5 March 2009


5 March 2009
Meetings Coverage
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Observance of International

Women’s Day



Panel Discussion among Highlight Activities; Worldwide Observance on Sunday

Declaring violence against women “an attack on all of us”, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today called on the world’s men and women to stand together to end the intolerable violence “that destroys health, perpetuates poverty [and] strikes against equality and empowerment”.

Opening a day of activities at United Nations Headquarters to commemorate International Women’s Day, which will be observed worldwide this coming Sunday, Mr. Ban said bluntly:  “Violence against women cannot be tolerated in any form, in any context, in any circumstance, by any political leader or by any Government.”

One of the highlights of today’s events was a panel discussion on myriad aspects of the challenge to end gender-based violence, including violence against women in the context of armed conflict and the workplace.  It also focused on ways to use legislation in driving change.

Moderated by Pamela Falk, CBS News correspondent and professor of international relations and law at Hunter College, New York City, the panel featured Radhika Coomaraswamy, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict; Yakin Ertürk, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women; William Lucy, International Secretary-Treasurer of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; and Imrana Jalal, human rights lawyer and adviser at the Pacific Regional Rights Resource Team.

The Secretary-General said the consequences of violence and abuse went far beyond the visible and immediate.  “Death, injury, medical costs and lost employment are but the tip of an iceberg,” he said, adding that, far too often, those crimes went unpunished.  No country or culture, no women, young or old, was immune.  “We must unite,” he said, echoing the theme of this year’s International Day, “Women and Men United to End Violence against Women and Girls”.

Recalling last year’s launch of his “UNite to End Violence Against Women” campaign, the Secretary-General said that one woman in five around the world had been the victim of a rape or attempted rape and, in some countries, one woman in three had been beaten or subjected to some kind of violent act.  “This is alarming, this must stop.”

He went on to recount stories he had heard during a recent visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he had met with women victims of the conflict in the eastern part of that country and visited a clinic where women were under treatment.  The impact of families in the battle to end violence against women was important and, in many countries, men were speaking out, teaching each other that “real men don’t hit women, let alone rape them”.  There was a need for greater cooperation to end violence against women and “the time to change is now”.

In other opening remarks, Aja Isatou Nije Saidy, Vice-President and Secretary of State for Women’s Affairs of the Gambia, agreed that gender-based violence went unpunished in too many countries, adding that such impunity, like the violence itself, could not continue.  It was time for everyone to reflect on the concrete actions that could be taken to prevent violence against women and girls.  “Every single one of us -– from the highest levels to the individual level -– must show leadership in action to end violence against women and girls,” she asserted.

She said that an existing web of protocols, conventions and national frameworks seeking to end the violence undoubtedly built a foundation for the work that must be done.  But while the responsibility to respond strongly and swiftly to violence against women fell squarely on Governments, only half the Member States of the United Nations had enacted legislation to fight domestic violence or curb human trafficking.  As the most prevalent form of aggression against women, domestic violence must be a particular focus.

Too often considered a private matter, domestic violence must be brought to public light, including in Africa, she stressed.  Boys and girls must be taught from childhood, that violence against girls and women was unacceptable.  There was a need to educate both women and men on how to solve disputes peacefully.  Sexual abuse and rapes should also be punished as the crimes they were.  It was also important to raise awareness about the consequences of female genital mutilation, particularly in the roughly 28 countries of Africa where it was practised.

Underlining the strides her country had made over the last decade in combating violence against women, Tanya Plibersek, Minister for the Status of Women of Australia, said that, under a variety of anti-violence programmes, perpetrators could be removed from homes so as to allow victims to live in safety.  Police and judges had been trained to recognize the needs of domestic-violence victims so their cases could be more effectively prosecuted.  The programmes had also been tailored for Australia’s numerous indigenous societies.

Nevertheless, flaws remained, chiefly the absence of a significant drop in the number of incidents against women, she said, adding that the next challenge was to change behaviour so that fewer Australian women experienced violence in their lifetimes.  To that end, a plan was being developed to draw upon extensive research into the attitudes that supported violence and allowed it to occur.  It would target all levels of society and take inspiration from a national, decades-long effort to end drunk driving through the use of multiple levers, including prevention, education, law enforcement and punishment.  Anti-violence programmes would employ a zero-tolerance approach grounded in the belief that there were no circumstances in which violence against women was acceptable.

Maria del Rocio Garcia Gaytan, President of the National Women’s Institute of Mexico, said that, despite the many United Nations system and regional initiatives to promote the advancement of women and end gender-based violence, inequalities remained rife, especially in the economic sphere.  Furthermore, violence against women, coupled with their unequal access to health care and finance, as well as their marginalization in decision-making processes, including in the area of sexual and reproductive health, must be quickly and effectively tackled.  Women needed targeted social polices, especially owing to lingering discrimination and equality.

