Tackling FGM, violence against women and forced marriage around the world

High on the agenda was women’s political participation, ending female genital cutting, early and forced marriage, trafficking, and violence against women

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Today, country delegates at New York’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) meeting will end a week of debate as they lobby hard to shape an outcome, to step up efforts to combat violence against women around the world, at the end of the two-week long talks.

The theme of this year’s CSW session - when member states representatives come together at UN Headquarters to discuss gender equality and the advancement of women - has been violence against women, a subject much in the hearts of attendees and supporters alike. I’ve been following the talks avidly, eagerly waiting for the Commission’s final outcome, to see if there will be agreed action to address these issues.  I hope that they will manage to reach a conclusion this year, as without one, they risk discrediting the CSW and UN system more broadly following lobbying from conservative movements last year that led to an inconclusive result.

I was fortunate enough to attend the first week, along with representatives from 6,000 other international NGOs, attending many events and talks where experiences and issues faced by women across the globe were discussed. High on our shared agenda was women’s political participation, ending female genital cutting, early and forced marriage, trafficking, as well as the overarching issues of violence against women.

While discussing the establishment of a UN convention on violence against women, we were given an important reminder that violence against women transcends national boundaries and is prevalent in our own country.  Sammen Ali, an inspiring British activist and counsellor, who was taken to Pakistan to marry aged 13, revealed:

“No questions were asked when I was taken out of school. No questions were asked when I was pregnant at 13 in England.”

Hearing Sammen speak was incredibly moving, and I was greatly encouraged when I witnessed MP Lynne Featherstone’s announcement of Government plans to include an objective on reducing violence against women in its new Afghanistan strategy, as well as a strong commitment of £35million to address female genital cutting. It’s fantastic to know my own government is addressing the issue.

Many speakers explained how gender-based violence affects women in their own countries;  we heard how 48 women an hour are raped in the DRC, and  three million of the world’s woman are subjected to female genital mutilation every year, with 10% dying as a result. One of the most shocking examples I heard was how one woman in Burundi had both arms cut off by her husband because she gave birth to a second girl.  It’s incomprehensible that anyone could listen to these accounts and not be convinced of the need for immediate and concerted action.

Encouraging work by faith-based organisations in addressing this violence was great to hear about, especially in the developing work where the majority are profoundly religious.  It’s fantastic to hear how respected faith leaders are using their credibility, influence and spiritual guidance to change attitudes and behaviour in their communities. As one participant said: ‘faith is a great tool in the fight against violence against women.’

Yet, in a conference surrounded by women, I couldn’t help but think about the role men and boys could be having in tackling gender inequalities.  I can’t see the currently situation moving forward without their involvement in both supporting women’s empowerment and challenging destructive gender norms.  This is an area of work Christian Aid is currently exploring, and where we could have a real impact.

But there continues to be factors that have hindered negotiations.  A number of governments do not want to be held to account to provide services, instead shifting their duties onto NGOs and CSOs.  Others oppose reference to comprehensive sex education as it implies sex before marriage.  Similarly, there are efforts to include reference to sovereignty which would allow countries to opt out of the final agreed conclusions.  These developments are worrying as they go back on already established international agreements on women’s rights.  UK NGOs, including Christian Aid, are lobbying hard to counter these retrograde arguments, and we’re waiting with baited breath for the outcome document to see if our efforts have convinced country delegations.

I left my week in New York with mixed feelings – on the one hand, I felt overwhelmed by the devastating impact and scale of violence against women across the world, depressed that delegations can argue against sexual and reproductive health rights, worried that we may not reach a conclusion at this year’s Commission. On the other hand, I felt incredibly inspired  by the fantastic work that NGOs and other agencies are doing to tackle violence against women, uplifted by the role of faith leaders who are addressing violence and discrimination.  But most of all I’m hopeful that there is finally momentum behind the women’s rights movement. 

Next year the focus of the CSW will be on the plans that will follow the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which expire in 2015.  Christian Aid is working hard to encourage world leaders to put the rights of women and girls into the heart of these negotiations, and it was encouraging to hear both Secretary of State Justine Greening and UN Women’s Director Michelle Bachelet both reinforcing this within the last two weeks.

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