Speech to Women’s Aid Webinar Marking UN Day for Elimination of Violence against Women
Video Message, 25th November, 2021
On this International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, it is a pleasure to congratulate Women’s Aid on their initiative in organising this important webinar and to participate in it and to be doing so as they launch a campaign of ‘16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence’.
Six years ago, in February 2015, I accepted the invitation of the then UN Under-Secretary General and Executive Director of UN Women, to become a Champion of the HeforShe campaign. In taking up this role, I committed to using the influence of my Office to convey the simple but important message: that men must walk in solidarity with women and girls around the world if women’s rights are to be fully achieved.
Today your organisation will present valuable findings from research on bystander intervention in intimate relationship abuse amongst young people in Ireland, as well as reporting on young people’s attitudes to, and understanding of, intervening in intimate relationship abuse amongst their peers.
On this important day, we can take stock of the small but significant gains achieved, but even more important is our reflection on the road still to be travelled with regard to the eradication of gender-based violence. This is a struggle that challenges us as long as there continue to be thousands of women who live lives as victims of unprovoked violence, some finding themselves trapped in cruel relationships, relationships that betrayed their promise perhaps, that at their origin may have been entered into with joy and hope for the future.
May I take this opportunity to thank again those on the frontline supporting victims and working to achieve zero tolerance for violence against women and intimate relationship abuse. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, emerging data and recent reports have shown that all types of violence against women and girls, particularly domestic violence, has intensified.
In Ireland, calls to gardaí regarding domestic violence increased by approximately 20 percent since the start of the pandemic. Figures for 2020 show that the number of criminal charges linked to breaches of orders under the Domestic Violence Act increased by 24 percent, to more than 4,000, while there were also more than 7,600 criminal charges for crimes involving an element of domestic abuse – up a quarter from 2019. These figures are shocking.
This phenomenon has been called the ‘Shadow Pandemic’, an appalling deepening of violence growing amidst the COVID-19 crisis, and we need a collective effort to stop it. As COVID-19 cases continue to strain health services, essential services, such as many domestic violence shelters and helplines, are past reaching capacity. Urgent action is needed. We need to prioritise tackling the issue of violence against women, particularly in our COVID-19 response and recovery efforts.
Violence against women and girls is one of the most widespread, persistent and devastating human rights violations in our world today. Kofi Annan, then Secretary-General of the United Nations, declared in a 2006 report published by the United Nations Development Fund for Women:
“Violence against women and girls is a problem of pandemic proportions. At least one out of every three women around the world has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime, with the abuser usually someone known to her.”
It is estimated that globally, one-in-three, or 736 million women, have experienced physical or sexual violence. Gender-based violence manifests itself in many forms – physical, sexual and psychological. It encompasses intimate partner violence (such as battering, psychological abuse, marital rape, femicide), sexual violence and harassment (such as rape, forced sexual acts, unwanted sexual advances, child sexual abuse, forced marriage, street harassment, stalking, cyber-harassment), human trafficking (including slavery and sexual exploitation), female genital mutilation, and child marriage. This appalling list must never either be shielded by any claim to cultural exception. These acts are basic rights abuses.
The adverse psychological, sexual and reproductive health consequences of violence against women and girls affect women at all stages of their life. Early-stage educational disadvantage, we should all know by now, not only represents the primary obstacle to universal schooling and the right to education for girls, but such disadvantage will go on to severely restrict access to higher education and translate into limited opportunities for women, not only in the labour market, but in their life choices.
While being a victim of gender-based violence can happen to anyone, anywhere, some women and girls are particularly vulnerable – for example, young girls and older women, members of minorities, women who identify as lesbian, bisexual, transgender or intersex, migrants and refugees, indigenous women and ethnic minorities, or women and girls living with HIV and disabilities, and those living through humanitarian crises.
Violence against women continues to cut across and defeat so much of our efforts at achieving equality and sustainable peace, as well as to the basic fulfilment of women and girls’ human rights. The promise of the Sustainable Development Goals – “to leave no one behind” – cannot be fulfilled without, as a priority, putting an end to violence against women and girls.
Every day 137 women across the world are killed by a partner or member of their own family. In Ireland, approximately 250 women have died violently since 1996, with two-thirds killed in their own homes. Domestic violence remains a problem at elevated risk for women who are part of a minority. According to the Women’s Health Council, non-indigenous minority ethnic women are over two-and-a-half times more likely to seek services from gender-based violence organisations in Ireland. Educating against violence in general and gender-based violence in particular cannot start too early.
Trafficking and sexual exploitation remain areas of gender violence that require not only increased international police efforts to tackle, but their support among the publics concerned. A study from the United Nations’ International Labour Organisation estimated that 3.8 million adults and 1 million children globally were victims of forced sexual exploitation in 2016, the majority of victims being women and girls trafficked into commercial sexual exploitation. Research has revealed, too, severe levels of violence amongst trafficked women: 95 percent of women had been subjected to physical or sexual violence, with 75 percent physically hurt, and 90 percent reporting sexual assault.
May I repeat that we must assert, and in the strongest possible terms, that there can never be any cultural rationalisation for gender violence, that such violence needs to be called out for what it is: an abuse of rights. However it is sourced, be it from a sense of entitlement, superiority, misogyny or similar attitudes in the perpetrator, or because of a violent nature, it must be confronted. This is a discussion which must be maintained, not just at the United Nations at every level, but within and between Member States.
Ireland has been a longstanding champion of the Women, Peace and Security agenda at the United Nations, and it is a key priority for our current term as an elected member of the Security Council to advance that agenda across our country-specific, regional and peacekeeping work.
But how can we as citizens play our part in the goal of eliminating violence against women and girls? First, we must listen to and believe survivors. The research Women’s Aid is launching today identifies the need for family, friends and colleagues to come forward, take the initiative, ask others to support victims of abuse, to call out abusive behaviours, and to act as active bystanders against intimate relationship abuse.
We must offer and demonstrate these actions to the younger generation, and learn from them too in terms of their experience. We must call for responses and services fit for purpose for survivors of gender-based violence, at every level, from Government to the street. We must understand what we mean by consent. We must be aware of the physical and emotional signs of abuse and learn how we can help. We must start a public conversation with citizens as to how we can increase awareness of this issue. We must take an unequivocal stand against rape culture, holding each other accountable. Finally, we must adequately fund women’s organisations who support those who have suffered from such violence.
Such a societal response would indeed assist in the achievement of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and specifically Goal 5 on gender equality.
As to the European Union, we know that violence against women remains under-reported. In Europe, only a third of women who are physically or sexually abused by their partners contact the authorities. That is one of the reasons why high-profile international days like this are so important.
May I conclude with a message to any woman who may be living in abusive circumstances to take the courage to seek help from organisations such as Women’s Aid, as well as An Garda Síochána. Your doing so will help break the cycle of domestic violence. By uncovering it, it can be ended. Out of the darkness of such abuse can emerge a brighter future of respect, dignity, freedom and equality.
Traoslaím le Women’s Aid. Beir beannacht