Violence against women and men should not be inevitable — Executive Director

Speech by UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka at the Colloquium on Violence, Intervention, and Agency at Yale University on 6 November.


Good morning.

Thank you so much for this opportunity. I would like to thank Yale University for hosting this Colloquium on Violence, Intervention, and Agency. A special thanks to Professor Catherine Panter-Brick for really embracing us as UN Women and making sure that we can meet in this session. 

UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo Ngcuka speaks at Yale University on 6 November. UN Women/Daniel Schatz
UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka speaks at the Colloquium on Violence, Intervention, and Agency at Yale University on 6 November. Photo: UN Women/Daniel Schatz

Thank you also Professor Paula Kavathas, Professor Louisa Lombard, and Ms. Aalyia Sadruddin for arranging today. We just recognized that Aalyia and I actually met years ago when she was doing undergraduate studies in South Africa as a Rose Mandela scholar. Plus my fellow panelist, Gary Barker — who I am always meeting in places like this.

You could not have picked a more critical topic at such a strategic time. Violence against women and girls is one of the most pervasive violations of human rights of all time. It is everywhere; it permeates every society, class, race, geographical area, age group, and in fact last year the World Health Organization called it ‘a global epidemic’ and a public health crisis.

At UN Women we tend to use the reliable statistics generated by the World Health Organization because in their profession, health workers are able to determine the extent of the violence and the injuries that the women suffer, psychologically and physically. Health centres are also one place where the women can speak confidentially and are able to talk in depth about their experiences. For many women this is the only place where they can see someone in the absence of the perpetrator. So their data tends to be quite reliable. It is that data that has highlighted to us that one out of three women globally lives with some form of violence.

The kinds of violence that we are talking about includes intimate partner violence, rape, the trafficking of women, and ‘sextortion’, which impacts lots of women who are looking for services when they are desperate, such as migrants, refugees, and sometimes in public service. It involves girls in some countries where there is female genital mutilation, forced early marriages, students on campus and the elderly, especially widows. We have seen the increase of online bullying which in some cases drives young people, both boys and girls, to commit suicide. We also are, of course, all familiar with domestic violence in our communities and homes.

We see violence also in areas of conflict. This can be anything from sex slavery to the capturing of women by warring factions and using them literally as goods that they exchange, barter and sell. In many countries where there is violence, sometimes it is more dangerous to be a woman than to be a soldier. Women are unarmed and are not in combat and when violence is unleashed on them they are relatively unable to defend themselves.

In many cases, and in many countries, the manner in which we have responded to violence against women has been slow. It has not always been treated as a crisis that the world is facing. But thankfully, now there is really strong traction and focus, as well as well coordinated efforts, to address the issue of violence against women.

The vulnerability to violence is not primarily a factor of poverty, education, sexual orientation, disability status, ethnicity or geography, although each of those aspects can intersect to further diminish status and increase risk. It is truly a universal phenomenon.

Recent studies estimate that 35 per cent of women worldwide have experienced violence. In some countries, this figure rises to 70 per cent. Of all women killed globally in 2012, almost half were killed by intimate partners or family members. It sounds odd that we should talk about ‘intimate’ and ‘killing’ in the same sentence, but the percentage is so high that it truly makes a home a frightening place for many women — not a place of comfort and refuge.

An estimated 133 million girls and women have experienced some form of female genital mutilation/cutting. Two hundred and fifty million women alive today were married before age 15 against their will. Child brides are less able to negotiate safe sex. They are vulnerable to early pregnancy, and exposed to maternal and infant mortality as well as sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. In 2014 the WHO said that one in 17 older adults reported abuse in the previous month in most parts of the world.

It is important also for us to consider that the origins of violence lie deeply rooted in gender inequality and discrimination, and in cultural and social norms and practices. Violence against women becomes, therefore, the most dehumanizing form of discrimination against women, and the prototype of all the other subtle forms of discrimination that we live with.

The important thing also for us to note is that violence against women and men should not be inevitable. It is not normal, and is it not acceptable. It is not excusable. I think that’s why you are sitting here today, because we want to do something, we want to help, or we are already doing something about it.

What is also important, as the topic today suggests, is that our efforts are coordinated, because this is truly a universal phenomenon and we have a lot to learn from each other; both from what works and what doesn’t work.

The following are just some of the examples of interventions that we think are worthy of noting.

