UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women

Radhika Coomaraswamy
UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women

World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination,
Xenophobia and Related Intolerance

Durban, South Africa 31 August - 7 September 2001

Mme President, Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen.

It is an honour to address the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in my capacity as UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women. I would like to take this opportunity to refer you to my written contribution to the World Conference on the subject of race, gender and violence against women, conference document

In a recent work, Prof. Saskia Sassen, an economist of great repute, argued that the most vulnerable people in the world today are women who are poor and from racially marginalised groups. Looking around the globe at the most vulnerable and unregulated work, whether it is sex work, domestic service or sweatshop labour, it is women who are often physically abused, who have to work long hours and who bear the brunt of social and economic impunity. If the United Nations is concerned with the fight for human rights and social justice, it is poor women from racially marginalised groups who must take centre-stage. They suffer the greatest indignities, and the most brutal abuses with few avenues for recourse or redress. Race, like gender, is a social construct that allows us to understand why some people suffer discrimination and others do not. People's perceptions of, and attitudes toward, the `other' often result in social structures that perpetuate abuse, exploitation and vulnerability.

As UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, I have clearly seen the intersection of race and gender in my work. One such intersection is when women victims of violence approach the criminal justice system. Members of the criminal justice system are often totally insensitive to poor women from the marginalized groups in society. Sometimes, as in uppercaste violence in India, members of the criminal justice system are often in league with the perpetrators of violence thus turning away victims who seek recourse in the courts. In other cases such as the United States, racial profiling and race-relations between the police and the AfroAmerican community result in police being totally insensitive to the needs of the community. In these circumstances that parallel other realities around the world, crimes of violence against poor women from racially diverse communities acquires a measure of impunity. Since violence against these women is rarely punished, women from such communities remain fearful and often do not take action to fight to vindicate their rights.

In the area of trafficking, the intersection of race, gender, poverty and resulting violence becomes even clearer. Women from minority and caste groupings often want to migrate to escape persecution and discrimination at home. Their desire to migrate is exploited by traffickers who themselves often belong to racially marginalised groups living at the fringes of the host community. At the point of entry, immigration officials racially profile women and subject many to interrogation and detention, all with the supposedly benign aim of fighting trafficking. Once in the host country, trafficked women live in slavery like conditions, without passports, working extended hours as sex workers, domestic servants and sweatshop labourers. We have heard a great deal about reparations for slavery of the past. We must also face up to modern forms of slavery, such as trafficking, where women are physically abused, restricted in movement and live under the menace of penalty.

In today's world where most of the wars are ethnic in dimension, the intersection of gender and race during armed conflict often has horrific consequences. In Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda and East Timor, the international community witnessed atrocious crimes of sexual violence that has shocked the system into taking effective action against the perpetrators by setting up international tribunals of justice. These tribunals and the Statute of the International Criminal Court make it clear that sexual violence during wartime is a war crime and a crime against humanity. A commentator wrote, "the honour of a community lies in the body of its women". Historical campaigns of waging war against the honour of the enemy by raping their women can no longer be tolerated. There must be an urgent call to all States to sign and ratify the Statute of the International Criminal Court.
It is not only in the area of violence against women that issues of race and gender intersect. For most women, their sense of dignity comes from not only being a woman but from also being members of a larger community whether it be racial, indigenous, ethnic, religious or by descent. Therefore women are often in an ambivalent position. They want to fight for justice and equality within their community, while ensuring that their community as a whole is respected among the peoples of the world. Their struggle is often made worse by the arrogant gaze, where outsiders, especially from the west, fight their cause with what is seen as contempt for their culture and their community.

The United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women is very clear. "States should condemn violence against women and should not invoke any custom, tradition or religious consideration to avoid their obligations with respect to its elimination (Article 4)." The Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women clearly sets standards for women's equality in the family and in the community. In this conference where men from racial, ethnic, indigenous and religious groups, marginalised from the mainstream, fight for the equality and social justice, we must remind them of women's equality and women's autonomy, for their collective identity are unconcerned with the fact that many of their laws and practices discriminate against women. The World Conference Against Racism is a good time to remind the leaders of these groups, fighting for just causes, that they must also turn the searchlight inward. Equality and freedom that they demand at the global level must also be applied internally. All laws and practices that discriminate against women must be brought in line with international standards of human rights. I call on all leaders of racial, indigenous, ethnic and religious groups fighting for justice and equality to make a pledge to ensure that women's equality is also an essential part of their struggle.

In conclusion, Mme. President, I would like to say that we often portray women as victims, passive entities with no agency. However, increasingly throughout the world women are becoming empowered. Bitter controversies and strident polarities have characterised this conference, whether it is on the issue of reparations or Zionism. In this context, it is often women who break the boundaries. Black and white women work together to ensure justice for victims of slavery, Women in Black come out in Jerusalem calling for peace. Whether in Northern Ireland, Burundi, Somalia or Colombia, women increasingly are peacemakers, breaking boundaries, providing that generosity of spirit that Her Excellency Mary Robinson called for in her speech. In this context, I urge governments, mediators and facilitators to involve women in the peace process, to ensure that voices of nurture and care are given a place at the negotiating table and that their interests are represented. Women and children often bear the brunt of increasing conflict; women are often alone in picking up the pieces after the war; it is only fair that their voices are heard. Women's equality is not only about the sharing of societal resources. It is also about vision, process and practice. Women throughout the world have challenged the boundaries constructed by race, ethnicity, nationalism and nation-states. All forms of extreme nationalism are racist, excluding people and limiting participation. Such nationalism and exclusivism is the cause of much of the world's conflict. Women peacemakers around the world have given an alternative, more inclusive, way to resolve conflict. Surely we have everything to gain by involving them actively in making peace, creating bridges and planning for the material and spiritual reconstruction of war-torn and divided societies. Not all women are peacemakers, but many are. They argue that those who give birth are averse to having life taken away. Whatever may be the truth of this argument, the international community should harness this sentiment to bring women to the negotiating table, to include them in the give and take of national and international consensus making, and to listen to their vision and concern for the future.

Thank you.