Ending violence against women: the time is now, together

Remarks by UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, for the inaugural Annual Sonke Lecture at Johannesburg, South Africa on 2 October, 2017


Bafana Khumalo and the team of Sonke Gender Justice, thank you for this evening. I also want to thank the co-organizers of the conference, who share the same values and who I am sure will have been working with you every step of the way. Thank you for being here for this 10th birthday and for organizing this wonderful conference. To the eminent panellists, speakers and many people who are making this week successful, thanks to you too. 

It is an honour to give this inaugural lecture tonight and to have participated in some of the proceedings of the Five Days of Violence Prevention Conference. 

The fact that this conference is co-organized by women-led and men-led organizations is a sign of progress. Twenty years ago, we probably would not have done something like this. It makes it clear that the fight for gender equality is everyone’s responsibility—ordinary men and women, elected leaders, activists and people from all walks of life. Nothing less than people united in this purpose can overcome the gross injustices of gender-based violence, discrimination and gender inequality. 

In South Africa, we know firsthand about the violent crimes committed against women at home, on campuses and in public spaces. We are yet to see a sustained fight against these crimes that is in line with our far-reaching legislation and our progressive Constitution. That is why we have to continue to fight and to keep standing, so that we bring together everybody who has a responsibility to make these laws work better, to be inside the tent, and to fight for us with everything they have. 

This also is a fight that we, as the UN family, stand ready to not only support, but to be there every step of the way. As you know, in every situation where people are facing difficulties, the UN is the last man and woman standing. In this fight too, it shall be so. 

In 2017, gender-based violence targeting women and girls in the world is the most frequently committed crime. It is mostly committed by people that are known to the women and girls, people they love, which makes it difficult to report them to law enforcement. We also count as gender-based violence the crimes that are committed in public spaces and in situations of conflict. Yet, most of the perpetrators are never brought to book, even those that are known to the law enforcers and to the victims. 

Families, workmates, employers, trade unions, the media, law enforcement, public institutions, ministers—especially of justice, defense, health, social services, finance and education—and Heads of State need to lead this fight from the front. It is not fair to burden only Ministers of women and gender with this fight. These divisions and departments need to lead from the front. 

All of these parties need to use their considerable capacities to reduce the burden that is disproportionately carried by women in this fight, a fight that is universal and a prerequisite for sustainable development in every country and in every nation. This violation of women’s rights exists in every society, in every country, rich and poor, in every region, and in every culture. You would have thought that because it is so prevalent, by now we would have found the way to address this issue. The fact that we are sitting here, counting dead bodies, counting the number of women and girls whose lives have been stolen from them at an early age, tells you that women and girls’ struggles are yet to be taken seriously by those who have capacities to change the trajectory. 

Gender equality is a human right and gender-based violence is the most dehumanizing and horrific form of gender oppression. We have at least 1 billion women and girls affected by gender-based violence. The World Health Organization called this a public health pandemic because they know about this violence from dentists, from mental health workers, from orthopedic surgeons, from eye specialists and from counting bodies in the morgue. And yet, we have not seen a response that is proportionate to the size of the problem: one billion walking wounded in our midst. In South Africa, in Africa, and the world over, we have seen many walking wounded in our communities, in our homes, in our schools and in our place of work, and this has to change. 

Effective prevention has the potential both to prevent violence from occurring in the first place and to complement the actions of the response system to avert repeat cycles of violence. As we forge ahead with the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the attainment of gender equality and achievement of a world in which women and girls are free of violence is a fight we must win. 

The 17 SDGs are important and relevant for all nations represented today in this room and for this country. But we have to make sure that we use the lessons learned from both the context in our own countries and the shared context of our different countries to unite in a movement-building project that is both locally relevant and globally uniting. We have to make sure that we intensify the brotherhood and sisterhood in every corner of the world, and the time is now. 

In Goal 5 of the SDGs, which is dedicated to gender equality, ending violence against women and ending traditional practices that are harmful to women and girls are both enshrined. That is why we must aim for the most comprehensive mobilization of society to implement Goal 5 together with all other goals. We have to make sure that the consensus that now exists amongst nations provides for us a platform to hold leaders of nations accountable. We must make sure that in our country, the current political discourse that ignores the millions of young women and girls does not slow us down. We have a responsibility to forge ahead even stronger, because if not us, who? If not now, when? 