We emphasize at UN Women the notion of prevention, so we reduce the number of women and girls who will ever experience violence against them. Preventive factors include a strong human rights culture and zero tolerance for any form of discrimination and prejudice towards women and girls. This requires leaders and those in authority never to send mixed messages. Education is important, especially education that emphasizes the importance of rights and respect for all people. In the areas where many girls may drop out of school, we must emphasize the importance of girls completing secondary education. Girls who drop out of school early are most likely to be exposed to harsh violence.

Prevention requires access to economic resources and opportunities, including credit, access to property and land, and it also requires us to pay attention to social norms that promote gender equality. In many countries we have seen that — notwithstanding that many countries have passed laws that are progressive and that entrench equality in constitutions and laws — they still allow customary laws that are harmful to women and girls to exist side-by-side with good laws. In many cases the customary law is what dominates, and the impact and the value of the progressive laws are therefore diminished. This was one of the striking features of the study of evaluating 20 years of implementing the Beijing Platform for Action.

In many cases, when we talk to leaders in different countries there is an attitude of, ‘oh you know, culture, there’s nothing we can do about it’. We cannot say that we are unable to do anything about harmful culture when we also say we stand for human rights and equality. In the context of the United Nations we are all members of the UN who vote for human rights, and we all support the UN Charter. It is a contradiction in terms to tolerate cultural practices that are harmful and at the same time be in a community of nations that recognizes the rights of all people.

UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka speaks with students at the Colloquium on Violence, Intervention, and Agency at Yale University on 6 November. Photo: Mara Lavitt
UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka speaks with students at the Colloquium on Violence, Intervention, and Agency at Yale University on 6 November. Photo: Mara Lavitt

We recognize that the causes of gender-based violence are complex, so the approach also needs to be comprehensive. It requires work to start at home, and to remain consistent throughout school, in the workplace, in religious and cultural societies and bodies.

It also requires consistent collection of data so we can track both the impact and the frequency of the changes we experience — something we have not been good at in many countries, but which, happily, now we are beginning to do more and more.

It requires us to focus both on prevention and on stopping recurrences. It also means that in all countries, civil society, governments and private sector must work together. It also requires legal measures and policies of the countries that are meant to address violence against women to be implemented intensely. We have seen that in countries where all of these are being presented at the same time, we begin to see change. We cannot say at this point in time that we have countries that are shining examples in winning in the fight against violence against women, sadly, but we can actually say that we do see change in behavior and patterns when this comprehensive package of intervention is being presented.

Legislation for us at the United Nations is very important because we are an intergovernmental body, and one thing that governments have got is legislation. Legislation has an impact. It affects millions of people in a country — just by the stroke of a pen the lives of people can become worse or better.

We know now that at least 119 countries have passed laws on domestic violence, 125 have laws on sexual harassment and 52 have laws on marital rape. That is out of about 192 countries and a few territories, so we do not have universal applications of these laws. There are still countries that we have to deal with.

Globally, 139 constitutions now include guarantees of gender equality, but in some of the countries with these good constitutions, we still have customary laws that work against the constitutions. And in some places perpetrators are also not brought to court, notwithstanding that there is a constitution that guarantees equality.

Women have equal rights in 115 countries to own property and in 93 countries women are able to have equal inheritance rights. This is important because these are some of the triggers of violence against women. Without these rights women in many countries become vulnerable.

Countries have repealed discriminatory laws and adopted new legislative frameworks to promote gender equality and address violence against women and girls. Yet, a World Bank study of 143 economies found that 128 still have at least one legal difference in how men and women are treated, with some impacts on the economic wellbeing of the men or the women. That includes laws that make it impossible for a woman to independently obtain an ID. As a result there are many women who do not have an ID in certain countries because their partners say no. Also, those laws include laws that forbid women to access credit, and in some countries they determine the types of jobs that women can and cannot do.

So, as you can see, there are quite a lot of angles that we need to consider when we are fighting violence against women. All of these conditions put together create a fertile ground for women’s rights to be violated, and in many cases that includes physical as well as emotional violence.

We try to create a common platform so we can work together across the world, which is why we are wearing orange today. This is one of the campaigns that we are using to promote awareness, discussion, engagement, and an exchange of experiences on what we can do to end violence against women.

