A World Free From Violence Against Women

The First International Day to Eliminate Violence Against Women

24 November 1999, New York, USA

Three weeks ago, in response to UNIFEM’s call on International Women’s Day, 8 March 1999, the governments of the world passed a United Nations General Assembly resolution, introduced by the Dominican Republic, that designated 25 November as the International Day to Eliminate Violence Against Women. In doing so, they recognised the strength of a growing global movement to end a tragic epidemic that devastates the lives of women and girls, fractures communities and is a barrier to equality and development in every nation. The issue of violence against women has posed some of the world’s greatest challenges, but the dedicated activism around it has also wrought some of the most powerful victories for human rights.

Today, we mark the International Day to Eliminate Violence Against Women for the first time. Let us take this as our opportunity for both reflection and action. We must remember the tragedies that have led up to this day, including the brutal event that inspired it, the killing of the three Mirabel sisters in the Dominican Republic on the same date in 1961. We must also shine the spotlight on the creative and inspiring steps women have taken to bring a silent, private issue into the center of national and global policy making. Their example offers us hope. They give us a reason to believe that one day all women and girls will live in peace, filled with a sense not of fear or shame or helplessness, but of their own enormous possibilities.

Right now, violence against women is a universally devastating and often unpunished crime. It transcends all boundaries, and its exorbitant human and economic costs have yet to be calculated. Women of all nations, cultures, religions and economic status suffer physical harm, mental anguish, crippled self esteem, and high rates of murder and suicide. The World Bank estimates that violence against women is as serious a cause of death and incapacity among women of reproductive age as cancer, and a greater cause of ill health than traffic accidents and malaria combined. Worldwide, one of every four women has been or will be raped, most often by someone she knows. In some countries, the estimate of women abused by their spouses soars as high as 75%.

But as large as the problem of violence against women looms, today we can recognize the progress we are making in stopping it. In 1993, the UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women became the first international human rights instrument to deal specifically with violence against women. The World Conference on Human Rights affirmed the same year that violence against women contravenes human rights norms. Other world conferences that followed made the link between eliminating violence and women’s development unquestionably clear.

Through this process, it has also become obvious that no one organization or group can end violence alone. Partnership and coordination are essential. In 1998, UNIFEM led a series of UN interagency regional campaigns to eliminate violence against women. The first was launched in Latin America and the Caribbean, and brought together UN agencies, leading national and regional NGOs, 22 governments and thousands of community groups. It used innovative media and public education strategies to start reversing the social attitudes that foster violence against women. It also promoted the revision of discriminatory laws and the introduction of new legislation, as well as strengthened enforcement. The campaign was so successful that it was replicated in Africa and in Asia and the Pacific. We owe great appreciation to our partners in the initiative – UNDP, UNICEF, UNFPA, UNAIDS, UNOHCHR, UNHCR, Habitat, WHO, ECLAC and UNESCO – as well as to the UN Foundation for its generous support.

Another example of close co-operation occurred earlier this year, when thousands of women and men gathered in the UN General Assembly on March 8th for a global interagency videoconference that celebrated some of the most inspiring stories from the fight against violence. Spearheaded by UNIFEM, the event linked governments, UN decision-makers and advocates in the General Assembly to sites in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe. Together, they shared the many successful community, national and global initiatives that are achieving the goal of eliminating all forms of violence against women, and they learned of successful examples that can be replicated across the regions.

In preparation for the videoconference, UNIFEM started a discussion on the Internet, with the World Bank and the Global Knowledge Partnership, that brought together groups from around the globe to exchange strategies against violence that work. Today, this electronic conversation continues, with thousands of women and men sharing their experiences, as well as their determination, courage and energy. A participant from Kenya spoke of mourning her mother, who was killed by her father, by creating a foundation to combat violence in rural communities. An Indian activist reported on a recent rally in Lahore, Pakistan, where dozens of women wearing chaddors joined with thousands of grassroots activists to march in the streets and call for respect for human rights. The Lebanese Council to Resist Violence Against Women wrote about the case of a medical student who was raped and forced to marry her attacker. After the council wrote letters to the president of the country and to the press and held mass demonstrations, the marriage was annulled.

Efforts like these prove that activism on violence against women is on the rise everywhere, with each small step adding to the collective power and momentum of the whole. Together, we are proving beyond doubt that with political will, resources and action, the end to violence against women is in sight. At UNIFEM, which serves to link many local efforts to the global movement against violence, we can already see the results of our work. In the Caribbean, Women’s Crisis Centres are working with police departments to improve their response to cases of violence against women. In Brazil, UN agencies, the government and civil society are drafting a joint action plan to eliminate violence. In India, 40,000 posters detailing women’s rights were printed in 14 official languages and distributed to every police station in the country, helping to ensure that ignorance of the law and women’s rights is no longer an excuse for turning a blind eye. In Jordan, the media has broken the traditional silence on the crime of “honour killings” of women suspected of adultery. In Senegal, a groundbreaking law banning female genital mutilation is being implemented together with a campaign to educate the public on the harmful consequences of the practice.

The challenge that follows our successes is to ensure sustained action. On this first ever International Day to Eliminate Violence Against Women, events will be taking place in many countries to remind us of the need to carry our work forward, with diligence, care and commitment. Last March at the global interagency videoconference, I proposed five concrete ideas for action. One was to establish the international day as a mechanism to remind governments that the world’s women will hold them accountable for stopping violence against women. With this accomplished, I want to recall the remaining four ideas, which can continue to guide our work:

  1. Let us make sure that domestic violence is against the law everywhere in the world. Every woman must have the right to a protection order against those who threaten her and her children. We can start by supporting the model domestic violence legislation drawn up by the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Radhika Coomaraswamy.
  2. Each country should document the progress it is making in preventing and eliminating violence against women. With global data, research and awareness, our work toward eradicating violence would surge forward. At UNIFEM, we plan in the near future to launch an End Violence Index that will assess how far each country has come, and where progress must be made.
  3. There is an urgent need for more resources to support initiatives against violence, helping them to reach millions more women. UNIFEM’s Trust Fund in Support of Actions to Eliminate Violence against Women is one vehicle through which local, national and global programmes can seek ongoing support. Since 1997, the Trust Fund has assisted over 80 innovative projects to end domestic violence, violence in schools and places of work, rape during war, trafficking of women and girls, and harmful traditional practices.
  4. Violence in women’s lives will not be eradicated until all members of society refuse to tolerate it. This must include concerted activism by men. We need to support programmes in which men take responsibility for ending the violence, but never at the expense of the thousands of services and advocacy efforts offered by women’s organizations over the last 30 years. Until very recently, these have been the only source of help, understanding and solace.

Let us pursue these goals, and each year on November 25 reaffirm to ourselves and to our communities that we will eliminate all forms of gender-based violence. Let us say that we will find the political will, we will hold ourselves and our governments accountable, we will create the partnerships, we will mobilize resources, we will make a future where women live free from harm. This is our dream, and it is on its way to reality.