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UN sounds alarm to end ‘global pandemic’ of violence against women

UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka (left) and Chirlane McCray, New York City’s First Lady, after signing an agreement to work together in order to enhance the safety and empowerment of women and girls.
UN Women/Jennifer S. Altman
UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka (left) and Chirlane McCray, New York City’s First Lady, after signing an agreement to work together in order to enhance the safety and empowerment of women and girls.

UN sounds alarm to end ‘global pandemic’ of violence against women

Violence against women and girls is a global pandemic that destroys lives, fractures communities and holds back development, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said as the world body today marked the International Day to End Violence against Women.

“But violence against women and girls does not emerge from nowhere. It is simply the most extreme example of the political, financial, social and economic oppression of women and girls worldwide,” Mr. Ban said at an Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) event at Headquarters.

Joining Mr. Ban at today’s panel discussion were UN Women Executive-Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka; First Lady of New York, Chirlane McCray, and actor Teri Hatcher, among others.

This year’s theme of Orange Your Neighbourhood promises grassroots action to raise awareness in local communities. For example, the UN Secretariat building and the Empire State Building were lit orange last night, and many wore orange today to show support and solidarity in ending the scourge that affects one in three women worldwide.

Violence against women is not confined to just one region, political system, culture or social class, Mr. Ban explained today. It is present at every level of every society in the world. It happens in peacetime and becomes worse during conflict.

This year alone, we have seen the kidnapping of more than 200 girls in Nigeria; the Indian schoolgirls who were raped, killed and hung from a tree; graphic testimony from Iraqi women of rape and sexual slavery during war; the continued bullying of women on the internet.

Governments, workplaces, universities and sports authorities are stepping up much-needed action to end sexual violence. More than 80 per cent of governments have passed laws on domestic violence and sexual harassment.

However, their implementation is often slow and uneven. And fragile gains continue to be threatened by extremism and a backlash against women’s rights.

“It is up to everyone to play their part; women’s rights are not only women’s business. Men and boys are finally taking their place as partners in this battle. The HeForShe campaign I launched two months ago brings together one half of humanity in support of the other,” Mr. Ban said.

Echoing that, UN-Women’s Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka explained that this Day is an opportunity to “shine an orange light” on violence against women that takes place at home, in schools, nations, cities, and villages. She urged for support to confront that “horror” and “extinguish it.”

“This is an important moment as the world is getting ready to gear up to the post-2015 plan of action,” Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka said, highlighting that the issue of fighting violence against women will be high on the future global development agenda.

“No culture, no nation, no woman – old or young – is immune to this human rights violation,” she added.

“And these women are determined to reclaim their lives,” she said, urging that “there is no time for complacency or excuses, the time to act is now.”

“We need young people, members of Parliament and political parties, religious and traditional leaders as well as men and boys to play their roles,” the UN-Women chief explained.

“We know what works now. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) initiative, along with other studies, has generated quite some data and best practices that demonstrate that the importance of protecting women and girls and providing services to those who fall victim to these horrendous crimes.”

“We are in a unique position in history and a lot of will among the people of the world to forge ahead and conquer violence against women,” she said.

Recalling meeting women who have been victims of violence, Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka said that she “forever will be haunted by their suffering” but also inspired by their courage.

Critical areas of concern

One of those personal stories shared today was that of actress Teri Hatcher, who hoped her experiences would “shed light on the dangers of remaining silent about sexual abuse.” Ms. Hatcher was abused by her uncle and after she remained silent about it, the man went on to abuse a young woman who later committed suicide.

Upon learning of that tragedy, Ms. Hatcher spoke up against her uncle, who was then convicted and sentenced to prison, where he died. “But nothing could undo the devastating violence he had caused,” she acknowledged.

“I’m the ‘one in three women,’” Ms. Hatcher said referring to statistics on the one billion women worldwide who suffer from violence, which forever affects self-esteem, self-worth and self-happiness.

“When society shames the victim by asking why did you stay instead of asking ‘why did he abuse her,’ we just…foster a society where the abuser continues to abuse,” Ms. Thatcher said stressing the need to break stigma so that victims are unafraid to speak up.

“As long as violence is a part of any woman’s story, silence will not be a part of mine,” she said.

Chirlane McCray, First Lady of New York, said that the Mayor’s office is “working day and night” to connect with women and girls in communities to inform them about the city centres available to those who suffer from violence.

“We know that violence against women and girls is a global problem that requires a global solution,” said Ms. McCray. But cities and local Governments such as New York’s can help in such efforts.

For instance, New York’s official first agreement with the UN – a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed today by the First Lady and UN Women’s Executive Director – commits to making areas in the city safe for all women and girls and free of sexual harassment.

“Every day, in cities across the globe, women and girls are trapped in lives defined by fear and violence. Here in New York City, we have launched a comprehensive effort to connect victims to the resources they need to break the cycle and establish their independence. But we must do even more, which is why we are joining the UN Women’s Safe Cities Global Initiative,” said Ms. McCray.

“We are committed to doing our part to create a world – and a city – where all women and girls can live their lives without fear of violence.”

New York is the first city in the United States to join the safe city initiative. The city is also leading on women’s leadership roles, as the city government’s majority is female and universal prekindergarten, a “game-changer” for many working mothers.