Speech: Two sides of the same coin: gender inequality and violence against women

Opening Remarks by UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, at the plenary session of the Five Days of Violence Prevention Conference at Johannesburg, South Africa


[As delivered]

My thanks to Sonke Gender Justice, MenEngage, Men for Gender Equality, FEMNET, Mosaic, Soul City, We Will Speak Out, and of course to my own colleagues from UN Women—thank you all very much for this event. I also want to thank the eminent presenters, panellists, South Africans and all those from other parts of the world, who are going to be here this week to help enlighten us and help us recharge.

These are really hard times. We need the strength to take on the challenges as they re-emerge. The statistics [on increased prevalence] that we have just heard are quite frightening, because the prevalence was already very high.

I’m glad that we are giving these discussions five days, because as Bafana Khumalo said, we will be able to take full advantage of the expertise that we have in a gathering like this. When we leave here we will truly feel that we have quenched our thirst from the wisdom of the other colleagues that are here.

The issue of gender-based violence is at the heart of human rights. It is in fact in many ways a determining factor as to whether we can ever have a just society. The level of tolerance for all aspects of gender inequality, including violence against women, sustains a narrative that almost accepts that you can oppress half of society and life goes on, as if nothing has happened. Our ability to change that narrative, along with many other people who are not with us and who might even disagree with us, is something that we have to find a way of addressing significantly.

We are now for the first time in a world with such a high proportion of young people. Fifty per cent of the world’s population are under 30: there are 1.1 billion girls in the world, and a quarter of them call Africa their home. The capacity of girls to change the world for the best would be missed if we are unable to address the issue of violence against women and girls, because they are facing all of the risks that are associated with violence against women.

Their life trajectories are a major factor in the world’s future stability and prosperity. Their lives and those of millions of women and girls around the world, are being stunted or halted by the violence that prevails in their everyday life. And because so much of this violence happens at home, for many of them there is nowhere to escape, nowhere to run to. A place where you call home, your refuge, is actually where you are most vulnerable. And if you are a young girl, and a child, where else do you go, if home is not safe?

Even though domestic violence has always been a big area of focus, I don’t think that we have developed interventions proportionate to the size of the challenge that address this violence that can be so private. I hope the discussions today, especially in the context of southern Africa, where we do not have the violence that we see in conflict areas, will address this issue of the violence that happens in the home, as truly something for which we need to find far reaching methods.

We are dealing also with the violence that is driven by some of the new challenges that we face in society. For those that are in conflict-affected areas, we now see that these conflicts are driven by non-state actors, whose cruelty and violence against women is something that the world has never seen before. Because ISIS and Boko Haram are non-state actors, it is difficult to bring them to account for what they have done to women and girls.

But at the same time, in many parts of the world, the violence that is perpetrated by states against women, in terms of numbers, can be higher than that which is perpetrated by non-state actors.

In Latin America, for instance, violence against women human rights defenders has reached a level that—if the State were focused on addressing this—would cause many governments to see this as a critical priority.

Another new challenge that we face is how technology is fuelling the trafficking of women, cyber bullying and many other forms of violence that we don’t even understand yet. When you add that to the traditional forms of violence that we know, like domestic violence, the norms, culture and stereotypes that oppress women perpetuate gender inequality, which expresses itself in violence.

We also have access to justice as a major challenge such that even in countries like South Africa where you have laws that are supposed to protect women and to prosecute any crimes against women, women just do not receive the justice they deserve.

Women and girls face far greater levels of vulnerability, marginalization and resulting violence, especially for those who experience multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination, like widows, elderly people, as well as women whose sexual orientation someone decides is not acceptable. Both men and women who face homophobia, all over the world, are also among the most vulnerable in our society. Add to them women with disabilities, indigenous women, and women who live with HIV and AIDS.

We have seen an increase in cruelty against women who are caught up in very difficult humanitarian crises. Right now, the Rohingya women fleeing to Bangladesh exemplify the trend of sexual violence against refugees. According to UNFPA, what we have seen in Bangladesh, in terms of sexual assault, is an ‘exceptionally high proportion’ of gender-based violence. This is another trend that is quite worrying, perpetrated against people who are already facing such a big challenge in Myanmar.

We are also challenged in many parts of the world by harmful practices like child marriage and FGM (female genital mutilation) that still continue. Africa is a major area of concern. On the one hand, we have been encouraged by the number of laws and governments that are forging forward, and addressing these cultural practices. However, the numbers affected are still staggering.