All public policies must contain gender elements and include special consideration to ensure that women’s health needs were addressed, she stressed, warning that, unless such action was taken, HIV/AIDS would continue to spread while infant and maternal mortality crept ever upwards.  With the rapid approach of the worldwide commemoration of the fifteenth anniversary of the 1995 Beijing Fourth World Conference on Women, now was the time for all nations to assess their progress in empowering women and ending violence against them, and to begin charting the course towards a future of equality for all.


“Violence against women and girls is an issue that must, must be addressed,” Moderator PAMELA FALK declared as she introduced the panel with a call for immediate action to address its far-reaching and devastating consequences.  Above all, there was a need for a greater representation of women in decision-making positions, for resources to ensure equality and empowerment, and for political will.  While the Security Council had recently adopted a key resolution on women in armed conflict, more action was needed.  “Indeed, one small step forward is not enough, [this cause] needs extended strides,” Ms. Falk said.

RADHIKA COOMARASWAMY, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, recounted the harrowing story of a young Liberian girl kidnapped and repeatedly raped during that country’s most recent civil war.  When someone had come to “rescue” the girl, that “friend” had actually taken her to be married.  “I just accepted him,” the girl had said.  In equally disturbing cases from Afghanistan, through the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the Gaza Strip and elsewhere, girls as young as eight years old were trapped in conflict zones where they faced specific and dire challenges.

Noting that some 80 per cent of the world’s refugees and displaced persons were women and children, she said that, in flight, children became separated from their families only to become orphans overnight.  They were often recruited for fighting or raped while foraging for food and water.  With little access to health care, girls were often trafficked or forced into other forms of sexual exploitation.  Some, on the run from fighting, were often forced to live in places where sex work was the only way to survive.  Making matters worse were ruthless criminal gangs and networks that sprang up around camps for refugees and displaced persons to prey on such women and girls.

She said the terrible toll of war was also producing countless child-headed households, which essentially amounted to large groups of children huddled together in run-down buildings, sleeping under plastic tarps, with little food and no sanitation.  The United Nations was not immune from the scourge of sexual exploitation and abuse, and the Department of Peacekeeping Operations had responded with enhanced training programmes and a rigorous, system-wide “zero tolerance” policy.  The Organization was working hard to raise awareness about the devastating treatment of women and girl children in wartime.  The steps were tentative, but promising, especially since the international criminal tribunals had begun to address child-protection issues such as child soldiering and recruitment.  The deterrent factor derived from the attention that the courts focused on the issue was incalculable.

The Security Council was also playing its part to that end by increasing the number of child protection officers in United Nations peacekeeping missions, she said, adding that she hoped the ambit of such officers would expand beyond monitoring recruitment and child soldiering so that those who subjected children to abuse or sexual exploitation would be listed, shamed and possibly subjected to sanctions.  Such small steps should not evince cynicism as their ripple effects could contribute incalculably towards breaking the culture of impunity.  Seeing the day-to-day realities of war was no doubt tough for those in the field, but rebuilding the lives of children was even more daunting.  “Making them laugh, live and smile again is the challenge of the hour,” she concluded.

YAKIN ERTÜRK, Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, outlined the scope and dimensions of the global challenge and described the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women as a “women’s bill of rights” that had clearly placed violence against women on the agendas of stakeholders around the world over the last two decades.  Violence against women was no longer seen as inevitable, but ending it called for an immediate response at the national, regional and international levels.

She said United Nations policies promoting gender equality, in general, and those promoting an end to violence against women, in particular, were a unique reflection of the demands, interests and aspirations of women worldwide.  The post of Special Rapporteur, established 15 years ago, had a mandate to investigate women’s rights, including in the private sphere, and provided a forum for those who dared to break the silence surrounding violence targeting women.  By linking the particular with the universal and the individual with the global, it provided a powerful insight into the parameters of the international initiative to end such violence, the dynamics of which were rooted in a universal patriarchal norm that bore different fruit in different places around the world.

Changes in the cultures of major institutions should be encouraged and monitored through political and social action, she said, noting that many norms were now in place but remained inadequately implemented.  That failure had been significantly impacted by the dichotomies underpinning the universalism-versus-relativism debate, including those who juxtaposed the public against the private and political and civil rights against economic rights.  In such a climate, culture had become the new area of backlash against the universal application of many core human rights norms, including women’s reproductive rights.

