beyond the incalculable human costs. Violence undercuts the enormous potential of women to contribute to peace and development—so powerfully recognized at the Fourth World Conference on Women—by restricting their choices and limiting their ability to act. Indeed, it undermines and constrains the achievement of all the internationally agreed development goals, including the objectives on gender equality and the advancement of women set at Beijing, the Millennium Development Goals on poverty, education, child health, maternal mortality, HIV/AIDS, and overall sustainable development. Unless attention to preventing and redressing violence against women is incorporated in programmes targeting the development goals, the health, social, and economic consequences of that violence will continue to limit progress.

The Report of the Secretary-General on the in-depth study on all forms of violence against women, a recent study undertaken by DESA, highlights the persistence, and unacceptability, of all forms of violence against women, in all parts of the world. It seeks to strengthen the political commitment and enhance joint efforts of all stakeholders to prevent and eliminate such violence. And it aims to identify ways to ensure more sustained and effective implementation of State obligations to address all forms of violence against women, and to strengthen accountability.

The study synthesizes issues and concerns within the parameters set by Member States in 2003, when the General Assembly called on the Secretary-General to initiate it. Preparation of the study was undertaken by the Division for the Advancement of Women, and involved an extensive process of consultations and inputs by Member States, non-governmental organizations, UN entities, experts, and other stakeholders. It thus draws from existing research, knowledge, and experience at the national, regional, and global levels.

The study begins by setting out the broad context within which violence against women occurs. It synthesizes the knowledge regarding the extent and prevalence of different forms, in the main settings: that is, within the family, the community, and perpetrated or condoned by the State, including in conflict settings. The study reviews the causes and consequences of violence against women, including its costs. It discusses the gaps and challenges in the availability of data, including in methodologies for assessing the prevalence of different forms of violence. It then highlights the particular responsibilities of States to address and prevent violence against women. And the study puts forward a blueprint for action by all stakeholders—by States, at the national level, and by intergovernmental bodies and UN entities—to make measurable progress in preventing and eliminating violence against women.

Violence against women is both a cause and a consequence of discrimination against women. In many countries, discriminatory customs and traditions that perpetuate or condone violence against women are allowed to persist, sometimes despite legislation outlawing such practices. And discriminatory attitudes and stereotypes that view violence against women, particularly domestic violence, as a private matter that is acceptable, remain common.

Efforts to prevent and ultimately end violence against women must therefore be systematically grounded in the work of all States and other actors to eliminate discrimination against women and promote women’s enjoyment of all their human rights and fundamental freedoms. Let me stress here the particularly important role of local communities—and families—in awareness-raising and education. Men have a role, especially in preventing violence, and this role needs to be further explored and strengthened. And our youth need to learn from their elders—from what we say and especially from what we do; from men as well as women; at home, at school, through our communications networks, and in the wider public domain—that women and men are equal and that violence against women is fundamentally wrong.

The most common of the forms of violence against women is intimate partner violence, sometimes leading to death. Certain harmful traditional practices are also widespread, including early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation. Gender-based murder of women, sexual violence, sexual harassment, and trafficking in women are receiving increasing attention. Violence perpetrated by States, through their agents, through omission or through the implications of public policies, spans physical, sexual, and psychological violence. And the high incidence of violence against women in armed conflict, particularly sexual violence including rape, has been clearly documented in several cases.

It is one of the great successes of grass-roots women’s organizations and movements around the world that the challenge of violence against women was drawn out of the private domain into public attention and the arena of State accountability. And these advocates continue to push for more “visibility” of the effects of policies and socio-economic practices on women.

The study shows that international attention to violence against women has grown significantly in the last twenty years—and particularly since 1995, when the Beijing Platform for Action called for improved research and data collection on different forms of violence against women. In some areas, notable progress has been made in this regard. Intimate partner violence is an example. There are now 71 countries in which at least one survey has been conducted on the subject. And a national survey has been conducted in at least 41 countries. These are complemented by research studies on specific issues or aspects that provide evidence on the scope of particular forms of violence, as well as its consequences and costs, for women, their families, communities, and countries. In general, occurrences of acts of violence against women are well documented, including by advocacy organizations and service providers.

Nonetheless, the available evidence remains uneven and, in many cases, non-existent. As also underscored by another DESA report, The World’s Women 2005: Progress in Statistics, there continue to exist serious research and data gaps, particularly on forms other than intimate partner violence, including trafficking in women and girls and violence against women by agents of the State. As the Report of the Secretary-General on the in-depth study on all forms of violence against women shows, information to assess and evaluate what policies and practices are most effective in addressing violence against women is particularly scarce. The study presents a range of information on specific countries, but this is not to suggest that countries going unmentioned are free from violence against women. It simply means that the information is not available, which should itself be seen as a major cause for concern. Ensuring adequate data collection is part of every State’s obligation to address violence against women, yet inadequate data does not diminish that responsibility.

