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GA/SHC/4318
5 October 2021
Seventy-sixth Session, Virtual Meetings (AM & PM)

As Violence against Women Grows in Shadow of Pandemic, Third Committee Experts Cite Need for Data Collection, Strong Policy Responses

Findings Offer ‘Powerful Tool’ to Improve Legislation, Special Rapporteur Says, as Delegates Spotlight Reprisal Killings

Gender‑based violence and discrimination against women continue unabated, even as the pandemic continues to exact a greater toll on them than their male counterparts, the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) heard today, as it commenced its debate on the advancement of women.

In her opening remarks, Åsa Regnér, Deputy Executive Director for Policy, Programme, Civil Society and Intergovernmental Support, United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN‑Women), highlighted a vast swath of arenas where women and girls are treated as second class, from migrant workers and women living in rural areas to the ranks of the United Nations itself, where women are still more likely to be found in entry‑level positions than in management roles.

She emphasized the importance of implementing the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, which would create safer pathways for women working in host countries, particularly those in domestic care work or the informal sector.  She also underscored the need to improve conditions for women and girls in rural communities, noting that the international community should find ways to ensure that their livelihoods are not detrimental to their lives.

The Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, Reem Alsalem, took the opportunity to shine a spotlight on the gender‑related killing of women, also known as femicide.  The femicide watch initiative asks States to collect data on the number of such killings and publish it on an annual basis, disaggregated by the sex of the aggressors and the relationship they have with their victims.  The pandemic has made data collection more difficult, she conceded, but the findings are still “a powerful tool to assess the level of gender‑based violence against women and improve legislation and policy responses to all forms of violence against them”.

In the ensuing interactive dialogue, delegates were keen to note that data have further underlined the deleterious impact of COVID‑19 on gender‑related violence, with Slovenia’s representative highlighting that more than 80 per cent of intimate partner homicide victims are women.

The importance of disaggregated data became even more apparent as Liechtenstein’s delegate spoke about reprisal killings of women, which take place in the shadow of the pandemic.  Pakistan’s delegate, meanwhile, mentioned the need to uncover more data on violence against women in conflict‑related settings.

The Chair of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, Gladys Acosta Vargas, underlined the dire situation of women facing the threat of sexual violence in conflict, human trafficking, sex‑based discrimination, socioeconomic injustices and humanitarian emergencies, on top of an already overwhelming pandemic.  Not only that, but women are underrepresented in areas where their presence could address these issues, including in Parliaments and indigenous systems of governance.

Delegates took to the floor to delineate a host of discriminatory practices against women, with Lebanon’s representative describing an “unprecedented” backlash against women’s rights.  Pointing to the plight of women in Afghanistan, she said they are required to stay in their homes and have been banned from teaching, as well as from secondary and tertiary education.  “In 2021, we should not be fighting for basic human rights,” she stressed.

Also making a presentation today was the Chair of the Working Group on discrimination against women and girls, Melissa Upreti.

The Committee will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 6 October, to continue its virtual interactive dialogues.

Interactive Dialogues — Violence against Women

ÅSA REGNÉR, Deputy Executive Director for Policy, Programme, Civil Society and Intergovernmental Support, United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN-Women), said women are overrepresented in entry‑level positions at the United Nations but underrepresented in management and non‑Headquarters positions.  The report highlighted United Nations‑wide good practices and recommendations for the Organization, she said, expressing hope that gender parity could be reached.

Turning to the Secretary‑General’s report titled “Violence against women migrant workers” (document A/76/245), she said that 100 million women migrant workers send remittances annually, which is half of total global remittances.  Migration empowers women, but a lack of safe migration pathways, compounded by restrictive migration and labor laws, increase the risks that women migrant workers are exposed to violence.  Women migrant workers are often concentrated in sectors at high risk of violence, including domestic care work, as well as jobs in the informal sector.  The implementation of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration must be accelerated, she said.

On the Secretary‑General’s report titled “Improvement of the situation of women and girls in rural areas” (document A/76/241), she said it recommends that Member States should take an integrated, gender‑responsive approach that weaves together women and girls’ livelihoods and their well‑being.

When the floor opened for questions and comments, an observer for the European Union asked for further information on the Generation Equality Forum, which took place in Mexico City in March and in Paris from June 2021 and launched a five‑year action journey for gender equality.  He asked about next steps and about what interested Member States could do to join.  He also requested an assessment of conditions in Afghanistan, pointing out that in areas under Taliban control, there are credible reports of serious violations of international humanitarian law, as well as human rights abuses and restrictions against women and girls.  He asked what UN‑Women is doing to address the situation and how the international community can assist.