As a result, policy decisions that transgressed women’s human rights had been made, she said.  That had been particularly striking for women in the global south and despite the public-private dichotomy that had long shielded the domestic world from the domain of the law.  Despite having been largely demystified by feminist scholars, it had not been sufficiently dealt with in legal practice.  It was increasingly urgent to do so today, given the current neoliberal climate and the financial and economic crises, which would affect women and children disproportionately and seriously jeopardize attainment of the Millennium Development Goals.

She said that, while it was well-documented that violence against women intensified when men experienced displacement due to economic turbulence, conflict and migration, among other socio-economic calamites, that impact on women was rarely taken into account in humanitarian policies.  If women were to live free of violence, strategies must recognize that violence resulted not only from the actions of individual men, but from the way in which manhood was structured socially.  It was important to construct and nurture alternative masculine identities that recognized women’s rights.  Ending violence against women and girls remained a joint goal and a shared responsibility.  The progress made so far, while uneven, showed what could be done.  It was important to remember that the struggle for gender equality was not a battle of the sexes, but one against oppression in which both men and women had a stake.

WILLIAM LUCY, International Secretary-Treasurer, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, addressed the question of violence against women in the workplace, noting that, even as the United Nations celebrated women’s accomplishments around the globe, the international community must never forget that women were still abused, battered and discriminated against in their homes and workplaces.  Many women had triumphed, but many others had suffered the trauma of violence, perpetrated sometimes by friends and sometimes by strangers.  Sometimes violence followed women home from the workplace and vice versa.

While some 2 million cases of violence and discrimination against both men and women were logged every year, that figure was nevertheless estimated to be only half the actual number of cases, he said.  Women were especially vulnerable to violence in the workplace and most were afraid to speak out.  Undocumented workers, who often feared deportation, also paid a heavy price, both physically and emotionally.  While it would be nearly impossible to calculate the real cost to societies of domestic and workplace violence, recent estimates revealed that the United States lost some $4 billion in lost productivity a year.  That was largely disguised as “sick leave” because women were not only afraid to speak out, but also afraid of being stigmatized or even losing their jobs.

There was also the incalculable psychological impact of workplace and domestic violence on children and other family members who depended on mothers and caregivers to provide for them, he said.  While much remained to be done in addressing such complex issues, some promising initiatives were already under way around the world.  One example was National Organization for Women’s (NOW) campaign to raise awareness about employers who provided minimum standards to ensure equality and dignity in the workplace.  For those who did not, the Organization had placed on its website a “Merchants of Shame” page listing employers and businesses with bad track records on addressing complaints of discrimination, workplace violence, bullying and intimidation.  All nations must fight the battle and win the war together in order to end violence against women in the workplace.

IMRANA JALAL, human rights lawyer and adviser at the Pacific Regional Rights Resource Team, said that, in the right hands, the law could be a tool to change things for the better, by increasing women’s human security, their entry into the global marketplace, their access to land and funds, their right to political power, and their exercise of child custody and divorce proceedings.  But it was not enough to amend conventional and mainstream legalisation if the parallel religious or customary systems remained in place.

Describing violence against women as both a cause and a consequence of gender inequality, she said that, despite the fact that it cut across all social and economic classes, less than half of all United Nations Member States had laws against domestic violence.  Even fewer had laws aimed at ending the trafficking of women and girls.  Instead, there was an endless list of bad laws, such as those that granted men immunity in cases of spousal rape.  Many powerful forces limiting women’s ability to escape a life of violence were also at work, and whether the law did its duty affected the ability of women to emerge with dignity from harmful situations.  To that end, there was a need to change family law codes all over the developing world.  Simply amending criminal laws was an illusion and the piecemeal approaches taken by too many nations would not work.  They were merely “band-aids” over deep wounds.

She paid tribute to the many national, regional and non-governmental organizations established around the world to engage deliberately in using the law to create change.  Good laws ranged from stand-alone legislation encompassing criminal justice, health and family law to national frameworks that sought to end violence against women.  In Albania, officials were trained in the implementation of such laws; Costa Rica had made public officials liable for failing to act; in Guatemala, the State was required to devise domestic-violence awareness campaigns; and in Fiji, the family law framework was required to enact the anti-discrimination Convention.  It was important to draw from those and other best practices in the global campaign to target the remaining obstacles -- lawmakers who refused to acknowledge that the problem still existed or considered it a private matter.

Yet changing law was not an end in itself, she cautioned.  It was a necessary first step in bringing change to the realities of women on the ground.  Outdated legalisation and interpretations that no longer applied should certainly be changed, but good laws all too often languished on shelves because there were no funds or human capacity to implement them.  Because implementation increased when a vigilant women’s movement closely monitored their progress, those movements should be funded at all levels.  There was also a need for lobbying and campaigning.  Good law was only as good as the political will behind it; judicial officials and legal authorities should be trained when new laws were enacted.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.