UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet presents the ‘Safe Cities programme’ in Costa Rica


Remarks by Michelle Bachelet, Executive Director of UN Women in San José, Costa Rica. 11 September 2012.

President of the Republic of Costa Rica, Laura Chinchilla,


First of all, I would like to take this opportunity to extend my thanks to you all for being here today in order to attend this presentation I am giving not only to the city of San José but to the whole of Costa Rica, with my presentation relating to the “Safe cities for all women and men programme, which is bringing together governmental organizations such as the National Institute for Women, the Municipality of San José, and also United Nations organizations such as Unicef, UN-Habitat and UN Women.

I would like to begin today by thanking you all for the considerable hospitality that is being extended to me by the people of Costa Rica and also its government during my visit.

To visit this country, that I deeply admire, always fills me with the greatest personal satisfaction; and to be here now, in my capacity of Executive Director of UN Women, means even more to me in view of the fact that Costa Rica has proven itself to be a pioneering country which has, for some time now, taken a lead when it comes to ensuring access by women to positions of leadership and political participation.

The presence of all of you here today underscores the commitment on the part of the various social stakeholders regarding the implementation of a number of specific steps that can improve both the quality of life and security in their respective geographic areas, and thereby address in a decisive manner the violence that is all-too-often directed against women.

Nowadays, cities are home to more than half of the world's population, and within 40 years this figure will have increased to two thirds.

Women and young people, and especially girls, are prey to dangers within the urban environment, whether such violence takes place on the streets, on the public transport system, or, indeed, within their own communities. In all of these scenarios, these individuals are often exposed to a litany of abuse that ranges from harassment to sexual aggression and even rape.

And this harsh reality impedes, to a considerable extent, the freedom of these individuals to enjoy due access to education, work, leisure activities and economic and political life or—to put it more simply—to go about their daily business in their own neighbourhoods.

UN Women, Unicef and UN-Habitat have established this alliance, that we present to you today in Costa Rica, and that brings together the experience gained by the three organizations, in an effort to enhance security, prevent and reduce violence, and mobilize and empower groups of women, young people, and girls, so that they can come to make the most of their urban environments.

My friends,

For many years now, Costa Rica has been a case in point of sound and well-tried practices and laws which have galvanized the inclusion of a considerable number of women within various decision-making fora.

An example of this is electoral legislation which has ensured the effective participation of women in both political parties and publically-elected office.

As a result, it is the case that these days Costa Rica evidences one of the highest percentages of female parliamentarians in the world.

And, of course, Costa Rica is one of the five countries in the world in which a woman-in this case President Laura Chinchilla-is head of the Executive Branch, thereby contributing to the consolidation of Latin America and the Caribbean as the region in the world with the highest number of women as heads of state and heads of government.

And here I must pause to congratulate Latin Americans on such a sterling and unique achievement.

You will imagine that I am congratulating you because I am engaging in an instance of “gender solidarity with President Chinchilla, but the truth is that I am praising your achievement because the benefits of having more women in positions of leadership have been extensively documented.

With more women in positions of power, national agendas are strengthened and issues relating to the well being of societies are thrust to the forefront of public debate.

Precisely in this connection I would like to point to the extraordinary achievements that have been accomplished until now by President Chinchilla in view of the fact that she has given a high profile in the international agenda and, indeed, within the United Nations organization itself, to a vital issue that has a direct impact on social stability in the region; and here I am referring to the issue of civic security.

Yesterday, in the course of my meeting with President Chinchilla, I discussed various ways in which the issue of civic security can be bolstered, in the same way that I have focused on this question with a number of governmental stakeholders and members of Costa Rica's civil society. And this is no mere coincidence.

I say this because civic security is an issue that affects in a substantive manner an important number of citizens, as is borne out by various studies. Indeed, since 2010, civic security has become one of three fundamental concerns for both women and men in Costa Rica.

And naturally, the issue of civic security is also an issue that concerns the United Nations. Last year, at the opening of the thematic debate of the General Assembly, the problem of “Security in Central America as a Regional and Global Challenge was discussed.

On this occasion, the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon warned that Central America is experiencing what he termed a “crisis of crime and violence, in which one in every 50 young people is murdered before reaching the age of 32. It is, in fact, such a situation that leads to public consternation, fear and instability in Central American societies.

