15 MARCH 2008

Secretary General Ban Ki-moon kicked off a multi-year global campaign bringing together the United Nations, governments and civil society to try to end violence against women, calling it an issue that "cannot wait."

"At least one out of every three women is likely to be beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her lifetime. Through the practice of prenatal sex selection, countless others are denied the right even to exist," Mr. Ban said in his address at the opening in New York of the latest session of the Commission on the Status of Women.

Violence against women impedes economic and social growth, and thus the new campaign will run until 2015, the same target year as the internationally agreed aims known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Noting that weapons of armed conflict today include rape, sexual violence and abduction of children to be conscripted as soldiers or sex slaves, the Secretary General recounted his visits to war-torn areas and his conversations with survivors of violence. "This is a campaign for them. It is a campaign for the women and girls who have the right to live free of violence, today and in the future," he said. "It is a campaign to stop the untold cost that violence against women inflicts on all humankind." Mr. Ban called on the cooperation of the world’s youth, women’s groups, men around the world, the private sector and Member States to help the new initiative succeed. He acknowledged that there is no "blanket approach" to tackling the scourge, noting that each country must formulate its own measures to address violence against women. "But there is one universal truth, applicable to all countries, cultures and communities: violence against women is never acceptable, never excusable, never tolerable," the Secretary-General stated, adding that he hopes to hold a high-level event in 2010 to review progress. As part of today’s campaign launch, Rachel N. Mayanja, the Secretary General’s Special Adviser on Gender Issues and the Advancement of Women, held a press conference together with a number of other activists, both male and female, working to end violence against women and are slated to participate in other discussions on the subject at U.N. Headquarters. "While everybody professes that women hold up the sky and women’s contributions are critical to development -- to everything -- it hasn’t been demonstrated concretely," Ms Mayanja said. "And here we are, halfway through the Millennium Development Goals projected period, and we are still lagging behind." Many women have been left out of development efforts because of the violence that is continually being inflicted on them, she said. The Secretary General’s campaign, she added, would bring a new sense of urgency to bear on this tragic issue.

Ms. Mayanja, welcoming the launch by the Secretary General of the campaign, stressed that the responsibility of men was critical in the pursuit of women's equality.

Describing the motivation for launching the campaign, Ms. Mayanja said United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon had been touched by the experiences of many women around the world who had been victims of violence. Given that efforts to promote women’s rights had been largely undertaken by women, he wanted to mobilize men worldwide, particularly those at the highest levels. That involvement was particularly important for incorporating women’s contributions to the development agenda ahead of the Millennium Development Goals.

Joining Ms. Mayanja was a five-member panel which included Kevin Powell, a New York-based writer and political activist involved in preventing gender violence for over 17 years. He described the path that had led him into such work, saying that, as someone who had committed three acts of violence against women, he had been encouraged to seek help, take responsibility for what he had done, and examine the origins of his violence. Men tended to listen to men, which was why he felt it important to speak out on the issue. "We’ve got to do everything we can to talk about this on a global level in the twenty-first century", he added. "We have no other choice".

Michealeane Risley, a women’s advocate and award-winning documentarian, described her travels to Zimbabwe, where innovative techniques were being used to address violence and sexual abuse more concretely than in the United States.

Todd Minerson, Executive Director of the White Ribbon Campaign, said he spoke on behalf of hundreds of organizations working with men and boys with the understanding that achieving gender equality was an absolute precondition to ending violence against women. He had noticed an "astounding" shift in the international debate, from discussing the "need" to work with men and boys to talking about "how" to do so.

Taking the floor next was Prateek Suman Awasthi, who worked with the India-based Men against Violence and Abuse organization. Speaking on behalf of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)’s youth advisory, he pointed out that violence against women was a structural issue, in that it was often a tool used to keep women subjugated in society. Achieving development goals, such as universal access to health care, would remain elusive as long as women continued to be raped and abused, sometimes sexually, which, in turn, increased transmission of HIV/AIDS. Change started with young people, and it was important to engage them. A rights-based approach was also crucial.

Describing the Rwandan experience, Captain Aimable Mushabe, a Rwandan military officer, said the Rwandan defence forces in September started a campaign against gender-based violence, in part because the incidence of violence against women was higher than in most countries, as a result of the 1994 genocide. He had been involved in the conflict, and seen how women were more vulnerable to such violence during war. After the chief of the general staff had made it clear that violence against women and gender-based violence constituted a security threat, it became "meaningless for us to talk about total security -- human security -- when our sisters, mothers, daughters are suffering under that terrible scourge", he said. The defence forces, since undertaking the campaign, had prompted other organs to follow up with similar efforts.

Sharing her experiences working with men and women in Haiti, Anne Sosin, Founder and Director of Vizyon Dwa Ayisyen/Haiti Rights Vision, said her work began in 2004 in response to the dramatic increase in violence against women after the Government had been forced out of power. Through her work with rape survivors and others, she came to understand that the factors influencing women’s vulnerability to violence were also those which fostered men’s participation in it; a lack of access to education, employment, and health care, as well as social exclusion. It was important for men to see themselves as agents of change.

Responding to a question on the Rwanda’s initiatives, Captain Mushabe said the forces had trained personnel at headquarters, established focal points in brigades and units, and corrected teaching materials to raise awareness of what constituted violence against women. In addition, the military and others with security responsibilities had been trained. As to whether such programmes would be successful, he stressed the need to continue raising awareness among the forces, particularly as they carried out their missions in other countries.

Regarding a study on kidney trafficking being conducted by her Office, Ms. Mayanja noted that, in some parts of the world, people were being tricked into donating their organs. As human trafficking largely involved girls and women, she was concerned that the phenomenon would result in more women losing their organs. That was why her Office decided to undertake a study, in partnership with the Council of Europe. Her Office would examine the medical aspects, while the Council of Europe would look at the legal implications. Ending impunity was "the most challenging effort", and she was happy that Rwandan defence forces had taken on that issue.

Responding to a query on a UNFPA report which noted that women in Tajikistan poured gasoline on themselves to escape from abusive marriages, Mr. Awasthi said the Tajikistan country office would be best prepared to discuss follow-up work currently under way. In terms of raising awareness, he said documentaries were being developed in seven countries on the lives of those women, which would be aired on the BBC in the coming months. He noted the importance of developing stronger legal protections.

Asked whether some women were being trained in martial arts, Mr. Awasthi responded that many women’s organizations undertook that work under the slogan of "stop the hand when it strikes first".