For the next 16 days, activists across the world will be joining UN Women in global efforts to end violence against women and girls, starting on November 25, International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, leading up to Human Rights Day on December 10.
For those of us working on this cause in the Arab region, the acute, extreme and tragic forms of gender-based violence are all too common. A year ago, we used the 16 days to highlight a particularly brutal example, the murder of Libyan human rights activist Salwa Bughaighis as she returned from voting in the general election in June 2014.
The tragedy of Salwa embodied so many of the worst aspects of Arab women’s experience in conflict, from the deliberate targeting of a powerful advocate for women’s rights to the apparent impunity of the killers. As friends and colleagues, we said that if the killers of Salwa could simply get away with their terrible crime, then no women is safe; when the murderers of women walk the streets with impunity, it is innocent women who live in fear, that is why we said Justice for Salwa is Justice for All.
The voices of protest that came from across the world have helped to build pressure, and earlier this year the UN Human Rights Council issued a Resolution requesting that the High Commissioner to “dispatch a mission to investigate violations and abuses of international human rights law in Libya that have been committed since the beginning of 2014.” Last month at the UN we talked to Mogens Lykketoft, President of the General Assembly, about the possibility of an international resolution to protect human rights defenders like Salwa. Last week, news broke that an arrest had been made, and a suspect apparently confessed to the murder. It is progress, but it is slow progress – a feeling all too familiar for women’s rights activists across the world.
While atrocities like the assassination of women who demand only their fundamental rights are easy for anyone to condemn, the 16 days are a global event, so it is important to understand how violence against women manifests itself globally.
For those of us concerned with ending violence against women, we know that while it is essential to address the extremes – the murder of women activists, the use of rape as a weapon of war – permanent change can only be achieved by addressing the fundamental fabric of our societies. The suppression of women – denying us our rights and our status as human beings – is itself an act of violence, and it should come as a surprise to no one that in order to maintain this oppression, brutal and sustained violence is necessary.
For us as activists, there is little difference structurally between the physical violence experienced by women in conflict and the violence that underpins, say, shutting girls out of classrooms, forcing young women into marriage, the mutilation of girls’ genitals or attacks on women and girl’s reproductive rights. We do not even have to look to countries in conflict to find women who have paid the ultimate price for the violence of our societies; no country – no matter how enlightened their leader, how equal their society or how developed their economy – has eliminated domestic violence, a crime that kills a hugely disproportionate number of women.
It is the same violence that bars women from entering a voting booth in Pakistan as that which validates the misogyny thrown at Hillary Clinton as she runs for the office of US President. The outcomes may be different, the daily challenges faced by individuals may vary, but the underlying cause is the same.
Over the years, I have been involved with many efforts aimed at ending violence against women. This year marks the 20th anniversary of Beijing Declaration as well as the agreement of the Sustainable Development Goals, the benchmarks for international development for the next 15 years. But women presidents and prime ministers, women politicians and judges, women diplomats and peacemakers remain the exceptions, not the norms. The UN itself has issued resolutions requiring that women must be part of conflict resolution and peace building efforts, but they are not enforced and women continue to be excluded from the forums at which their fates are decided. The experience makes us all vigilant, all too aware that while we have made measurable progress, we as women are not yet liberated.
It is welcome to see the Secretary-General continue to personally lead his UNiTE to End Violence against Women campaign. When, as we can see, the effects of structural violence reach every women, every girl no matter where they are, from streets of Aleppo to the corridors of the United Nations, unity is absolutely essential if we are to achieve a world without violence against women and girls. It may, however, take a little longer than 16 days.