And in addition to crimes associated with drug trafficking, a blight that the region is forced to experience on account of its problematic geographical location, sandwiched as it is between the main producers and the largest group of consumers in the world, we can witness new forms of organized crime within the region, including kidnappings, contract killings and human trafficking. Globally, 2 million people are trafficked annually, of which 80 per cent are women.

The implications and ramifications of these problems bring home to us, and keenly, that we are face to face with a global problem that is of vital importance not only to a group of people, but to all of humanity.

However, violence against women and children has taken on a new dimension, often ignored, and to date without satisfactory solutions.

We are already aware of the fact that women and girls are the main victims of civic insecurity. A study that was carried out by UN Women some years ago revealed that among those women who range from 15 years old to 44 years old, violence is responsible for more fatalities and disabilities than the combined effects of cancer, malaria, traffic accidents and war.

With a frequency that is ever more alarming, we are witnesses in Latin America an increase in the number and brutality of acts of violence that are committed against women.

From a human and legal point of view, the devastating physical and emotional effects of these acts of violence are sufficient reason to include the specific and very different needs of women as a fundamental component of any sustainable civic security strategy.

But it is essential that we understand that the problem of violence against women affects all of us, irrespective of gender, an act of aggression is against all strata of society, and that includes women and men alike.

The socio-economic impact of violence against women has as its corollary an increase in expenditure within the health and legal sectors, and incidental demands made on social services. And the effect of such violence can also be perceived in the loss of economic productivity that results from the non-participation of women in processes of political, economic and social development.

Some weeks ago I visited Australia, one of the countries that have made an effort to quantify the economic impact of violence against women. And estimates in Australia have established that, as a result of such violence, the cost to Australia's economy rose to almost 14 billion dollars between 2008 and 2009.

Far from being a problem that is specific only to Costa Rica or developing countries, violence against women is a universal pandemic and a critical factor that impacts negatively on levels of civic insecurity.

Over the last few years, Central America and Mexico have witnessed an alarming increase in violence against women, evidence shows some of the highest rates of the phenomenon known as femicide in the world, and with rates of impunity as high as 99 per cent in those cases that are reported.

Regarding local figures here in Costa Rica, we can see that despite the fact that last year the overall rate of homicides fell to its lowest level in the last three years, while the murder rate of women does not show the same progress.

For us, the difference between the number of acts of violence committed against men, and those committed against women, makes it clear that women face different scenarios with respect to violence and crime, and strengthens the case for designing specific strategies for addressing the gamut of women's needs in the context of security.

Many countries in the region, including Costa Rica, have over the course of time implemented a number of initiatives in order to strengthen the capacity of the police to respond to violence against women. A case in point has been police stations that specifically concern themselves with violence directed against women, and such a development is undoubtedly an encouraging sign of the political resolve on the part of governments to address gender-specific violence against women.

The police, by virtue of their pivotal role in overseeing the well being of all citizens, are a key stakeholder in ensuring the civic security of women and preventing all kinds of violence directed against them.

However, the number of female victims of violence that have recourse to the police is negligible, and this is the case because such women fear that the police will not believe them, or will minimize the serious problems that they face, or, indeed, will blame them for having provoked the violence in the first place, or will simply go through the motions but will do nothing concrete to help them in their predicaments.

And, furthermore, these women are afraid that, if they do report their attackers , they will face possible reprisals, given that there are not in place either adequate measures or legal mechanisms to protect women and their children.

In this regard efforts are still in their infancy, and I tend to feel that we have some way to go before we are in a position to train police forces that are duly sensitive to the inherent problem of violence against women, with such personnel proving to be these women's staunch allies when it comes to addressing, and indeed redressing, violations of their basic human rights.

To remedy this situation, consciousness-raising in the gender field is required, with this component forming part and parcel of the educational curriculum in police training programmes, alongside ongoing training courses for police officers.

And it is of the essence that this training be extended to every member of the police, irrespective of rank or the role that these individuals perform. It is imperative that these training programmes be endemic to the entire structure of the organization.

The participation of women in the armed forces and in the police is also an effective and necessary means of addressing this problem. I say this advisedly because it is often the case that in the event of making a formal complaint to the police, the stigmatization and entrenched discriminatory attitudes that tend to be deeply rooted in the police force, and that prevail in the communities in general, make it extremely difficult—and sometimes impossible—for women to feel comfortable about approaching male police officers.

The last report carried out by UN Women, “Progress of the World's Women made it clear that it is not only female victims of sexual violence, but also male victims of sexual violence, that prefer to make an official complaint to a female police officer.