In the Declaration that was adopted in Beijing in 1995, you will remember that violence against women was highlighted. In the Millennium Development Goals, unfortunately violence against women was not addressed. We lost momentum, unfortunately, in that space. We are happy now that in the Sustainable Development Goals, violence is addressed in a comprehensive way. That should give us an opportunity to work across the world, because the Sustainable Development Goals have been adopted by all governments of the world. No matter where we are, we have a common platform and a common agenda to address violence against women.

However, we know that agreements, conventions, laws alone do not do the job. They help us to have recourse, they give us an organizing tool, but by themselves these will not address the challenges that we face. Yet we have seen progress in the fight to end violence against women, and we regard the Sustainable Development Goals as a platform through which to focus on how we actually end some of these practices, doing this at scale, and across the board.

In the last 20 – 25 years, we have seen the passing of legislation that addresses violence against women. In the last five years this has been quite intense. Some of the laws have been difficult to pass, such as laws that address honour killings. In some countries, they have been rejecting criminalizing domestic violence, introducing laws that address harassment at the workplace, and laws that protect minors from sexual violence. In a significant number of countries, where the perpetrators previously got an easy ride out of the crime that was enshrined in legislation, this has been addressed. But we still have a long way to go, because there are still countries where these laws exist. But nevertheless, it is important to recognize that there is momentum.

Development and progress has been uneven; as we have seen greater political will to address violent crimes against women, we have also seen pushback and the growth of right wing populism, which has eroded the gains made.

In 2015, we convened a forum of Heads of State and Government. Our feeling as UN Women was that issues of gender equality should not be left to ministers of women and gender, who in many countries have small budgets and limited capacity, and are not always given the support that they need. We said that the issue is so serious that the heads of state themselves need to be the ones leading from the front. In total 72 Heads of State attended that forum. What emerged was that the majority identified violence against women as the biggest challenge that they face in their countries, and that there was a need for them to lead from the front in addressing these issues. So, there is a level of recognition, but there has not been action taken that reflects the awareness that we thought we were seeing there.

When reviewing the implementation of the Beijing Declaration, we have also saw that the biggest elephant in the room in that agreement’s 20 years of implementation was gender norms and stereotypes. All the countries that wrote their report highlighted that as the biggest threat to the progress that they were making. I want to leave this with you as one of the areas that we need to address. We need strategies for this that we can scale and that respond to the specific conditions in different countries.

We have seen progress in countries like Kenya, Egypt and Liberia with FGM, where a broad array of public figures, of politicians, of civil society, of the feminist movement, have made sure that countries take concrete action to address the issue. In Kenya, for instance, there was a reduction from 40 per cent of women in 1984 to 10 per cent in 2016. In Egypt, the decrease was from 97 per cent to 70 per cent in the same period. In Liberia, there was a decrease from 72 per cent in 1983, to 31 per cent in 2013.

There are forms of violence where we have seen change, but because the different types of violence against women has such a big profile, it becomes a drop in the ocean. Nevertheless, this is something that we have to encourage to the extent that it begins to change the pattern of behaviour that will impact and have a positive knock-on effect on other forms of violence against women.

Globally, we have seen rates of child marriage slowly declining. But it is a problem that the pace is so slow. There are just too many girls who are at risk of being married to men they’ve never met, old enough to be their fathers, maybe they become mothers when they’re still children themselves. If the pace of decline is not quicker, we will not reach the levels of decline that we anticipate and need by 2030. So, it’s a mixed picture. We do have some encouraging signals, but overwhelmingly, I would say we face challenges.

In Latin America, we have seen trends where countries are able to organize themselves as a region to address the acts of violence that are most prevalent in that area. Femicide in Latin America is a serious challenge. Now 80 per cent of countries in that region have adopted a protocol, through which they are developing and designing common programmes so that they can create peer pressure and enhance learning between and amongst themselves.

Coming back to our own country and to our own region, we need to organize ourselves, as SADC, as the region, so that we can also strengthen our capacity to fight together. We do have common forms of violence against women. The violence that we have seen is a challenge in South Africa, is a challenge in Lesotho, and is a challenge also in the region in general. The level of cruelty that we see there, and the inability of law enforcement to take the kinds of corrective and responses that we expect, the un-sustained outrage of society over crimes like that, means that we truly have to go back to the drawing board to see what we need to do.

