Women around the world are no longer fearful of speaking out against the violence they encounter, according to Yakin Erturk, whose mandate as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, its Causes and Consequences, expires in June.
“As I leave, what gives me encouragement is that the silence about violence against women has been broken,” Ms. Erturk said. “It’s an initial step, but it’s a prerequisite for us to respond to that violence. I think women in all parts of the world now realize that violence is not their fate.”
The Special Rapporteur spoke to the UN News Service ahead of this year’s International Women’s Day (8 March), whose theme is ‘Women and Men United to End Violence against Women and Girls.’
Ms. Erturk said she found inspiration in the impressive struggle by survivors of violence to rebuild their lives and those of their families, sometimes against enormous odds.
“The Democratic Republic of Congo comes to mind,” she said. “Some women there have experienced total destruction. It’s impossible to describe the extent of the violations women and little girls go through. Then those who try to speak out face threats.”
The creation of an international mechanism to protect such women should be an urgent priority for the future, she noted. Ms Erturk, in addressing the UN Commission on the Status of Women's current session, spoke about how the effectiveness of the Human Rights Council's complaint procedure, among the most powerful mechanisms through which women's rights violations could be brought to Government's attention for redress, was not sufficiently used by women's rights defenders.
“We don’t have a mechanism to protect these women who speak out, where States are dysfunctional or can’t respond,” she said. “Sometimes the only solution is to take the women out of the situation – but sometimes they don’t want to leave because they have husbands and families. It’s a complex issue, but we should not be afraid to act.”
The Special Rapporteur pointed out that until relatively recently, the issue of violence against women was itself seen as too complex for legislation or intervention, but that attitudes had changed. In her six years as the UN’s expert on the issue, Ms. Erturk has travelled to many countries advocating for action to address violence against women, including its most extreme form, feminicide.
Before leaving office, she will submit mission reports to the Human Rights Council in June on Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Moldova, and on her last country visit to Kyrgyzstan.
Looking back on her time in office, Ms. Erturk said she believed that her 2007 report on the intersections between culture and violence against women had played a key part in changing perceptions, and had inspired some civil society groups to start to look at culture and religion in a more critical manner.
“Anything built in the name of Islam is based on certain interpretations of Islam, and these groups are starting to challenge hegemonic interpretations of Islam which reject universal human rights norms,” she said. “I believe that cultural excuses will be challenged more and more in future years, and I consider this to be one of my strongest achievements in fulfilling my mandate.”
Considering the different countries she has visited during her mandate, Ms. Erturk said she had particularly enjoyed returning to Saudi Arabia, where she spent time working before joining the UN.
“From a personal perspective, it was amazing to go back,” she said. “There’s an interest in making changes; for example, a woman has been appointed to the post of deputy minister in the Saudi Government. These changes may appear small but we must contextualize our understanding – while pushing for universal norms.”
Ms. Erturk regretted that media outlets and human rights stakeholders were attracted to problems when they erupted in violence, “but we can do more to prevent problems if we deal with them before they reach that point.”
She welcomed what she described as “promising gestures” on human rights by the new United States administration, but added: “We need to see action – at home, at Guantanamo, in Afghanistan and in Iraq.” She said she was hopeful that the US would ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).
“Ratifying CEDAW would be one very visible outcome that could give us hope about what to expect from the new US administration,” Ms. Erturk said.