Along similar lines, the representative of Myanmar asked how the United Nations can help bring the perpetrators of human rights violations against women and girls to justice.

Several representatives focused on the situation of women in rural areas, with the representative of Thailand asking for UN‑Women’s views on how to achieve gender equality for women in rural areas.  The representative of Iran underscored the importance of building economic resilience for rural women and girls through health packages, as well as hotlines for those experiencing violence during the pandemic.  The representative of Syria asked for the Executive Director’s views on measures tailored to help rural women.

Meanwhile, other delegations focused on reproductive health and rights, with the representative of Argentina noting that her country has a national law on the protection of health during pregnancy to guarantee rights for pregnant women and children in early infancy.  The United States, noting that President Joseph R. Biden has elevated women’s empowerment as a priority, said the promotion of women’s reproductive health and rights is critical to these efforts.  She asked how UN‑Women plans to tackle systemic discrimination.

Gender parity was a concern for many, with the representative of the Philippines, speaking for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), identifying gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls as a priority.  The representative of the Maldives said the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on women and girls.  Quarantines and lockdowns have increased domestic violence against women.  Many girls will never go back to school, she said, stressing:  “A generation of girls is going to be left behind.”  The representative of Japan meanwhile spoke about women working at the United Nations.  She welcomed recognition of the pandemic’s impact on gender parity in the Organization and also noted the flexible working arrangements in that regard.

Ms. REGNÉR, responding to questions, said Generation Equality is an initiative of UN‑Women, the United Nations, civil society, Member States and the private sector to advance gender equality.  Next steps in that regard will include the creation of an accountability framework.

On Afghanistan, she said UN‑Women will remain in the country.  The violation of women’s rights is a central issue.  UN‑Women will work to mitigate violence against women and ensure access to humanitarian aid and education.

Responding to questions about sexual reproductive health and rights, she affirmed that these issues are a central focus of UN‑Women’s work.

Regarding rural women, she said the report makes several recommendations about their situation and UN‑Women is ready to work with Member States on the matter.

GLADYS ACOSTA VARGAS, Chair of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), stressed that the world needs a paradigm shift based on inclusive and representative governance by 2030.  Women account for only one quarter of Parliamentarians, slightly more than one fifth of ministerial portfolios and 5.9 and 6.7 per cent of Heads of State and Heads of Government, respectively, she added.  Moreover, indigenous women are often excluded from decision‑making in local, national and international processes, as well as in their own communities and indigenous systems.  Voicing concern that the pandemic has exacerbated gender‑based violence, she warned about erosion of the multilateral system for protecting women from such abuse.  Observing that the pandemic has also shifted attention away from sexual violence in conflict, she said that in November 2020, the Committee adopted its General Recommendation No. 38 (2020) on trafficking in women and girls in the context of global migration.  She urged Governments to discourage the demand for all forms of trafficking and to address the causes that push women and girls into vulnerable situations, such as sex‑based discrimination, socioeconomic injustices in home countries, conflict and humanitarian emergencies.

Turning to the impact of COVID‑19 on the Committee’s work, she said that since June 2020, it held four online sessions to avoid a protection gap for women and girls across the globe.  Over the past year, the Committee assessed the reports of 24 States parties under the follow‑up to concluding observations procedure.  In addition, it adopted 18 lists of issues in relation to periodic reports received from States parties, and 9 lists of issues prior to reporting under the simplified reporting procedure.  All these lists contain a new standard paragraph asking States parties about the impact of COVID‑19 on women’s rights, and about women’s participation in decision‑making in recovery plans.  The Committee issued two joint statements — one with the Committee on the Rights of the Child calling on the new power‑holders in Afghanistan to respect and protect the human rights of women and girls, and another with the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities on ending sexual harassment against women and girls with disabilities.  It also issued a call following International Women Human Rights Defenders Day 2020 to release all detained defenders.  She expressed regret that the human and financial resources afforded by Member States have not kept pace with the exigencies and the growth of the Committee’s work.

When the floor opened for questions and comments, delegates reiterated the importance of civil society and human rights defenders, particularly women human rights defenders.  Women’s rights are not optional values, they are universal human rights, many said, and protected by international human rights law.  They called for full, equal and effective participation of all women and girls.  In that context, an observer for the European Union asked about the priority actions needed to mitigate the impact of COVID‑19 on gender equality.  The representative of Syria, stressing that the pandemic has deprived Syrian women of their basic rights to education and health, asked about the specific impact of unilateral economic measures on Syrian women.

