Pushing the frontiers on the elimination of violence against women: the upcoming Commission on the Status of Women and the importance of international cooperation


Statement by Ms. Lakshmi Puri Deputy Executive Director of UN Women at Regional Conference on the Istanbul Convention. 17 January 2013

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Honourable parliamentarians,
Distinguished delegates,
Ladies and gentlemen,

Allow me to start by paying tribute to all those who made the Istanbul Convention possible. We at UN Women are gratified: this is a significant achievement toward gender equality and women's empowerment, not only in Europe but globally.

Mr. Bota, who spoke before me, asked about the value of a piece of paper. Can a piece of paper, representing a compact, law or soft law, change the world? What is the value-added of a convention, of a resolution, of a political declaration - of the various texts agreed to in an intergovernmental setting? Some view them as mere words on paper, whose production captured much-needed resources that could be better spent elsewhere.

But you and I, all of us present in this room today, and in particular the organizers of this important meeting - the Council of Europe, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Parliament of Finland, whom I thank - all of us here know that these documents are more than a collection of words. We know that, put together, these texts constitute a powerful body of global and regional norms and standards that then get translated into national and local laws, policies and actions.

They may be pieces of paper - which as we heard earlier, may take an unusually long time to print - but they carry the weight of moral authority. They may be words, but they resonate with legitimacy.

They guide us in our daily struggle for gender equality. They empower advocates in every country of the world. They mobilize stakeholders working in different areas, including governments, civil society, the United Nations, the private sector, academia and the media.

Yes, these texts do bring about change, because they evoke and compel political commitments. Whether it be the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women - which is now nearing universal ratification with 187 State parties - or the resolutions adopted by the United Nations General Assembly or the Commission on the Status of Women, these texts have the power of changing mind sets.

That is why we, at UN Women, are strong believers in continuing to enhance and strengthen global, regional and national norms and standards on gender equality and women's empowerment, and to make sure that these norms and standards also are centrally reflected in all relevant sectoral areas.

UN Women is committed to strengthening and pushing the boundaries of these norms and standards, particularly with regards to gender-based violence. Ending violence against women is one of UN Women's priority areas, as well as the priority theme of the upcoming session of the Commission on the Status of Women. In this context, we very much welcome the Istanbul Convention as a strong addition to the evolving body of norms and standards around the globe.

The value-added of the convention has been well explained by previous speakers, including Professor Chinkin. It is a far-reaching agreement, in many ways a gold standard, which establishes the obligation of States to address the issue of violence against women in a comprehensive manner through prevention, protection and prosecution.

The convention builds on the important work carried out in various fora, including United Nations milestones such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, complemented by General Recommendation 19 of the CEDAW Committee, the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, and the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.

The Istanbul Convention complements other standards, and it expands the international framework on gender equality and the empowerment of women: we now have a strong, legally-binding convention which sets out very clear directives and commitments for taking action on preventing, protecting, prosecuting and responding to violence against women and in particular domestic violence, which for so long was seen as a private issue, not to be tackled by the State.

Once it comes into force, the Convention will provide further impetus to State parties to act decisively to put an end to gender-based violence. But the Convention already has an impact, in that each new agreement among sovereign States that reaffirms women's inviolable human rights tilts the balance toward positive change.

It consolidates a growing consensus on the need to eliminate gender-based violence and to address its structural nature, that is, the historically unequal power relations between women and men. UN Women will continue to work with the Council of Europe to disseminate the value of the convention and to inspire accession, including by non-members of the Council of Europe.

The growing consensus on the need to eliminate violence against women is also visible at the United Nations, where there have been a number of successes in 2012. The General Assembly adopted in December a resolution on intensification of efforts to eliminate all forms of violence against women, as well as its first-ever resolution on intensifying global efforts for the elimination of female genital mutilation, thanks to the leadership of African countries.

These important documents demonstrate that Governments recognize violence against women as a universal problem that demands global mobilization and concerted action. There is political will, and this is of utmost importance. However, there remain some debates on the exact steps that are to be taken, on the sectors that must be involved, on the standards that are needed. In this context, the Istanbul Convention is of great value, with its detailed, operational focus. I look forward to hearing more today about this Convention.

But I am also here because we are on the eve of one of the most decisive sessions of the Commission on the Status of Women, which in March will consider as its priority theme “the elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls.