Supporting civil society is a critical part of our responsibility. We must support and strengthen the role of civil society actors and women’s rights groups so that prevention is anchored in the lives of communities. 

We must strengthen the alliance with men and boys, who must drive the change in the behaviour of men, and who must make sure that the dominant and harmful masculinity that is rooted in patriarchy is ended. This work is urgent and it cannot be delayed because the next generation must be introduced to a different value system in which good men are not silent bystanders, but are formidable activists and feminists, such as the men’s organizations and the men we have in this room. 

We have to make sure that the partners that we have, such as those who are part of HeForShe, lead from the front and transform their own space and themselves. 

We have to make sure that change happens everywhere and all at the same time. Because gender inequality is complex, it needs comprehensive responses. 

We must prioritize changing the behaviour that is stopping boys and men from addressing and rejecting patriarchy, which is destructive both to them and to society. We need to ensure that through this work, boys do not see patriarchy as their heritage, because when boys’ and men’s behaviour changes, a big part of the fight is won. It means perpetrators stop being abusive. It clears the path for women to fully take their rightful place in society and enjoy the privileges that so many men take for granted.  And it means that we can align the feminist agenda for women with the many other progressive agendas that men may identify with outside a feminist context. 

It also means that what is now a fringe movement—in terms of the movement of men and boys—can become mainstream. Because it is only when the movement of men and boys and men who are feminists become the majority and the mainstream, and when the men who hold on to patriarchy become those at the fringes, that will we have turned the tables.  This will require a lot from us, and we do not have the luxury to engage in petty squabbles amongst ourselves. The task is big and we need everyone, and ‘all hands on deck’. 

One of the most effective mechanisms for ensuring sustainable change in the lives of women and girls lies in supporting women’s organizations to build a strong social movement. Studies repeatedly affirm the impact of women’s organizations on lasting and effective policy development to end violence against women and girls. But alone, we know that women will take a long time to reach the promised land; 170 years to economic equality as the World Economic Forum suggests. We don’t have that time. The Inter Parliamentary Union study suggests it will take another 50 years for gender parity in politics. We don’t have that time. Millions of girls that will continue to marry older men who will abuse them and they will become mothers while they are still children; the scourge of gender-based violence continuing and staying with us—this price is just too hard to pay. That is why we need to do everything to shorten the journey to reaching equality. 

We know that there are promising interventions that can decrease the prevalence of gender-based violence and enhance gender equality. Some of them you have shared amongst yourselves and some of them we have discussed in the morning session. It is important that we meet regularly in this manner, because these are the type of fora where we are able to share good practices and to support one another. 

The fact is that we know in Uganda the SASA! programme has made a difference, and what it takes to bring that programme together, is not rocket science. This we can do in many parts of the country. 

We know that the participation of girls and boys in programmes that provide with early orientation to equality and respectful relationships makes a difference in who these girls and boys become as adults. We saw that in India, in the GEMS programme that involved boys and girls in schools. [1] 

We know that in countries where services are difficult to access, if we provide a One-Stop Centre, appropriate for the local context, for all of the critical services that women need when they have encountered a violent episode in their lives, that encourages many women to get out of harm’s way and be safe. Providing access to essential police and justice services at this type of centre also enables the police to build a strong case that can be brought before the court, though sadly we have yet to see consistent conviction rates in countries as a result, and much more work needs to be done to ensure that perpetrators are being brought to account for their crimes. 

On a positive note, we know that the training of law enforcers, as we have seen in the Caribbean, helps many law enforcers to overcome gender blindness in their management of cases relating to gender-based violence. 

We have seen in Finland the training of army recruits on anger management that is now compulsory for all of those entering the army. That is part of Finland’s HeForShe commitment and we have seen many countries in every corner of the world passing laws that address gender equality and gender-based violence. 

We have seen laws that ensure that perpetrators do not avoid punishment by marrying their victim—even a victim who is a minor, who after being violated is actually forced to become a child bride—where that is seen as a fair solution. There are more countries now that have passed laws to make sure that this is not possible. Just in the last couple of months, we have witnessed positive change in Lebanon, in Jordan, in El Salvador and in Nicaragua. 

