3 March 1998


3 March 1998

Press Release


19980303 In Message for International Women's Day (8 March), Kofi Annan Calls For Urgent Action To Address Violence against Women, Women and Armed Conflict

Following is the message of Secretary-General Kofi Annan on the occasion of International Women's Day, 8 March:

This year, International Women's Day takes on a particular meaning for us all. In this fiftieth anniversary year of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Women's Day presents us with a dual call to arms; a call to demonstrate that human rights are inherent in the human person and belong to men and women alike.

The promotion of women's rights means the promotion of freedom, justice and the peaceful resolution of disputes; of social progress and better standards of living; of equality, tolerance and dignity. Two issues take on particular urgency: violence against women, and women and armed conflict.

"Women and children first" used to be a phrase that referred to the seats in the lifeboats of a sinking ship. Now, it seems all too often to refer to the victims of a country in conflict. In all societies, women and girls are subjected to physical, sexual and psychological abuse that cuts across lines of income, class and culture. But let us not forget that among societies in conflict or crisis, women and children are particularly likely to suffer. Although entire communities bear the consequences of armed conflict, women and girls are especially affected because of their status in society and their sex.

On this day, let us call particular attention to the plight of women and girls in countries experiencing armed conflict. Let us focus on women suffering everywhere. I recently sent an inter-agency gender mission to Afghanistan to assess the situation of women and girls, and to assist the United Nations system in establishing a more consistent rights-based approach in the granting of development and rehabilitation assistance. The mission found that, after 18 years of war, the needs for international assistance

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are compelling; yet, policies that exclude women from participating in and benefiting from the provision of such assistance -- whether directly or indirectly -- not only contravene established human rights standards, but may also gravely compromise the effect of that assistance.

On this day, I therefore call on all authorities in Afghanistan and other countries where women's rights are being suppressed, to recognize immediately the rights of women and girls to education, health, employment, freedom of movement and association, and protection of the person, and to take concrete action to this end. This is in keeping with the United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human rights and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, as well as other human rights instruments. We, in the United Nations, continue to pledge our support to these goals.

Gender-based abuses are not an accident of war nor incidental adjuncts to armed conflict. Rather, these forms of persecution reflect the inequalities that women face in their everyday lives in peacetime. Gender equality is not only a goal in itself; it is a means to meeting the challenge of reducing poverty, promoting sustainable development and building good governance.

The participation of women at senior levels of leadership, national and international, has been limited for far too long. There is no excuse for this state of affairs; nor is there any reason. When I took up my duties as Secretary-General of the United Nations, I made the appointment and promotion of women a priority. This week, we welcome the arrival at the United Nations of its first Deputy Secretary-General. Louise Frechette, a distinguished Canadian diplomat, joins Mary Robinson, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Gro Harlem Brundtland, Director-General-Designate of the World Health Organization, Elisabeth Rehn, my Special Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, and others in a growing number of senior women in the United Nations system. There must and will be more.

To achieve a global partnership for human rights, governments and civil society must build new forms of solidarity for the promotion and protection of the rights of both women and men, now and in the years to come. When I returned from my recent mission to Baghdad, I said that when we pull together from across the world and work together to solve a problem, we will almost always succeed. I believe we will see more of this over the coming year. As we celebrate the anniversary of the Declaration, we are drawing on people and governments alike to get across the message that human rights are not something to be given or taken away by a government like a subsidy. They are not something to be explained away by cultural specificity. They are intrinsic to humanity.

As the world celebrates this day, let us spread the message that women's rights are the responsibility of all humankind; that combating all forms of violence against women is the duty of all humankind; and that achieving the empowerment of women is the advancement of all humankind.

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For information media. Not an official record.