Interview

1. Why should the UN pay attention to violence against women and girls?

I think the UN is an ideal place to take the issue. The most important reason is that violence against women and girls is the most universal and pervasive kind of human rights violation. The founding principles of the UN include development and peace for all women and men equally as a human right.

2. How have the UN conferences and treaties helped?

I have great respect for the many UN policy and legal instruments that promote women’s human rights, gender equality and women’s empowerment. These carry the weight of world opinion that can be used to set standards of good governance and legal reforms. Those consensus documents are the beginnings of policy and legal reforms at national levels—our main tools of defining standards of justice and social norms. Good laws prevent as well as punish crimes. I remember that during the OJ Simpson trial, when men learned about how he beat up his wife, a man in a bar turned to another and said “You know, we can’t do that any more without getting into trouble.” We need all of the public policy and legal leverage possible, and those provided at the UN are some of the best.

3. How do you think we can get policy-makers, particularly hard-nosed politicians on board?

The World Bank states that “gender equality is good economics.” Any country that wants to accelerate growth is gong to have to solve its gender inequality problems. If you want to speed up and scale up action on climate change, you will have to engage the women who make most of the household energy, water, and food choices.

I’d like to add, “gender equality is good for democratic governance.” When women are free from violence, they exercise their voice, and that helps change the public agenda. This isn’t just rhetoric—we have good proof.. The World Bank report of 2012 said that when women got the vote in the US, lawmakers turned their attention to child and maternal health, which helped lower the infant mortality rates 8 to 15%. Imagine an entire new generation that never heard of violence against women, and the full potential of all girls is unleashed.

4. If you could ask world leaders gathered at the UN General Assembly to do one thing—what would that be?

Sexual harassment on campus
Sexual harassment on campus

One of the most powerful and least expensive ways to prevent violence against women and girls is for the world’s leaders to consistently and publically say that it is wrong. For example, university presidents have to be more vocal to end rape and sexual harassment on campus. Some men have already set a good example. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has made ending violence against women and girls a top priority. His UNiTE campaign is having a great impact worldwide, but it needs more funding. In May 2013, President Obama stepped forward to support same-sex marriage. There were no laws passed, no enforcements put in place, but with this public and very visible announcement, the terms of the national debate were changed. These actions help to redefine what is acceptable male behaviour and that can make all the difference.

5. The UN and the international women’s movement have been trying to end violence against women and girls for decades. Why do you think it has been such a long and hard battle?

It took many years for violence against women and girls to be understood. Not long ago, talk about violence referred to the silent and private agony of battered women in the home. Today, we understand that violence is a societal pathology that takes other insidious forms—rape during conflicts, female genital mutilation, forced early marriage, sex trafficking, sexual harassment, and femicide. Many groups face multiple discriminations, including indigenous women, women and girls living with disabilities, the homeless, widows, women and girls living with HIV/AIDS, migrant and internally displaced women, refugees, women in the military and incarcerated women. Those complexities made it hard for us to see the common denominator—unequal power relations between men and women.

6. How much longer do you think it will take to end violence against women and girls and how can it be achieved?

It is possible to end gender discrimination within our lifetimes, but we need to make sure that the average citizen knows how to leverage world opinion. I believe that we have a golden opportunity to raise world awareness in 2015 as we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the UN Fourth World Conference on Women. We also have to be smarter about why small-scale projects aren’t working. Violence against women can’t be solved by a few school projects or public health campaigns. We could have shelters for battered women on every city street corner—that still wouldn’t make families safe. Our approach has to be a comprehensive package targeted at unraveling patriarchal privilege at the core. The UN is an important place to look for multi-cultural solutions.

Do you have a question for me? Please email MyUN@Soon-Young.com.

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