This campaign, the 16 Days to End Violence Against Women, runs from 25 November up to the 10 December. Throughout the world, stakeholders and individuals will engage in different activities that are meant to highlight their contribution, as well as the possibilities of what they could do to address violence against women.

UN Women emphasizes the importance of prevention and we will soon produce a toolkit together with the ILO, UNDP, UNESCO, UNFPA, WHO, based on the new UN Framework to Underpin Action to Prevent Violence against Women, which I hope will assist many of you to undertake activities that address the issue of prevention.

Let me also quickly highlight that the world has just adopted the new 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, with 17 Goals. These goals bind all countries; they are only not for developing countries or developed countries. One of these goals is focused on gender equality. The gender equality goal aims to end all forms of discrimination against women and girls. As UN Women — and hopefully with Yale University — we will be working to ensure that all the legislation that oppresses women in certain ways and leads to some form of violence will be no more by 2030 when we finish implementing the Sustainable Development Goals.

The Goal focuses also on ending violence against women and it gives comprehensive indicators on what we should do to address that goal. It focuses also on the provision of services to address sexual and reproductive rights — something we didn’t think we were going to get because Member States can really push back on that issue — so we were quite glad to get that in goal number 5. It also focuses on equal representation of women in decision-making bodies, in political as well as economic bodies. It focuses on recognizing, reducing, and redistributing unpaid care work. It also focuses on ending harmful practices that impact on women and girls, and it specifically cites child marriages and female genital mutilation. If you consider this goal, and all other goals in which we have some form of focus on women and girls, you can see that we have in the Beijing Platform, the unfinished business of the Millennium Development Goals.

We have got a lot of scope for the things that we need to do together and that we can do. That is why we at UN Women have been bold enough to say that between 2015 and 2030 we truly should aim to achieve substantive equality. But we need to pick the winners — the initiatives and actions we can all handle together — in order to push the agenda forward.

Among those, for instance, we would like to call for a global and effective coalition, of course to end violence against women, but also for equal pay and for recognizing and implementing programmes that address unpaid care work, because these are some of the injustices that occur in almost every country. Whether you are in a rich or poor country, violence against women is a problem; whether you are a rich or poor country, unpaid care work that impacts on women is a problem — and the United States is probably one of the countries that has a big challenge here. In every country we could address unequal pay. In fact, the global average of the amount paid to women compared to that to a man doing the same work is 24 per cent less. And of course we can galvanize global support, and at the same time allow for national variety. When we undertake these activities across the world, we think that we have an opportunity to move the agenda substantively forward.

We also recognize the important role of men and boys, and I won’t say too much because Gary will talk about this. It would be a luxury to think we could achieve our ambitious goals and the agenda without engaging men and boys and young people. For us at UN Women, these are critical constituencies. Religious constituencies, cultural constituencies, academia and the media are also critical constituencies for us.

I would like to leave Yale University with some asks. Of course, specifically concerning violence against women, where there are challenges on campuses, it is important to address them effectively. But it is also important for you to share your experiences, especially where you have established best practices, so that you are able to contribute to the body of knowledge.

To the extent that you are a premium institution that teaches law, it is important that you produce lawyers who are more in tune and more schooled in understanding issues of violence against women. We have found that in law schools in many countries the issue does not even arise. Law students graduate not even knowing that violence against women is a problem in their country. For example, in my own country, South Africa, where the problem is large, about four years ago, my daughter-in-law graduated and said “I did not even know the problem was so big until I left university”. So we think that you may play a role in mobilizing other universities around the world in taking this issue seriously.

We would like to invite you to actively participate in the campaign for equal pay. I saw that you are one of the countries that has a smaller gap — close it! It’s so close, it’s so close. Become number one.

And, of course, we would like you to look at how to can support the domestication of the Sustainable Development Goals so that, both in the United States and elsewhere, you can help countries adopt the goals. Look at how you could make sure that the goals work for all citizens of all countries.

We are the first generation with a real possibility to achieve significantly on gender equality. We are the first generation with the chance to end poverty. We are the last generation that can do something significant on climate, because if we do not do it, we leave the next generation open to many disasters.

So it is an exciting time for us to live in, but we have a lot of responsibilities. If we coordinate and work together there is much that we can do. In many of these things, if we are able to do them well, they will truly benefit women, improve their quality of life, and have an impact on the reduction of violence against women as well as on the structures that make violence against women recurrent, as well as an everyday occurrence in many communities.

Thank you.