Huyen, 16, of Hanoi and Hakima, 13, of Kampala have traveled nearly 30,000 km between them to get to U.N. Headquarters in New York.
Both want answers to their questions. They want to know what the world is doing to resolve the problems they face in their daily lives just because they are girls.
In Huyen’s community, girls are constantly harassed by boys and men in their neighborhood. They cannot go out after dark and regularly face sexual advances by strangers and sometimes by those known to them. Hakima, on the other hand, is fighting hard to make schools safe for girls in her community. She holds weekly sessions to discuss incidents of violence reported by other girl pupils.
The perpetrators range from boys in the school to male teachers who inflict both physical and sexual violence on girls. Very often, girls in Hakima’s community drop out of education to save themselves from abuse.
Huyen and Hakima are spearheading child rights initiatives in their communities supported by children’s rights organization Plan International. They have joined thousands of campaigners who have descended on New York from around the world to persuade U.N. member states to take action to end gender-based violence.
The 57th annual session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), which started at U.N. Headquarters on March 4, will continue until March 15. This year’s priority theme is the “Elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls.”
The commission faces the usual challenge of convincing states to make commitments. The discussions leading up to the session have occurred amid global coverage of two high-profile cases of 2012 — the shooting of Pakistani schoolgirl and female education activist Malala Yousafzai, and the bus gang-rape and subsequent death of a 23-year-old New Delhi student.
The principal global policymaking body dedicated exclusively to gender equality and advancement of women will be using strong language at the session to get its message across. Among several recommendations, it is urging states to refrain from invoking any custom, tradition or religious consideration that would distract them from their obligation to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls.
Speaking before a packed audience of girl delegates on Mach 3, Michelle Bachelet, executive director of U.N. Women, set the tone for what is likely to be a keenly debated session. The former president of Chile said that, too often, states have used local customs and traditions as excuses for failing to act to stop violence against women and girls. She explained that lack of action meant little progress was being achieved to tackle issues like child marriage and girls dropping out of school.
The statistics cannot be ignored. The practice of early marriage, a form of sexual violence, is common in different parts of the world. More than 60 million girls worldwide are married before the age of 18, primarily in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. And up to 140 million women and girls alive today are estimated to have undergone female genital mutilation/cutting, mainly in Africa and some Middle Eastern countries.
Violence against women and girls is prevalent in all societies across the world. Estimates suggest that up to seven in 10 women globally will be beaten, abused, raped or mutilated in their lifetimes.
Most of this violence takes place within intimate relationships. According to World Bank data women between 15 and 44 years old are more at risk from rape and domestic violence than from cancer, car accidents, war and malaria.
The cost of violence against women is huge. In the United States alone it exceeds $5.8 billion per year for violence inflicted by an intimate partner. Of this, more than $4 billion goes toward direct medical and health care services, while productivity losses account for nearly $1.8 billion.
In Vietnam, the cost of violence against women is almost 2 percent of gross domestic product. Similarly, a 2004 study in the United Kingdom estimated the total direct and indirect costs of domestic violence, including pain and suffering, at £23 billion per year.
There are robust international legal treaties and agreements specifically dedicated to women’s and girls’ rights. They provide effective guarantees and protection for women and girls in their pursuit of respect, dignity, choices and fundamental freedoms.
Despite important progress made over the last few decades, there still remain significant challenges in ending violence against women and girls. For example, more than 125 countries have specific laws that penalize domestic violence. Yet, more than 600 million women live in countries where it is not considered a crime.
In recent decades it has become obvious that there are severe gaps between the commitments declared by nations and the actions that they eventually take. It is not uncommon for states to sign up to agreements but then fail to follow up with adequate implementation of legal and policy frameworks. There are additional problems in the form of lack of allocated funding and resources and of mechanisms in place to monitor or evaluate the enforcements.
Even though the CSW faces acute challenges, it still has great value in setting global standards to advocate for gender equality. Year on year it is relentlessly defining state obligations and creating tools for campaigners like Huyen and Hakima to fight for basic human rights in their social and political landscapes.
For the thousands now gathered in New York and the millions beyond, the message going out is loud and clear: Gender equality is crucial to achievement of human rights, sustainable development, peace and security and economic growth.
Ending violence against women and girls is not an option for states. It is an urgent priority.
Davinder Kumar, an award-winning journalist specializing in development issues, is a global press officer for the child rights organization Plan International. He is participating this week in the 57th annual session of the Commission on the Status of Women at United Nations Headquarters, New York City.