Governments and other actors in positions of power and influence must make it a priority to bring perpetrators of violence against women to account, the top United Nations human rights official said today.
“History has shown time and again that a failure to do so emboldens perpetrators and encourages others to join their ranks,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour said in an address to the Human Rights Council, which is holding its eighth session in Geneva.
Ms. Arbour noted that violence, including sexual violence, has been committed and continues to be perpetrated in the midst of conflict and in post-conflict societies “on a magnitude and level of brutality that defies belief.”
Rape is deliberately used as a weapon of war in many conflicts, and in many cases, family members are forced to watch or actually participate in such crimes. “Such acts of unspeakable savagery are often perpetrated in conjunction with other heinous breaches of the law, and all too often go unpunished,” she pointed out.
The High Commissioner said that whether perpetrated in conflict or in peace, the root causes of violence against women are deep-seated inequalities and discrimination. “Whether in law or in fact, discrimination facing women and girls is still the rule rather than the exception,” she stated. “As a result, full equality for women, in law and practice, has yet to be achieved in any country.”
She pointed to a recent study commissioned by her Office that underscored that laws and customs that make women second-class citizens and expose them to violence and inequality were still common in most countries.
Discriminatory laws and practices are also at the root of many cases of maternal mortality, she added, noting that early marriage, female genital mutilation and the disrespect of women’s safe reproductive rights are key contributors to the millions of deaths and disabilities resulting from pregnancy and childbirth annually.
“There is often nothing inevitable about maternal mortality. Many of these deaths could be prevented by making women’s welfare and the realization of all their rights a matter of priority,” stressed the High Commissioner.
The task now is to translate commitments into concrete steps and priorities to give real effect to women’s rights and dignity, she stated, adding that the Council can play “a ground-breaking role” in clearly defining maternal mortality as a human rights issue.