Listen Up: UN Must Hear Women on Violence

Listen Up: UN Must Hear Women on Violence

by Charlotte Bunch

Violence against women is an issue that has come onto the global agenda from the grassroots level of the women’s movement, that is, from women’s lives and feminist organizing. No issue better illustrates how the women’s movement can and has moved a concern from local women’s spaces to the tables of power.

Those tables of power now include the United Nations. At the Commission on the Status of Women meeting in February 2008 UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon announced the United Nations Campaign UNiTE to End Violence Against Women, 2008-2015. The campaign’s objective is to raise public awareness and increase political will and resources for preventing and responding to all forms of violence against women and girls in all parts of the world.

Over the past year, key agencies inside the UN developed a Framework for Action for what the campaign sees to achieve in all countries. (See Sidebar)

In March 2009, nongovernmental organizations that address violence against women across the globe met in New York with several UN agencies to offer their perspectives on the United Nations Campaign and its plans.

Keep Women’s Perspectives Close at Hand

Although it is easy to be skeptical about “another” UN campaign, I believe that feminists can use this opportunity to engage with governments and the UN on how they can deliver more effectively on their promises to work toward ending violence against women.

The Secretary General’s campaign must continue to build upon what women have done around this issue at the grassroots. The strength of the work around Violence Against Women is based on the fact that it touches women’s lives very deeply. As more men get involved in the Secretary General’s campaign and in working to end violence against women, we must ensure that men’s efforts are bringing forth the voices of women, rather than substituting for them.

The Secretary General’s campaign must be rooted in and empower women and their diverse voices. The UN needs to create a civil society advisory group for this campaign that represents the diversity of concerns that women’s groups and nongovernmental organizations raise.

Violence against women highlights both the universality of women’s experiences around the world, as well as the particularities of the diversity of women’s lives. The commonality is that almost all women experience violence, or the threat of violence, as a tool aimed at controlling us – our behavior and our bodies. But the forms and ways in which women experience such threats and acts of violence are shaped by many factors including race, class, culture, sexual orientation, age and physical abilities, as they intersect with gender. One-size-fits all solutions will not work. Remedies and efforts to end violence against women must be intersectional, particular and context-driven. This is especially important in relation to women whose lives and experiences are often marginalized, such as refugee and migrant women, sexual and racial minorities, disabled women.

Issues Keep Re-Emerging

In meetings of international groups working on violence against women, a few themes on the state of global work keep re-emerging. Six subjects are particularly important for the Secretary General’s campaign and the Framework for Action to address: Impunity, Prevention, Cultures of Violence, Data, Resources and UN Leading By Example.

1. Ending impunity: Quite simply, those who violate women should not get away with it, whether they are rebels in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) or celebrities in the U.S.A. Yet, impunity for violence against women is rampant everywhere.

Good legislation and national action plans addressing violence against women must be put in place, but the emphasis needs to be on their enforcement and implementation. There are many obstacles to implementation of these laws that must be tackled, such as community attitudes, lack of resources and inadequate information. Addressing these is key to holding states accountable for their failure to do due diligence in seeking to implement the laws already in place.

The Secretary General has created a high-powered network of male leaders who have signed onto his campaign: these men could be critical in calling for accountability and an end to community acceptance of impunity. Women’s organizations can seek to hold them and other men, such as those who have signed onto the UNIFEM “Say NO to Violence Against Women” campaign, accountable for the pledges they’ve made.

2. Using wise prevention strategies: Many women’s organizations are moving to a greater focus on prevention of violence against women. Often, the discussion of prevention becomes synonymous with discourse on “working with men and boys.” There are some useful approaches to involving men, for example, Breakthrough’s “Bell Bajao” campaign in India that calls on men to “ring the bell” and intervene as violence against women is occurring. These strategies encourage men and boys to be part of the solution and to address this issue with other men. But this must be done without letting men “take over” the issue.

The goal is to figure out everyone’s role in ending violence against women, including that of men and boys. But it is critical that men respect women’s leadership and voices in defining this issue.

The most important aspect of prevention is empowering women and ending the sexual discrimination that fuels violence against women. Changing the power imbalance in society and ensuring that women have access to their human rights – including their economic and social rights to livelihood – is ultimately crucial to preventing the ways in which women are made vulnerable to violence. This needs to be explicit throughout the UN Campaign, as well.

3. Addressing cultures of violence: No country or culture in the world is exempt from the problem of violence against women. It is crucial that we discuss how we understand the multiple means of perpetuation of cultures of violence in various locations in relation to violence against women.