Now is the time to strengthen the knowledge base about the scope and extent of violence against women, as well as the impact of policies and practices that are in place so that resources to address this scourge can be used most effectively. This must include efforts to collect data systematically on the most common forms of violence. We also need to strengthen data collection and knowledge on forms that affect relatively few women overall but have a devastating effect on those concerned, or on new or emerging forms of violence, including economic violence and abuse, stalking, and violence through use of the Internet or cell phones.

The study makes a number of recommendations for action in this area, including developing a set of international indicators for assessing the prevalence of violence against women and the impact of different interventions. As in many other areas of work, this will not be possible unless the international community seriously steps up its support—technical, material, and financial—for strengthening national statistical systems in developing countries, as part of their broader capacity to monitor and evaluate progress in meeting their development goals.

The global attention to violence against women has also resulted in a comprehensive international legal and policy framework for addressing violence against women. Yet, States are failing in their responsibility to implement this framework fully at the national level. An example is the field of legislation. Only about half of Member States have some legislative provisions that specifically address domestic violence. Fewer than half have legislation on sexual harassment or on trafficking. And even where such legislation exists, there are often inadequacies in scope and coverage, such as definitions of domestic violence limited to physical violence or penal laws that discriminate against women. Or there are serious gaps in implementation, shown, for example, in the lack of regulations to implement legislation, the lack of clear procedures for law enforcement and health-care professionals, or the lack of legal aid, especially for indigent women.

Human rights treaty bodies, and in particular the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, have regularly voiced their concerns about gaps in legislation and its implementation, in the provision of services to victims, and the lack of systematic data collection on all forms of violence against women. The study thus puts a high priority on the need fully to implement the international legal and policy framework so as to close the gap between international commitments and national laws, policies, and practices. This framework establishes a standard for action by all States to meet their commitments. Strong multi-sectoral and multi-stakeholder strategies are needed so that we move beyond the important, but single-issue or ad hoc measures to prevent and address violence against women, to a comprehensive, systematic, and sustained approach.

The study identifies an array of promising practices for tackling this challenge. Innovative work has been done by women’s NGOs in many countries, often in collaboration with States. These cover critical sectors, such as the law, the provision of services, and prevention. Advocacy and awareness-raising campaigns are now a regular feature in many countries. Still, successful interventions need to be scaled up, they need to be part of a comprehensive strategy, and they need to be targeted and specific so as to address the forms of violence that particular women and groups of women experience.

Decisive progress in ending impunity for violence against women and strengthening prevention will require a number of other essential ingredients. Violence against women will not be eradicated without political will and commitment at the highest levels to make this a priority locally, nationally, regionally and internationally. Such political will can be expressed in a variety of ways, including legislation, national action plans, adequate resource allocation, visible condemnation of violence, and sustained support by political leaders and opinion makers for action to address it. While much can be achieved with political will, a pressing need also exists for considerable investment of resources. Systematic and sustained support from the international community should enhance national and local efforts.

The provision of both of these in turn requires leadership. As the study sets out, leadership is critical at all levels, from the local to the global, in public and in private arenas.

This article is based on a statement of Mr. José Antonio Ocampo, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, to the General Assembly on 9 October.

Indigenous Peoples A milestone in the protection of human rights of indigenous peoples

The world's indigenous people, who number more than 370 million and live in some 70 countries, are also the most likely group to be poor. In Mexico, 80% of the indigenous population is poor versus the 18% of the non-indigenous groups, and 87% of indigenous peoples in Guatemala are poor compared to 54% of the non-indigenous population, reflecting a trend which is similar in other countries in the region, as Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, Chairperson of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues highlighted recently.

Despite this gloomy picture, there is reason for optimism. The adoption of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples at the first-ever session of the Human Rights Council in June, represents a landmark achievement in fulfilling the long-standing demands of indigenous people. Provided that it receives final endorsement by the General Assembly this fall, the Declaration will become an important tool for indigenous peoples in claiming their rights. Moreover, although it is not legally binding, the Declaration provides the international community with a comprehensive international standard that we should all strive together to achieve.

Recent developments have, in fact, revitalized the UN agenda on indigenous issues. The 2005 World Summit underlined the importance of indigenous peoples in development as well as the urgency of promoting their human rights, while setting out a bold vision of inclusive and equitable societies, where all people participate fully in economic, social, political, and cultural life.

As the UN system and governments work together towards the Millennium Development Goals and broader UN development agenda, they should cooperate and build partnerships with indigenous peoples, paying attention to their visions, for those ideas stem, fundamentally, from an approach that integrates economic, social, environmental, and human rights aspects.

Whether through the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, the Human Rights Council, or the International Decade, indigenous peoples continue their efforts to be full participants in development debates, human rights debates, and all other significant debates that concern their lives.

In 2004, the General Assembly adopted resolution 57/174, launching the Second International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People on 1 January 2005 with the goal to “…further strengthen the international cooperation for the solution of problems faced by indigenous people in such areas as culture, education, health, human rights, the environment and social and economic development”.

Yet the report submitted at the end of the first Decade by its Coordinator, The High Commissioner for Human Rights, depicted a situation in which indigenous peoples in many countries remain among the poorest and most marginalized. Too often one sees indigenous people experiencing violations of their basic human rights. Too often one learns that indigenous peoples have been excluded from national development processes—or their benefits. These harsh realities oblige the United Nations to continue to promote respect for the human rights of indigenous peoples and to advocate strongly and systematically for the full and effective participation of indigenous peoples in development processes at all levels.

