More than five million individuals around the world have sent a clear and unequivocal message to their governments to take decisive action in stopping the relentless cycle of violence against women, at the conclusion of an Internet-based United Nations campaign today.
The UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) launched its Say NO to Violence against Women awareness-raising campaign last year calling on governments to make ending violence against women a top priority.
The initiative amassed more than 5 million names on its website petition, easily surpassing its original target of 1 million signatures.
Academy-Award winning actress and UNIFEM Goodwill Ambassador Nicole Kidman presented the signatures to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon during a ceremony at UN Headquarters marking the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, which is observed today.
“Women are abused at home, trafficked across borders or [become] victim to widespread and systematic sexual violence in conflict,” Ms. Kidman told reporters before the ceremony. “As long as one in three women and girls may be abused in their lifetimes, violence against women must be everybody’s business.”
She added that the document containing the campaign signatures was “a start” in the push to force “decision-makers” to implement laws, educate both men and women, and provide the protection, health and legal services needed in the fight to eliminate violence against women.
“Through Say NO, people in the farthest corners of the world have become engaged. This is a large new constituency that we will continue to evolve and mobilize in the years to come,” said UNIFEM Executive Director Inés Alberdi.
Heads of State and ministers representing 60 governments joined more than 600 parliamentarians from over 70 countries in adding their names as a public expression of commitment to tackling the problem.
“This high-level support for the issue is crucial,” said Ms. Alberdi. “Without strong political will, there will be no decisive action.”
Women’s organizations that take on the fight against violence are not very popular in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Marie Nyombo Zaia of the National Network of Non-Governmental Organizations for Women’s Development (RENADEF) told journalists before the ceremony.
Ms. Zaia, a personal example of how education and community support can help women escape violence and abuse, noted that the absence of political will and the lack of knowledge among Congolese women of their rights creates a desperate situation in her country.
“I am myself a victim of violence. During my second year of graduate studies, my father forced me into a polygamous marriage. I was beaten up virtually every day. After my first pregnancy, I decided to flee my marriage. Thanks to the support of a Catholic missionary who was concerned with promoting women’s studies in the province of Maniema, I could complete my second year of education in South Kivu,” Ms. Zaia said.
After graduating, Ms. Zaia became involved in defending the rights of women and girls and eventually spearheaded the creation of RENADEF, which is aimed at uniting the efforts of male and female activists to empower women and care for victims of violence.
With the help of a grant through the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women, her agency provides a range of services to survivors, such as legal, psychological and socio-economic support.
Ms. Zaia told reporters the story of “Madame Nadine,” one such survivor from the capital of the war-torn province of North Kivu, Goma.
“She was gang-raped by armed individuals in front of her husband and her four children – two boys and two girls. They also gang-raped her two daughters, aged 14 and 16 years. These armed men, after taking everything that they could find in the house, shot dead the father and the two boys and took the two daughters with them to the mountains. Nadine, depressed, desperate and inconsolable was welcomed, in January 2008, in our RENADEF shelter, where she is now receiving support and care and undergoing psychological rehabilitation.”
UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) António Guterres added his voice to the call for action, saying that the agency needs to pay urgent and close attention to the prevention and response to sexual and gender-based violence.
“Sexual and gender-based violence is a major scourge, continuing to affect many persons of concern to UNHCR, especially women and girls,” Mr. Guterres noted in a message to staff marking the start of the annual 16 Days of Activism to Eliminate Violence Against Women.
His message highlighted a trip to North Kivu last year, on which he had been struck by the appalling stories told by displaced women and how their personal tragedies had been compounded by having to live in constant fear of repeated attacks and reprisals.