Data compiled in 39 countries bears out the fact that the presence of female police officers has a positive outcome in terms of the investigation of crimes induced by sexual aggression, and this finding reinforces the argument that the hiring of women is a key component of a legal system that is sensitive to gender-related problems.

Last year, in the course of the ninth General Meeting of Latin American and Caribbean Female Police Officers, and that was held in San Salvador, participants lamented the fact that access to senior positions within the police forces of their respective countries was hindered by the interplay of a multiplicity of factors.

It is not only a case of taking steps to ensure that women have access to positions in the police force but also of facilitating access by these women to leadership positions that are in the upper echelons of the police hierarchy. A case in point is that only one of the five Sub-directorates of El Salvador's National Civil Police is, in fact, directed by a woman. Meanwhile, in Honduras, women represent only 6 per cent of active police officers and only 2 per cent are in directorship positions.

A more significant number of female police officers would not only improve the capacity of the police to respond to gender violence, but would also have a beneficial impact for the whole of the community.

A report that was carried out by the Los Angeles Police Department, and that was published in 2009, found that female police officers are less likely to use excessive force, are more likely to favour community-based policing and that, furthermore, they are often capable of defusing situations that are potentially violent or aggressive by virtue of their highly developed interpersonal skills. The report concluded that in all areas the performance of female police offers outstripped that of their male peers.


In this connection, we at UN Women once again take this opportunity to applaud the government of Costa Rica for the initiative that it has shown by virtue of having taken appropriate steps in order to promote the mainstreaming of civic security in agendas at a number of international fora. The issue of the safety of citizens affects, and directly, the lives of millions of individuals all over the world and, as we know all too well, most of the individuals that are directly affected are women and girls.

And so, let us place at the disposal of Costa Rica our technical expertise, so that the gender component can be comprehensively mainstreamed within the design and implementation of public security policies.

We also hope that South-South cooperation will prove to have a beneficial effect by acting as a catalyst vis a vis consciousness-training within public security corps, and in terms of the professional training of these entities, because we believe that primacy should be given to promoting cooperation in this area.

Many countries have accumulated deep-rooted expertise and capacity, and have consequently been successful time and time again in addressing gender issues, and this tried-and-tested know-how has facilitated the incorporation by these countries of women's issues in their public security agendas.

Recently UN Women signed an important agreement with the Brazilian Cooperation Agency and we hope that further agreements, made in the same spirit, will be forthcoming, and in the not too distant future.

And, furthermore, I would like to take the opportunity on this occasion to express my deeply-felt gratitude and thanks to all Costa Rican Mayors and Vice-Mayors on account of their ongoing and committed support for the UNiTE campaign of the UN Secretary General, so as to end violence against women, once and for all.

This specific kind of support has, undoubtedly, consolidated the general level of support that the campaign has received over the last year, when President Chinchilla presented the Campaign and, on the behalf of the Costa Rican government, gave it her moral support. And it is the case that, taking President Chinchilla's lead, the three Costa Rican branches of government have followed suit and thereby gave their endorsement .

Finally, I would like to share with you all the news that some months ago Panama witnessed the formation of a regional UN Women's Civil Society Advisory Group. This group is composed of fifteen outstanding individuals who are members of civil organizations and women's organizations to be found throughout the whole of Latin America and the Caribbean.

We are convinced that civil society organizations should be the natural allies of governments and security forces, thereby ensuring that civic security policies can truly benefit women. I say this because it is undoubtedly the case that such civil society organizations enjoy extensive and well-tried experience, and can claim a wealth of expertise when it comes to responding to violence against women, this being the result of many years working in this specific area.

It is on account of this success that I believe that we should prioritize a channel for free-flowing communication with these organizations regarding the exchange of information and cooperation in the field of public security. We have already noted a number of successful outcomes in Latin America which have brought home to us the benefits of fruitful partnerships. And we at UN Women offer our own experience and expertise in order to work together in this dialogue, thereby facilitating more effective communication which will undoubtedly result in enhanced civic security for women.

Once again I would like to thank all of you here today for the warm welcome that is being extended to me here in Costa Rica, and for providing me with the opportunity of sharing this forum for exchanging ideas that are central to an issue that is so topical and of such pressing and vital concern, not only for women themselves but, indeed, for all members of society.

Michelle Bachelet in Costa Rica

Related Link