Across the globe, many women and girls face discrimination based on their sex and gender, said the representative of Lebanon.  The backlash on women’s rights is unprecedented, she added, with women in Afghanistan banned from teaching and studying at universities and obliged to stay home until proper systems are in place.  Girls are prevented from returning to secondary education.  “In 2021, we should not be fighting for basic human rights,” she emphasized, asking how the Committee can help women in Afghanistan who are at risk of losing everything.  The representative of India, drawing attention to the trafficking of women and children, said his country plans to intensify cooperation to ensure gender parity in all spheres of life and eliminate all forms of gender discrimination.  Along similar lines, the representative of Mexico underscored the importance of eliminating discrimination and gender violence against women.

Ms. ACOSTA VARGAS, responding to Syria’s representative, expressed concern about the impact of embargos and the unilateral use of force on the rights of women and girls.  In Afghanistan, she stressed that the Taliban must respect international standards, pledging that the Committee will listen to Afghan women.  In a broader context, she said COVID‑19 has had a serious impact on women.  She underscored the role of regional leaders and the importance of work carried out at the regional level, stressing that priority must be given to helping those affected by the COVID‑19 crisis.  “The pandemic will not make us step backwards,” she assured.

Also taking part in the interactive dialogue were representatives of Chile, Bahrain, Viet Nam, Japan, Malaysia, Thailand, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Ethiopia, Algeria, Ukraine, China, France and the United Kingdom.

REEM ALSALEM, Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, said her report (document A/76/132) takes stock of the “femicide watch initiative” as well as the Platform of Independent Expert Mechanisms on the Elimination of Discrimination and Violence against Women.  The Platform was established to improve implementation of the international legal and policy framework on violence against women.  It consists of seven independent, regional and international expert mechanisms.

She said the main part of the report examines progress made through the femicide watch initiative and makes recommendations for further progress on preventing femicide, or gender‑related killings of women.  The initiative started in 2015, calling on all States to establish a femicide watch or observatory, which would be responsible for collecting and publishing annually on 25 November — the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women — the number of femicides, disaggregated by age, sex of the perpetrators and the relationship between the perpetrator and the victim.  The report outlines developments at international, national and regional levels.  “It should be noted that collecting and disseminating data is not an end in itself, but a powerful tool to assess the level of gender‑based violence against women and improve legislation and policy responses to all forms of violence against them,” she said.  While much progress has been made in establishing femicide watch bodies, it has been uneven.  In some countries, significant resources have been devoted to setting up femicide watches, while in others, none.  More data are being collected and disseminated, though often the data are not comparable or do not include information on the relationship between the victim and the perpetrator.  Some countries only collect data on intimate partner violence, while a comprehensive approach should include all types of femicide, she said.

Turning to her vision for the mandate, she said she plans to examine violence against indigenous women and girls; gender‑based violence in the context of climate change and related disaster risk mitigation and response; psychological violence against women; the relationship between the condition of statelessness, gender and gender‑based violence; as well as the intersection between gender‑based violence against women, sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.

Opening the floor to comments and questions, many delegations spoke of the need for better data collection, particularly to illuminate the number of cases of gender‑related violence during the COVID‑19 pandemic.  The representative of Estonia, on behalf of the Nordic Baltic countries, said the data from 2020 show that the pandemic has added to the existing epidemic of violence against women and girls.  The representative of Slovenia, associating with the European Union, said that more than 80 per cent of the victims of intimate partner homicide are women.  The representative of the United Kingdom asked what could be learned from global data about gender‑based violence and gender‑related killings of women during the COVID‑19 crisis, while an observer for the European Union asked about next steps for improving data collection.

Several delegations asked about gender‑based violence in specific contexts, with the representative of Pakistan asking about whether a mechanism for collecting data on femicide and violence against women can be provided in conflict settings.  The representative of Liechtenstein, meanwhile, requested the Special Rapporteur to comment on the specific issue of reprisal killings in the context of increased gender‑based violence during the pandemic.

The representative of Israel asked the Special Rapporteur for her views on online platforms, both in their negative uses, such as online harassment, as well as for reporting gender‑based violence.

Highlighting national practices, the representative of Morocco said her country has undertaken a battery of measures dealing with gender, including a prohibition on the practice of men marrying a woman they have raped in order to escape prison.  The representative of Burkina Faso said it has a national programme on eliminating violence against women.  The work of the Special Rapporteur should continue to focus on creating a mechanism for achieving gender‑related goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The representative of the Russian Federation said the mandate of the Special Rapporteur must be comprehensive and not divided into categories according to who has committed the crime.  On femicide, he saw no need for the creation of new mechanisms and said that existing tools should be used.  The Platform created by the Special Rapporteur is a private initiative.  He noted an incorrect use of terminology and asked her to refrain from using non‑consensus terms and definitions, pointing also to an “overblown” focus on specific types of violence and stressing that women’s rights should be viewed from a “healthy family relations” perspective.

