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RIGHTS: Gender Violence a Universal Norm, Says U.N.

Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Oct 9 2006 (IPS) - A 113-page landmark U.N. study on gender violence says women continue to be victims of sexual harassment, human trafficking and blatant discrimination worldwide.

“Violence against women persists in every country in the world as a pervasive violation of human rights and a major impediment to achieving gender equality,” says the first-ever in-depth report on gender violence released Monday by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Such violence is unacceptable “whether perpetrated by the state and its agents or by family members or strangers, in the public or private sphere, in peacetime or in times of conflict.”

The study, which is critical of U.N. member states that have failed to adopt laws criminalising violence against women, was drafted by an advisory committee of 10 high-level internationally recognised experts in the field of gender violence.

At least 102 of the 192 member states have no specific legal provisions on domestic violence, while marital rape is not a prosecutable offence in about 53 countries.

Only 93 states have some legislative provision prohibiting human trafficking. “Where legislation exists, it is often inadequate in its scope and coverage and/or not effectively implemented,” the report notes.

It also points out that many member states do not have sufficient support measures in place for women victims of violence.

“They also lack systematic and reliable data on violence against women that is needed to inform strategies to overcome such violence.” In addition, it says, discriminatory traditions, customs and stereotypes persist that perpetuate discrimination against women, placing them at risk of violence.

One European study quoted in the U.N. report says that of the 1,322 marriages across six villages in Kyrgyzstan, nearly half of the marriages were the result of kidnappings, and that as many as two-thirds were non-consensual.

In Britain, a Forced Marriage Unit established by the government has intervened in 300 cases of forced marriages a year.

And according to official crime statistics in India, 6,822 women were killed in 2002 as a result of violence related to demands for dowry – the payment of cash or goods by the bride’s family to the groom’s family.

The U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) has estimated that 5,000 women are murdered by family members each year worldwide in “honour killings” – crimes against women in the name of safeguarding “honour” within the family or the community.

According to the U.S.-based Alabama Coalition Against Domestic Violence, “40 percent of teenage girls, ages 14 to 17, say they know someone their age who has been hit or beaten by a boyfriend – and one of five college females will experience some form of dating violence.”

Jessica Neuwirth, president of Equality Now, said the new U.N. study is clear and comprehensive, and it notes repeatedly the connection between violence and discrimination against women.

She said it also notes the apparent lack of political will to take violence against women seriously, even though it is so pervasive and so deadly.

“There is nothing inevitable about violence against women, but it will end when there is the political will to end it,” Neuwirth told IPS. “All of the steps to be taken are set forth in the new report, none for the first time. The real question is when will these steps actually be taken?” she asked.

Asked if the rise in violence is due to a lack of political will or financial resources, UNFPA Executive Director Thoraya Obaid told IPS: “It is a combination of the two.”

At UNFPA, she said, “We strongly believe that the U.N. system and all other donors should provide increased resources for national action plans to prevent and eliminate violence against women and girls.”

“This, however, requires firm political commitment by governments at the highest level to condemn violence against women and to take action to eliminate it.”

She said that some political leaders – such as Africa’s first woman head of state Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf – are making this issue a priority and have put in place a series of impressive measures to address violence against women. “It is this kind of bold and visible leadership that is needed,” Obaid said.

Charlotte Bunch, executive director of the Centre for Women’s Global Leadership and one of the 10 experts who helped draft the report, said the United Nations and the international community are not to blame for the violence itself.

“But they are accountable for not making it a higher priority and not committing more resources to countering it,” Bunch told IPS.

As the report states, this issue is still vastly under-funded for the size of the problem – including the lack of funding for measuring the problem and assessing which measures are most effective in addressing it, she added.

Bunch pointed out that the United Nations has taken important steps to create a normative framework for addressing violence against women over the past 15 years.

“But now it must follow that up with more action and resources aimed at implementing those norms. In this regard, the problem is a lack of political will that is also expressed in the lack of adequate resources committed to the issue,” she said.

Obaid said one of the main factors that perpetuates violence against women is widespread impunity that not only encourages further abuses and suffering, but also sends the signal that male violence against women is, in fact, acceptable or inevitable.

“So we have to stop impunity,” she said. “I also believe that we will never put a stop to violence against women until men are made partners and both boys and girls are raise in a culture of mutual respect and responsibility, and equal opportunity.”

“We need approaches that are based on a deep understanding of the culture in which these violations are taking place and that rely on the active participation of the communities involved. Progress has begun and now we need to build on it and rally a response that is commensurate to the scale and scope of the problem,” she added.

Neuwirth said the United Nations is like a microcosm of the indifference that exists around the world when it comes to violence and discrimination against women.

“Sexual harassment scandals at the highest levels are generally swept under the rug, and United Nations peacekeeping personnel have not been held accountable for acts of sexual exploitation and other abuse, including rape.”

It is the resulting culture of impunity that perpetuates violence against women, she added.

“The secretary-general’s report is excellent but what we really need is leadership at the highest level of the United Nations in the form of action to end violence against women, not just another report followed by yet another resolution.”

For example, she said, he should take concrete measures to end inequality at the United Nations by recruiting women at the highest levels of decision-making to reach the established goal of 50/50, originally targeted for the year 2000 – currently stagnant at around 16 percent at the Under-Secretary General level.

And he should ensure that all acts of sexual harassment, sexual exploitation, and other forms of sexual abuse by U.N. personnel are swiftly investigated and that those found responsible are disciplined, or prosecuted.

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