United Nations

UN addresses violence against women

UNITED NATIONS -- At a panel discussion on the problem of violence against women, Radhika Coomaraswamy told of a young Nepalese girl who eloped with a young man -- who then placed her in a brothel in India before disappearing.

The tale reflects the complex connection between violence against women and the abuse of basic human rights around the world.

That connection was among the key points that emerged at a panel discussion entitled "Violence against Women," held on 4 March 2003 during the 47th Commission on the Status of Women. Sponsored by the Bahá'í International Community and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the panel was among dozens of side events at the Commission.

The Commission this year addressed two major themes: 1) violence against women and girls, and 2) women and the media, in relation to their participation and access and to new technologies.

Delegates stressed that women be given more presence, voice, and visibility in the media, and deplored the degrading images they often portray. They also emphasized the urgent need to strengthen legislation on domestic violence, trafficking in women, and sexual exploitation, as well as to educate government officials and set up government bodies to protect and promote women's rights.

Indeed, the 4 March panel discussion reflected well the deliberations of the Commission, an arm of the UN Economic and Social Council.

"The promotion and protection of all human rights is one of the best ways to eliminate violence against women," said Mara Bustelo of the OHCHR, on 4 March. "It introduces the concept of legal obligations and entitlements. Protection from violence is not just something that would be nice for women to have, it is their right and an obligation for the State."

Violence against women is not always easily assessed, panel members said, because perpetrators attempt to justify some practices based on religious or cultural customs. Female genital cutting, honor crimes, and widow rituals fall into this category, and often women themselves participate in the perpetuation of such practices. In many cases, shame keeps women from reporting these incidents.

Denial of property rights and adequate housing threatens women in another way, said Ms. Bustelo, and is worsened by lack of legal protection in many parts of the world. War and armed conflict also pose particular threats to women's safety and dignity.

"As the Beijing Platform for Action outlines, violence must be assessed against the backdrop of the historical, social, political, cultural, and economic inequality of women," said Jean Augustine, Secretary of State for Multiculturalism and the Status of Women in Canada. "Violence against women touches every aspect of life. It is a social issue, an economic issue, a health issue, an awareness and education issue, a justice and human rights issue."

Ms. Coomaraswamy, the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, focused her remarks on the problem of trafficking in women and girls, which she said has increased in recent years as part of the "feminine side" of globalization.

As an example, she examined the case of the Nepalese girl who was sold into prostitution in India by her "husband."

"She was subjected to an enormous amount of torture, both physical and mental, until she agreed to become a sex worker," Ms. Coomaraswamy said. "After that she was taken to Bombay where she worked in Falkland Road, a place known for such activity, until finally she was rescued by a Nepalese NGO." The girl, now in an advanced stage of AIDS, is dying.

Cases like this illustrate the need for strong international conventions and strong national laws, said Ms. Coomaraswamy, coupled with "a sensitive police force which is not corruptible, a sensitive judiciary that actually convicts...and support services for victims."

Agreeing that violence against women is intricately entwined with human rights, Michael Penn, an associate professor of psychology at Franklin and Marshall University in Pennsylvania, USA, said part of the remedy is greater participation by men, along with a campaign of spiritual and moral education grounded in "universal human values already endorsed" by the global community.

"The global campaign to elevate the status of women, to promote gender equality, and to eradicate gender-based violence is most likely to be effective if it is fueled and upheld both by enforceable local and international laws and by processes that address the inner terrain of human consciousness, human values, and human spiritual and moral development," said Dr. Penn, who has recently co-authored a book entitled Overcoming Violence against Women and Girls.

Dr. Penn, who is a Bahá'í, also offered hope for humanity's global moral improvement by comparing its development to the life of an individual, marked by different stages of growth, suggesting that humanity be viewed as still immature, but not without potential. "When we understand an organism's capacities from a developmental perspective, we are able to nurture it with confidence," he said.

The Commission on the Status of Women, established in 1946, prepares recommendations and reports to the UN Economic and Social Council on the promotion of women's rights, and advances the principle that men and women should have equal rights. Following the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women, the General Assembly mandated the Commission to follow up on implementation of the Platform of Action.

By Veronica Shoffstall

Share