CSW is an intergovernmental deliberative body, the unchallenged leader on issues of gender equality and the empowerment of women at the global level, where Governments and civil society meet to take stock of progress and commit to further action. Each year, the Commission attracts very large national delegations, including dozens of Ministers, as well as around 2000 NGO representatives coming from all regions of the world.

The upcoming session is an important occasion for Member States to commit to ending this gross violation of human rights and blatant discrimination against women and girls. We hope that the CSW will build on the successes of the General Assembly resolutions, will be inspired by the Istanbul Convention, and will push the boundaries further.

The adoption by the Commission of a forward-looking, actionable outcome document will signal to all that violence against women is never acceptable, and that Member States will not turn a blind eye to such crimes.

What would constitute a bold outcome of the CSW? What would we seek to achieve in this negotiated outcome, the agreed conclusions?

First, that Member States would recognize that violence against women is a universal problem that affects us all, and that they must collectively combat it. Gender-based violence cannot be thought of in terms of ‘we' versus ‘they'. I just returned from an African ministerial meeting in Addis Ababa, held in preparation for CSW, which was very encouraging in this regard: it was very clear that ending violence against women was not seen as an option, but as a political, social, economic and human rights priority.

The agreed conclusions must reaffirm and recommit to existing norms and standards on the elimination of violence against women, but also strengthen them, and make a connection with norms and standards in other areas and sectors. The agreed conclusions should make it clear that there can no longer be a culture of denial, of impunity. There must be zero tolerance to all forms of violence against women, including domestic violence, and in all settings, including conflict and post-conflict situations.

The outcome must also have a strong focus on implementation. How will Governments and other stakeholders translate global norms and standards into effective legislation, policies, action plans and targeted measures? It is critical to monitor progress, and to hold States accountable.

In addition, we also hope to see stronger, comprehensive and sustained prevention efforts, because the best way to stop violence is for it not to happen in the first place. Multi-sectoral prevention is the new frontier that must be conquered. Prevention is not just about awareness-raising campaigns; a whole ecosystem of policies must be in place, and connections must be made with other gender policies to promote comprehensive and holistic prevention and response.

Violence against women does not happen in a vacuum - it is intrinsically linked to the multiple forms of gender-based discrimination witnessed in the political, economic and social spheres, and in the family and the community. We count on education programmes that teach human rights, gender equality and mutual respect. We need increasing numbers of women in politics, law enforcement, and peacekeeping forces.

And we need effective social protection, equal economic opportunities and decent jobs for women. In other words, we must bring about a structural transformation, which alone will succeed in eliminating violence against women.

We also hope to see new and improved laws and national action plans that provide for protection and provision of multi-sectoral services, including one-stop shops and crisis centers. Provision of services acts as much as a deterrent as it does as a response, and such services should include free hotlines, police and justice responses, shelters, legal aid, medical and health care services, including sexual and reproductive health services, and psycho-social counseling and support to women survivors of violence and their children.

It is also critical that these services be delivered by gender-sensitive institutions, particularly in the justice system.

Finally, we hope that Member States' strong political will to address violence against women and girls will translate into increased funding for the many measures that must urgently be put into place. Increased resources are needed at the national level, but also within the framework of international cooperation. Donors must prioritize the elimination of violence against women, as well as the overall gender equality and women's empowerment agenda, in their aid programmes.

These various points, which I have just touched on, are what we hope to achieve at the CSW. The agreed conclusions of the CSW will then provide policy guidance to Governments throughout the world, and will be a precious advocacy tool for the countless gender equality and human rights advocates who fight for women and girls. We owe no less to the millions of victims and survivors in every country of the world.

And yet, reaching consensus on a bold outcome will not be easy. Violence against women and girls is intimately linked to a number of issues which have prompted debates. Two of them in particular have been discussed in recent years.

Over the past decade, a number of geopolitical events have heightened sensitivities surrounding culture, religion and traditions. In this context, the call to States to “condemn violence against women and refrain from invoking any custom, tradition or religious consideration to avoid their obligations with respect to its elimination, as set out in the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women and as reiterated in the Beijing Platform for Action, is more important than ever.

Yet, there are a few who are hesitant to acknowledge that culture, religion or traditions can be misinterpreted to deny women and girls their basic human rights and to subject them to violence. It was therefore heartening that at the CSW preparatory meeting that I mentioned earlier, African Ministers and women leaders strongly condemned harmful traditional practices.