Ms. ALSALEM, on what more can be done, highlighted the work of UN‑Women to develop a statistical initiative on gender‑related killings.  She also noted that definitions should not be restrictive when it comes to femicide.  Addressing concerns of the Russian Federation’s delegate, she said “femicide” is defined as the killing of women because of their sex and gender, so the terminology should not be an obstacle in combating this issue.

Femicide is context specific, she continued, so honour killings also fall into this category.  In a humanitarian context, data on femicide should be integrated into an existing national system for data collection.  Turning to violence online, she said protective and preventive measures taken by States, regional organizations and the international community should be extended to include cyberspace.

More broadly, she said the COVID‑19 crisis had made data collection more challenging.  Having reviewed data on the incidence of femicide before and during the pandemic, she said there appear to be no uniform results.  In some cases, it has increased, while in others, it has lessened.  She underscored the need to insist on adequate data collection, as it reveals the setbacks created during a crisis of this magnitude.

Also speaking were representatives of Colombia, Syria, Luxembourg, Mexico, Italy, Netherlands, Cuba, Malta, Canada, India, Switzerland, Georgia, Lebanon, Australia, United States, Azerbaijan, Haiti, Algeria and China.

MELISSA UPRETI, Chair of the Working Group on discrimination against women and girls, recalled that 2020 marked the 10‑year anniversary of the mandate.  She described the Working Group’s efforts, which led to the establishment of a transformative agenda for women’s rights and to a report on promising practices.  Several reports on women’s deprivation of liberty and human rights have been published.  Yet, women still face many obstacles to gender equality, she said, informing that the 2021 report would focus on their sexual and reproductive health rights.  The 18‑month consultations concluded that the non‑fulfilment of “women’s and girls’ sexual and reproductive health rights is a crisis in itself”.  The results point to a complex crisis that has been normalized through structural discrimination and pervasive gender‑based violence, she underlined.

She went on to stress that “women and girls have been living in a ‘persistent state of crisis’”, citing the specific situation of indigenous women, women of African descent and Roma women and girls.  She called for a shift in the usual approach taken by Governments when dealing with these situations, urging them to be gender responsive.  The report promotes five actions to address this crisis through the prioritizing of sexual and reproductive health rights; the elimination of discriminatory laws, policies and practices; the strengthening of the monitoring and accountability for violations; the participation of women and girls in decision‑making and the push back against conservative and anti‑human rights ideologies.

When the floor opened for questions and comments, the representative of the Russian Federation expressed concern about the theme of the session.  Questioning the views of the experts who contributed to the consultation, he went on to say that universal sex education is inappropriate.  However, most delegations support the Working Group’s efforts to protect sexual and reproductive health rights for women and girls.

An observer for the European Union underlined that the consequences of the COVID‑19 pandemic are not gender neutral.  Gender equality cannot be achieved if women do not benefit from their rights.  Women and girls must be able to decide on their sexual and reproductive health preferences.  Calling on all Member States to promote women’s independence and ensure universal reproductive health rights, he pointed to the European Union’s commitment to delivering on the Beijing Declaration adopted during the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women.

Similarly, the representative of Guatemala pointed to the unequal effects of the pandemic on women and girls, stressing that Central America was already facing a severe gender equality gap before the crisis.  She expressed regret that women now have to deal with household responsibilities while providing resources.  She invited the international community to develop policies promoting sexual and reproductive health rights.

Commenting on the report, the representatives of Ethiopia, India and Sri Lanka described recent initiatives in their countries to promote the rights of women and girls, while the representative of China requested clarifications on how ending discrimination against women can be achieved in a targeted manner.

Ms. UPRETI, in response, explained that the analysis presented in the report reflects reality and is based on international law.  In line with its recommendations, she invited Member States to push back against conservative and anti‑human rights ideologies.  She continued by saying that mitigating harm requires the elimination of gender‑equality obstacles before crises occur.  She deemed that access to reproductive health systems is too limited in some countries.  Considering that reproductive health‑related issues are usually preventable, she said that “one case is already too many”.  The systemic violation of sexual and reproductive rights must be addressed as a human rights matter. She urged donor States and international actors to also fulfil their obligations.  The international community must recognize women’s rights defenders and protect them against retaliation.  Every violation of women’s and girls’ rights is a denied opportunity for development, she added.  Much more investment is needed to achieve gender equality and gender parity should be a measure of success, she concluded.

Also speaking during the interactive dialogue were the representatives of Morocco and the United Kingdom.

For information media. Not an official record.