Community attitudes that protect perpetrators are a key aspect of how culture still feeds impunity for these acts. Violence against women continues to be supported by the dynamics within cultures, both traditional and contemporary. It is important that we re-examine the ways in which culture often gets discussed in relation to gender-based violence, and stop singling out and separating so-called “traditional cultural practices” from other forms of violence against women that are also condoned by cultural attitudes or indifference. This distinction often reinforces global North/South divides and feeds divisive and patronizing attitudes about “the other” as more violent toward women.

Debates around culture connect particularly to sexual violence in situations of war and conflict. We must think more creatively about how to address cultures of violence as a contemporary problem that thrives in war and militarism, but is also present in post-conflict and so-called times of peace.

UN Framework For Its Violence Against Women Campaign
Key agencies inside the UN have developed a Framework for Action 
that identifies five key outcomes as benchmarks for achievements
by the Campaign UNiTE to End Violence Against Women, 2008-2015:
1. Adoption and enforcement of national laws on Violence Against
Women…in line with international human rights standards.
2. Adoption and implementation of multi-sectoral national plans of
action that emphasize prevention and that are adequately resourced.
3. Establishment of data collection and analysis systems…on the
prevalence of various forms of violence against women and girls.
4. Establishment of … campaigns and engagement of a diverse range of
civil society actors in preventing violence and [supporting those]… abused.
5. Systematic efforts to address sexual violence in conflict situations and
to protect women and girls from rape as a tactic of war…

4. Collecting accurate data: Accurate data is badly needed on the prevalence and incidence of various forms of violence against women. And it is equally important that data be gathered and monitored on what approaches and strategies have worked best to reduce violence against women in diverse settings.

Women’s organizations and NGOs have been calling on the UN and governments to collect more accurate data on violence against women since the 1995 Beijing World Conference on Women and its reviews – Beijing +5, and Beijing +10.

When the international advisory committee for the Secretary General’s Study on Violence Against Women tried to learn what was effective in working toward an end to violence against women, we realized there was very little evaluative information out there. We felt compelled to change the name of that chapter of the study from “Best Practices” to “Promising Practices” to emphasize the point that there is a dearth of information and a critical need for it.

Women’s groups and other NGOs need resources devoted to this in order to document our work and contribute toward a larger body of knowledge in this field. This data is crucial to determine priorities, to know what governments can and should do and to convince funders that this work is contributing toward change.

5. Allocating necessary resources: Every discussion with civil society organizations about countering violence against women raises the importance of resources. It is abundantly clear that work to end violence against women is woefully under-resourced both at the governmental and the civil society levels – from service delivery to making the justice system accessible for victims to education and prevention strategies.
Implementation of national plans of action depends on them being adequately resourced. It is particularly important that people working on the ground have access to resources for this is where the first impact must be felt. Reducing violence against women should be seen as a direct indicator for achieving gender equity, one of the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDG3) that will be reviewed in 2010.

6. UN’s leading by example: The Secretary General needs to call on the UN to lead by example in his Violence Against Women Campaign. Some parts of the campaign should look inward at the UN system and the UN’s own policies and practices as they relate to various aspects of violence against women. Some progress has been made in getting the UN to adopt a “Zero Tolerance” policy with regard to occurrences of violence against women by peacekeeping troops. But more efforts must be made to implement this policy, including getting governments who provide the troops to abide by UN policies.

There is more that the UN should do to reduce sexual assault and harassment by its civilian personnel and to improve its policies related to the treatment of spouses of UN employees and of diplomats, who are often left vulnerable to violence. Addressing such internal issues in a forthright manner would be a visible demonstration of how the Secretary General’s Campaign is not “just talk,” but rather something the UN does in its own house as well.

Going to New Tables, New Levels

The UN continues to be an important global public space for raising awareness of issues and promoting strategies to address them, as well as for monitoring government actions and seeking accountability from them. The UNiTE to End Violence Against Women Campaign has been initiated at the highest level of the UN and the Secretary General has a stake in how it evolves. Civil society and particularly groups working to end violence need to be deliberate in how we utilize this potential for partnership with the UN to take the work of ending violence against women to new levels of impact and to new communities.

Charlotte Bunch is Executive Director of the Rutgers University-based Center for Women’s Global Leadership, a co-convener of the March meeting on the Secretary General’s Campaign UNiTE. This article reflects some of her comments there. She thanks Keely Swan , CWGL coordinator for the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence International Campaign, for assistance with this article.

Also See End Torture, End domestic Violence by Rhonda Copelon in the Winter 2009 edition of On The Issues Magazine.

See RUINED by Lynn Nottage Links War, Horror and Prostitution by Alexis Greene in the Summer 2008 edition of On The Issues Magazine.