Opinion

A Breakthrough for the Health and Rights of Women and Girls

15 May 2013

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The agreed conclusions of the 57th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in March, 2013 promise to protect women and girls from violence and to initiate legislative and policy changes that will improve sexual and reproductive health and uphold reproductive rights. The Commission is a global policy-making group that meets annually to set worldwide standards and to create policies to promote sex equality and women's empowerment. The March session of the Commission focused on the elimination of all types of violence against women and girls. 

One in three women will be subject to physical or sexual abuse in her lifetime. 2 More than 600 million women live in countries where domestic abuse is not against the law.2 Even in countries where it is outlawed, gender-based violence still tops the list of civil crimes. Violence against women and girls has a profound effect on the sexual and reproductive health of millions of women and girls through increased vulnerability to unwanted pregnancies, forced abortions, and complications from pregnancy and delivery, and heightened risk of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV infection. 3

Violence against women and girls is a heinous violation of human rights and an affront to human dignity. An act of violence against a woman or girl is an act of violence against her health, her household, her community, and, ultimately, the development of her nation. Worldwide, violence—or the threat of it—from a partner or spouse denies millions of women their right to decide freely and responsibly whether, when, and how often to have children. In many countries, when a woman uses or expresses a desire to use a contraceptive, she might be beaten, raped, or, in extreme circumstances, killed. Such violence is exacerbated in conflict and disaster settings, where the risks are compounded by displacement, breakdowns in social norms, and poor access to services.3 Additionally, millions of girls continue to suffer from harmful practices that undermine their rights and health. These include, but are not limited to, child marriages, forced marriages, female genital mutilation and cutting, and preferences for sons manifested in prenatal sex selection.

The Commission's conclusions emerged after 2 weeks of intensive negotiations by United Nations member states in consultation with UN Women, the United Nations Population Fund, and other United Nations entities. They resulted in several ground-breaking measures to prevent violence against women and support the survivors of such violence.

The Commission reaffirmed women's right to health, their right to decide for themselves when or whether to become pregnant, and their right to be protected from marriage at too young an age and from female genital mutilation, cutting, and other harmful practices. The Commission also called for women's access to safe and supported pregnancies and births. The meaning of all these outcomes, in very concrete terms, is that a woman who is raped would have access to emergency contraception to prevent a pregnancy and access to medical, psychological, and social services to help get her life and health back on track. An adolescent girl would have access to contraception and avoid the complications and disabilities that can result from early pregnancy or delivery. No girl would have to undergo genital cutting or mutilation, or be forced into marriage.

The conclusions were also a breakthrough in the call for comprehensive, evidence-based sex education, women's access to emergency contraception, and to "safe abortion where such services are permitted by national law".1 What is particularly noteworthy about the conclusions is that they prohibit governments from using culture, tradition, or religion as justifications for violence and state that national sovereignty cannot be used as an excuse for inadequate progress in cessation of violence and in protection of the health and rights of women and girls and vulnerable groups, including those living with HIV, women and girls with disabilities, older women, pregnant adolescents, and young mothers.

To draw on existing human rights treaties (such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women) 4 and previous Security Council resolutions, and other international declarations and agreements, including the International Conference for Population and Development's Programme of Action, 5 the agreed conclusions established a new framework of accountability for governments. They also obligate governments to fund initiatives that will tackle gender-based violence and its effect on women's and girls' health and rights. Such initiatives include new legislation or the enforcement of existing laws, and the establishment or strengthening of services that address the health and psychological effect of gender-based violence, sexual violence in conflict, or harmful practices.

Although the Commission's decision is an extremely important step in the right direction, much work remains to be done. To address violence against women and girls in all its forms, a concerted effort encompassing many sectors, including governments, civil society, the private sector, and the United Nations, is needed. This effort should include actions that protect the right to health, including the full range of sexual and reproductive health services, information, education, and awareness-raising and capacity-building of police, prosecutors, judiciaries, militaries, religious and cultural institutions, and communities.

Violence against women and girls is intolerable and can never be excused, justified, or go unpunished. The health, rights, and life of hundreds of millions of women and girls are at stake.

I am an Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). I declare that I have no conflicts of interest.

References

1 United Nations Economic and Social Council. The elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls. http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=E/CN.6/2013/L.5. March 19, (accessed April 25, 2013).

2 Unite to end violence against women. http://www.un.org/en/women/endviolence/pdf/VAW.pdf. (accessed April 25, 2013).

3 UNFPA strategy and framework of action to addressing gender-based violence. Download. (accessed April 25, 2013).

4 United Nations. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/. (accessed April 25, 2013).

5 Report of the International Conference on Population and Development. Cairo, September 5—13, 1994. New York: United Nations, 1995. Download. (accessed April 25, 2013).

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