The mobilization of men and boys is an important component of our response. It is important to engage men in changing their own behaviour more than protecting women and girls. Because there’s nothing wrong with women and girls. If men’s behaviour changes, there would be no need to protect girls. We need this dialogue between men to be much stronger than it is today, so thank you to all of you here today to fuel that narrative.

We have also seen that in some countries, where leaders begin to lead from the front, they determine the values and the narrative that will prevail in society. You also need the voices of local counsellors, of provincial leaders, and of heads of state. And in countries where you do not have that zero tolerance amongst leaders, it means that the role of civil society is even more critical. Yet we know that right now also civil society in many countries has its back against the wall. Part of what we need to be discussing also is, how do we strengthen civil society? What should the United Nations do more to strengthen civil societies, in countries where clearly civil society, the women’s movement, and young people, do not get the kind of support that they should be getting from their leadership and from their government?

Gender inequality and violence against women are two sides of the same coin. So, we should fight this equally and in the same way. We cannot fight for focus on one and neglect the other, because, again, we will not get sustainable and life-changing results.

We have seen some examples of countries, of civil society, of stakeholders, who have tried different ways to address gender inequality with some promising results. Maybe it’s too early to regard them as trends, but nevertheless they are important to mention.

Statistical evidence has shown that in Uganda and in some parts of South Africa, intimate partner violence more than halved when gender norms were tackled. A school study showed that the attitudes of boys and girls towards violence changed because of the sustained level of engagement that was directed to them. In Uganda, we learned that violence was reduced by 52 per cent through a community mobilization programme that engaged women and men, religious and community leaders, to change related social norms. That programme has also been adopted by other countries as far from Uganda as the Pacific region.

We also know that in India, girls and boys aged 11 to 14, who participated in a school-based curriculum and campaign activities to address gender equality and violence against women, were more likely to develop gender equitable attitudes towards gender roles and norms and to challenge the use of violence as well as to challenge their peers.

We have a programme in UN Women called ‘Safe Cities’ with 27 participating cities that address gender-based violence in public spaces. Through that programme we have seen municipalities changing by-laws, addressing simple things like lights in the streets where attacks on women are prevalent, increasing the capacity of the security officials to patrol areas that were identified as hotspots for violence against women, and addressing violence in public transport. Again, this is about protecting women in a situation where you actually want this violence not to happen in the first place. This is important, but our focus should be about ensuring that the violence does not occur in the first place, and that of course there is zero tolerance amongst authorities. There must also be community and peer pressure at home and in the communities where this violence takes place.

We have seen in Brazil ‘One Stop Centers’, where the different services have been brought together that women require when they have been attacked, so women can be served when they are in need. The success of these initiatives, obviously, still needs to be reviewed and evidence still needs to be collected so that we can see what exactly is working in these One Stop Centers. We have seen similar initiatives in Rwanda, the Isange Centers, which also provide one-stop centres that are now being rolled out in 26 locations. We do not yet have enough data and evidence whether women’s increased ability for women to go somewhere as a survivor of violence translates into the reduction of prevalence. It is the reduction of prevalence that is probably the biggest goal that we have.

Having said all of this, and looking at this mixed picture, we face a big challenge when it comes to the implementation of the good laws that we have passed. This is something that we need to address: the accountability of authorities, the lack of justice or poor access to it; the poor investment in gender equality programmes of all sorts; the difficulty of scaling up good interventions; the importance of addressing social norms starting at a very early age; and the importance of focusing on ending some of the forms of violence against women through working in a targeted and consolidated way, in specific geographic areas.

Recently you may have heard that the EU has promised to fund specific regions of the world to address certain forms of violence against women in collaboration with the UN and in collaboration with broader actors, civil society and government. In Asia, they have committed to address trafficking. In Latin America, they have committed to address femicide. In the Caribbean, they have committed to address domestic violence. And in Africa, they have committed to address cultural practices and sexual assault. This Fund, which is 500 million euros, is significant in itself because we have never seen this level of investment. We hope this money will crowd in more resources so that all of the stakeholders, many of them in this room, will be able to find the benefits and resources needed for your work to be taken to scale and to depth, and for the work to have life-changing impact. And I hope that as we get clearer and clearer about how this initiative will work, we will continue to be in touch with you, so that we strengthen our collaboration.

Thank you.