A Promise is a Promise: Time for Action to End Violence against Women

Dr. Noeleen Heyzer, United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary for UN ESCAP attending an event in commemoration of International Women's Day 2013 in the Asia-Pacific.
UNESCAP/Wilasluk Aurtaveekul

Excellencies,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Introduction

International Women’s Day has a long and inspirational history – of bold leadership, of mobilization and solidarity, of courage and sacrifice, and of organizing for equality, dignity, and change.

International Women’s Day was established at a time of great transition, following a rally in 1911 in Europe for the right of women to vote, and sparked off when more than 140 working women died in a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City. Locked in by their manager, to ensure that they would work, they lost their lives trying to escape the flames.

Our annual commemoration of International Women’s Day should always recognize the power of this history – a lineage of leadership in the women’s movement, whose struggles for equality, dignity, justice and peace, have broken barriers, built opportunities and continue today, helping to shape a better world for all.

I thank you most sincerely for this honour, and I accept this dedication, not as a personal achievement, but rather as a tribute to all women who have made a difference. I was privileged to have had the chance, and to be given the space, to contribute to this transformational leadership for change, first as Executive Director of UNIFEM and now as Executive Secretary of ESCAP, although my work with the women’s movement began much earlier than that.

Women’s leadership has to be transformational. It cannot just be ordinary leadership for the status quo, because we have to transform the deep structures of discrimination in our societies, turning around exploitative power relationships so that we can all live in equality and dignity.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Movement to End Violence Against Women

The movement to end violence against women is perhaps the best example of transformational leadership, and the greatest success story of international mobilization and leadership around a specific human rights issue. It has led to our articulation of international norms and standards that say “never again!”

Violence against women was, as we have heard today from the survivors, the darkest secret, couched in silence and taboo – a manifestation of unequal power relationships, the low status of women, and entrenched structural discrimination.

We cannot allow violence against women to be normalized and accepted as cultural. It is not cultural, it is criminal. As Nafis Sadik has said: “No value worth the name supports the oppression and enslavement of women. The function of culture and tradition is to provide a framework for human wellbeing. If they are used against us, we will reject them and move on, we will not allow ourselves to be silenced.”

We cannot have, in the 21st century, missing women and girls, female infanticide, bride burning, acid attacks, and violence in our homes. We need to break the silence and the cycle of violence.

Until the 1990’s violence against women was a taboo subject of discussion, even in international forums analyzing women’s human rights. In fact, even the landmark international Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women focused on political, civil, and economic rights. Except for trafficking in women, violence against women was not included.

Women however mobilized around sexual violence in war and conflict, around trafficking, domestic violence, and sexual harassment, and came together in 1993 at the International Human Rights Conference, and declared that women’s rights are human rights, and that ending violence against women had to be at the core of these rights. This was brought to the Cairo Conference on Population and Development in 1994, Chaired by Dr. Nafis Sadik, and on to the 4th World Conference on Women, in Beijing in 1995. I was very honored to bring it to the Security Council in 2000, with the adoption of Security Council Resolution 1325. I made it extremely clear that women were not victims but rather agents of change who must have seats at the negotiating and peace tables, and must also engage actively in reconstruction.

What a difference women’s leadership and mobilization has made. International standards have been set, not just in international documents, but also in everyday life. These norms and standards were a result of the work of the women’s movement and leadership to end violence against women. For the first time, they asked for state accountability to act decisively on issues related to violence against women; they called on Member States to pass national legislation, to formulate national action plans, and to allocate the necessary budgets for implementation; they called on states to sensitize and train their criminal justice machinery, including police and judges; to collect data and to provide social services to support victims of violence. They also stated clearly that custom, religion, and tradition should never be used to justify violence; they asked for prevention, protection, provision of services and also the ending of impunity.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Conclusion

In conclusion, this dynamic interaction between the international, regional and local, has created the landscape and space for imaginative interventions, and a plethora of strategies to confront what is now accepted as a pandemic that must be stopped. It has already inflicted unspeakable pain. It has destroyed our communities, our homes, and our worlds, internal and external.

So today, on International Women’s Day, let us affirm that women want a world where equality is present in every country, a world free from poverty, and all forms of violence and discrimination, where basic needs become basic rights, where women develop their full potential, and where progress for women is progress for all.

I thank you.