We have also seen countries passing laws to end child marriage. In most of Africa, countries have passed the laws in the last five years. But we still have 22 countries in Africa that do not have laws to end child marriage, so our work is not done. In those countries with legislation, implementation is not up to standard. So, while we have to continue to amend and repeal discriminatory laws, we must at the same time broaden the number of those who ensure that implementation is effective. Again, this is where our collaboration as men and boys, as feminists, women’s organizations, as religious leaders, as traditional leaders, is critical. We know from South Africa that having good laws does not guarantee anything. What we see in South Africa, we experience also in many other parts of the world. 

We have witnessed the indifference of society to the suffering of women and girls. We have seen in some cases relating to violence in the workplace, violations of women in public spaces, or within families, that there is an expectation that the threshold of women to tolerate this pain is higher. We have had crimes that are committed against women being referred to as ‘crimes of passion’, not murder. When a man kills a man, it’s murder. When a man kills a woman, there is a passion for which the perpetrator needs some sympathy. This rhetoric has to change. 

In conflict zones, we have seen women who are affected by conflict or natural disasters, not only having to fight for their basic survival, but also to cope with being physically attacked or suffering sexual violence perpetrated by members of their families, or the very people that are supposed to look after them. 

This pandemic is everywhere. You would think that because of its scale, the whole world should be exhaustively looking for a cure. The fact that we have not reached that pitch in society is a big part of the problem. The fact, for example, that the media is unable to have a sustained campaign on ending violence against women is a real cause for concern. The media is another constituency in which we need to invest. 

In observing and learning about the good work that so many of you do, UN Women has identified 10 key essential principles for addressing gender-based violence:

Principle Number 1, is the importance of comprehensive laws that address violence against women in private and public spaces. These laws must ensure prosecution and protection, support and reparations for survivors as well as prevention of violence. 

Principle Number 2, non-discriminatory laws that specifically provide equal rights for women in marriage, divorce, property and child custody, thus enabling them to easily remove themselves from an abusive relationship. 

Principle Number 3, national action plans with clear benchmarks, timelines and allocated resources to implement the laws, which then enables us to monitor implementation and push for accountability. 

Principle Number 4, access for all survivors of violence for immediate protection and quality support provided in a coordinated and integrated manner, including medical treatment and police interventions, social, psychological and legal assistance and safe accommodation. 

Principle Number 5, systematic training of service providers, especially the police, lawyers, judges, social workers and health personnel to ensure that they follow quality standards and protocols. 

Principle Number 6, prevention interventions to address gender inequality and the social norms that condone violence against women through awareness raising, mobilization, engaging of men and boys, engaging all of those who are seen as custodians of culture and customs. 

Principle Number 7, systematic collection and analysis of data on the multitude causes and consequences of violence against women—disaggregated by age, ethnicity, disability, place of occurrence and other relevant characteristics to inform laws, policies and programmes. 

Principle Number 8, monitoring and evaluation of the impact of the laws and policies and dissemination of good practices. 

Principle Number 9, allocation of adequate resources and coordination, because there just are not enough resources to address the size of the problem. In many countries, if you look at the budget of ministers of women, that tells you everything about the attitude of most of our leaders towards gender equality. 

Principle Number 10, integration of actions to end violence against women into broader policies such as poverty reduction, housing, education, gender-responsive planning and development policies at all levels. 

Nothing short of this comprehensive programme will give us the results that we want. So, the news is that we need each other. And the fact is that in many of these places, men still have significant control and decision-making.  Only when they take a stand to make their positions and their authority work for men and women alike, and for all of society, would we see significant progress. 

We thank you for staying committed. We thank you for the support of the SDGs. And we urge you to work together, and to collaborate, in order to make sure that, by 2030, we can talk about substantive equality in a world where girls and women do not have to live with violence. 

Thank you.


[1] The GEMS (Gender Equity Movement in Schools) in India, introduced a curriculum in schools that engages boys and girls between the ages of 11-14 years in collective critical self-reflection through group education activities, enabling them to recognize and challenge inequitable gender norms and the use of violence in their everyday lives. This is coupled with school-level campaigns and orientation workshops with teachers, parents and the local community.