UN Women's research shows that there are over 3000 recorded harmful traditional practices causing different forms of violence against women and girls, including child and forced marriage, specific forms of sexual violence and slavery, and female genital mutilation and cutting. To move forward and end such practices, it is critical to engage traditional leaders and faith-based groups.

Another issue is women's sexual and reproductive health, and their reproductive rights. While the concept of reproductive rights was affirmed in the mid-1990s in the International Conference on Population and Development and in the Fourth World Conference on Women, today it is interpreted in different ways, and there is not enough acknowledgement of the critical importance of respecting and promoting sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights for ending violence against women.

Therefore, there is a need for a strong consensus so that prevention, protection and response strategies on violence against women fully integrate sexual and reproductive health and rights, including related educational, awareness-raising and service provision measures. Europe must lead the way and be unified on such issues. I hope that the Istanbul Convention will be a driving force in this respect.

Debates on culture, religion and traditions, and on reproductive rights, demonstrate that more efforts are needed to reach a genuine consensus, one which will push the boundaries and further a transformative agenda.

UN Women has a responsibility to support Member States in their deliberations on gender equality and women's empowerment, as well as in their implementation of the international normative framework.

Our preparations for the upcoming session of the Commission started a year ago, and culminated with the preparation of two reports, on prevention of violence and on multi-sectoral services and responses to violence. These reports, which build the substantive case and intellectual common ground around these issues, integrate inputs from independent experts, Member States, United Nations partners, and civil society organizations. They were also informed by our extensive experience at the country level.

Recognizing the need to build broad-based coalitions ahead of the CSW, UN Women convened a high-level Stakeholders Forum in New York in December. This event, the first of its kind, brought together ministers, policymakers, advocates and practitioners from the field, and mobilized champions from all regions.

It sensitized delegates in New York on the theme of the Commission and on the need to reaffirm and deepen the normative framework on eliminating violence against women, to accelerate its implementation and to ensure its enforcement.

We are also reaching out to Governments with another initiative, “COMMIT to End Violence against Women and Girls. This campaign urges Heads of State and Government to announce initiatives to end violence against girls and women and to showcase these commitments to the public.

Fifteen States have already made such announcements, which include the commitment by the Government of Finland and the Government of Austria to ratify the Istanbul Convention in 2013, as well as the pledge by the Government of Jamaica to sign and ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

This global advocacy work is complemented by our efforts at country level to accelerate implementation. UN Women is working in 85 countries to prevent violence in the first place, to end impunity for these crimes, and to expand essential services to survivors.

We coordinate the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women which, by the end of 2012, includes 95 programmes covering 85 countries and territories with a total value of over US$ 63.5 million. The next cycle call for proposal of the UN Trust Fund was launched on November with a special thematic focus is addressing violence against adolescent and young girls.

I would also like to highlight the important contribution of the United Nations Secretary-General's UNiTE to End Violence against Women campaign, and of his network of men leaders, which brings a welcome focus on the role of men and boys in ending violence against women and girls.

In its efforts to mobilize all stakeholders for the elimination of violence against women and girls, UN Women relies on the precious support of civil society. Non-governmental organizations are crucial actors in the response to violence against women, and they have been instrumental in bringing this topic to the fore. The active participation of non-governmental organization during the CSW will help enrich the discussion on good practices and lessons learned. The evidence they bring on ‘what works' is invaluable, and can be the engine for replication and scaling up.

Indeed, dialogue among various stakeholders is key to bridging differences and forging a consensus on the concrete actions to be undertaken in order to transform the lives of women and girls. I have no doubt that in the years to come, the CSW will hear much about, and greatly benefit from, the experience of countries that implement the Istanbul Convention.

In the meantime, I look forward to hearing more about the Convention today, and I count on your support in March with the elaboration of the outcome document of the Commission on the Status of Women, but also, most importantly, with its implementation. Together, let us show the world that standards matter.

They can change mindsets and societies, and can make a critical difference on the issue of violence against women, which has profound implications not only for the promotion of human rights, but also for the achievement of sustainable development and of peace and security. Norms aspire to perfection, and this is precisely why we need high standards: to inspire us and to provide the impetus for transforming what is into what should be.

Thank you.