Every March thousands of women and men descend on New York City for the annual UN Commission on the Status of Women. The signs are unmistakeable – queues of women snaking around the UN building waiting for hours to collect their UN Grounds Passes. African women in particular stand out, dressed in vibrant batik clothes underneath coats and scarves, keeping warm in the bitter winds. Every café surrounding the area is packed to the rafters with government delegations from across the world with NGO staff doing their best to find a few moments to lobby them over coffee between meetings.
To the uninitiated it’s rather overwhelming – the piles of paperwork needed to clear security, the official sessions for member states in the UN and the many parallel NGO sessions spread across the city which we use to share issues of concern and foster debate between civil society and government ministers. UN Member States meet at the General Assembly to review progress and make commitments on a pre-set theme every year.
For the 57th session in 2013, the issue debated is violence against women and girls. Its 10 years on since this issue was discussed at the CSW and whilst there have been some significant strides made, particularly in the area of sexual violence in conflict, much more work remains to be done.
Member states put together an outcome document by the end of the meeting which NGOs are trying hard to influence and to ensure that no commitments already made will be undone as has been the trend in recent years due to rising religious conservatism and fundamentalism.
From discussions during the first 3 days of meetings, we were reminded of the breadth and scale of the issue of violence against women and girls – that girls as young as one and a half years are raped in Malawi often in the belief that having sex with a young virgin will cure a man of HIV; that girls as young as 7 or 8 are being forced into marriage in Ethiopia; that 1 out of every 5 girls in Afghanistan can’t get to secondary school; that 40% of women around the world were married when they were still children; how 2 women per week killed in the UK by their partner or ex-partner.
On International Women’s Day, during the Commission, Plan UK held an event at a school in London to launch the report, A Girls Right to Learn Without Fear, with International Development Secretary, Lynne Featherstone. The research – part of Plan’s global ‘Because I am a Girl’ campaign – shows that worldwide an estimated 150 million girls and 73 million boys have experienced sexual violence. Nearly half of all sexual assaults worldwide are committed against girls under the age of 16.
Even for those of us who have been working on these issues for years, it’s still sobering to be reminded of the numbers.
There are success stories however – how the roll out of ARVs in Malawi has helped reduce the prevalence rates of HIV from 23.1% to 1%; how the establishment of the International Criminal Court is enabling more prosecutions of men committing crimes of sexual violence in conflict; how international campaigns such as Plan UK’s ‘Because I am a Girl’ is working at both community level and in schools, raising awareness of violence prevention.
Underlying many of the discussions however, is a reminder of the importance of prevention. That just treating the symptoms of violence will mean we’ll still be debating the issue in yet another 10 years. Also a theme emerging strongly is the need for holistic approaches to violence initiatives, understanding how issues are connected such as the links between violence and HIV and economic independence. For example, how women can be infected by HIV as a result of violence, how women often can’t leave abusive partners if they are economically dependent on them and so on.
A minister from the gender ministry in Zimbabwe talked about the need for ‘game changing approaches’ – how it was time for concerted action to look holistically at the issue behind violence and it wasn’t enough just to treat the symptoms. Repeatedly we are reminded of the fact that women and girls have less value placed on them than boys and men and that it is this discrimination together with social norms about the acceptability of violence that allows violence to continue. Many talked about the culture of silence around violence and how the only solutions that work are when girls and women – together with like-minded men and boys – are given the space and support to seek their own solutions. How ideas can’t be imposed from outside or above by governments and civil society groups but how they can support the collective action of women and girls themselves.
Several high profile cases of violence still ring loudly in our ears, such as the shooting of Malala in Pakistan by the Taliban and the gang rape and murder of a woman in Delhi, the sense of urgency to really garner political will and resources during these days in New York feels vital.
As the event draws to a close today, whether the outcome document will actually progress or whether it will merely hold firm on existing commitments made hitherto, remains to be seen.