There have certainly been some positive developments in this regard. The most decisive one has been the aforementioned adoption of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which the UN had been unable to adopt during the first International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People in a deep disappointment to indigenous peoples. At the same time, in some parts of the world, democratic participation of indigenous peoples has led indigenous leaders to important positions in government. Elsewhere, after long armed conflicts, reconciliation and support for indigenous peoples are emerging. The UN has continued to show leadership through the establishment of institutions in this area, including the Special Rapporteur on the human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people and the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

In May, the Forum’s fifth session hosted the launch of the Decade’s Programme of Action in a special event in the General Assembly Hall. The session enjoyed rich participation, with some 1,200 representatives from indigenous peoples’ organizations, NGOs, and academia, more than 30 UN-system and other intergovernmental organizations, and more than 60 Member States. Indeed, participation in the Forum has grown each year, indicating increased engagement of states, indigenous organizations, the UN system, and civil society in the multi-stakeholder effort to construct concrete solutions to the problems faced by indigenous peoples and their communities.

The participation for the first time of the African Union, the Asian Development Bank, and the Organization of American States, which, along with the other regional organizations present—the European Union and the Inter-American Development Bank—demonstrated the increasing focus on indigenous issues closer to the ground.

With its special theme—the Millennium Development Goals and indigenous peoples—the session made valuable recommendations on how to interpret and apply the MDGs so that, in all countries, indigenous peoples, as others, can be included and benefit from MDG processes. The Forum also made strategic recommendations on how to improve indigenous peoples’ inclusion in MDG country reports, poverty reduction strategy papers, and the UN Common Country Assessment and Development Assistance Framework prepared by UN Country Teams. This dovetailed nicely with the session’s emphasis throughout on indigenous traditional knowledge and the need to promote and protect its contribution to development.

The Forum also focused on specific MDGs, recommending special, culturally-sensitive measures and targeted action for preventing maternal and infant mortality in indigenous communities; increased ODA, along with special measures to help free indigenous peoples out of marginalization; and urgent measures to confront the extraordinary threat posed by HIV/AIDS to indigenous communities. The Forum urged a commitment to gender equality in the implementation of the MDGs for indigenous peoples. And on all these fronts, the Forum again stressed the crucial role of data collection and disaggregation, with a special emphasis on involving indigenous peoples in reaching understandings of what poverty and well-being is for indigenous peoples and in setting benchmarks for progress.

The session also included a half-day discussion on Africa spotlighting the situation and contributions of indigenous peoples in Africa and stimulating constructive dialogue on how to tackle the challenges, with African governments, the UN system, and indigenous organizations working together.

All this shows how the Permanent Forum has been providing fertile ground for the growth of a tripartite partnership among indigenous peoples, states, and the UN and other intergovernmental organizations. This partnership has a vitality that extends beyond the Forum’s sessions into ongoing follow-up by all partners. The Inter-Agency Support Group on Indigenous Issues, now bringing together 30 UN and other intergovernmental agencies has played an important role in this regard.

DESA has produced its own Plan of Action for the Second Decade which seeks to mainstream the Decades’ objectives in the Department’s work across multiple areas: statistics and population censuses, public administration, youth, women, sustainable development, and sustainable forest management.

The Second Decade has also catalyzed collective action by UN organizations through the United Nations Development Group. This past summer, the UNDG responded positively to a proposal to transmit the Decade’s Programme of Action to UN Country Teams so that they can integrate it in their work. And the Group has decided to launch a comprehensive effort for the systematic integration of indigenous issues in UN operational activities for development. The Inter-Agency Support Group on Indigenous Issues, as a Task Force for UN Country Teams, is exploring how to enhance the Teams’ understanding of indigenous issues through the development of training tools and materials and other activities. In line with the Permanent Forum’s recent recommendations, the Group is also investigating how to empower indigenous peoples to participate fully and effectively in the various development monitoring processes at the country level.

One of the main concerns ahead is limited resources, both human and financial. Along with sustained political commitment, adequate financial support will be critical. And it is clear that more Member States and international organizations, and more indigenous organizations and civil society actors should be engaged in pursuing the goal and the objectives of the Second Decade. This can only be brought about by taking leadership in planning awareness-raising activities at the national level, by adopting specific policies on indigenous issues, by organizing capacity-building activities, and by carrying out other important work outlined in the Programme of Action.

To bridge the huge equity gap that now exists, and to make a significant, positive, and enduring difference in indigenous peoples’ lives over the course of this Second Decade, we need to act now to include indigenous issues among policy and budgetary priorities at the national and international levels.

This article is based on a statement of Mr. José Antonio Ocampo, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, to the General Assembly on 16 October. Mr. Ocampo is Coordinator of the Second International Decade of the World's Indigenous Peoples, 2005-2015. The article also builds in part on a statement of Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, Chairperson of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, delivered at the opening of the Forum's fifth session on 15 May.