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Preparatory Meeting Begins Panel Discussion on Women and Violence

Published:20 January 2000

Geneva

Stronger Response Urged Throughout Europe

Participants in a panel discussion this morning on "women and violence" told a European preparatory meeting on women's concerns that the problem was pervasive and that responses to date were insufficient and underfunded. Such violence would not be ended until broad-based discrimination against women that left them vulnerable and socially undervalued was overcome, speakers said.

Violence against women in war and other conflict situations also was condemned and greater consideration of gender issues was called for in humanitarian responses to armed conflicts.

The Regional Preparatory Meeting on the 2000 Review of the Implementation of the Beijing Platform of Action divided the discussion on women and violence into two parts; the morning session began with debate on domestic violence and on trafficking in women and girls. Later the focus was shifted to the topic of violence against women in armed-conflict situations; review of this second issue will continue this afternoon.

The panellists for the first part of the debate were Charlotte Bunch, President of the Centre for Women's Global Leadership, of the United States; Goran Lindberg, Chief Commissioner of the Uppsala County Police Department and Expert Adviser on Gender Equality for the Government of Sweden; and Ruth Dreifuss, Federal Counsellor of the Interior Federal Department of Switzerland.

Ms. Bunch said that when it came to violence against women, there were no "developed countries", and that while the problem was increasingly recognized, there had been little progress in ending it. "Nowhere," she said, "is the gap between rhetoric and reality larger".

Mr. Lindberg told the meeting that discrimination and undervaluation of women was widespread and continuing; women still were not considered as valuable as men, and until they gained equality violence against them would continue.

Ms. Dreifuss, who focused on trafficking in women and girls, said that in Europe at least 300,000 women were estimated to be involved. While economic difficulties in eastern Europe were exacerbating the problem, she said, it had to be noted that demand for trafficked women was growing in wealthier "countries of destination".

Panellists on the topic of violence against women in situations of war or conflict were Laura Balbo, Minister of Equal Opportunities of Italy; Marijana Grandits, former Member of Parliament and a political scientist and consultant, of Austria; and Jadranka Milicevic, Member of the Managing Board of Zene Zenama and Women in Black, of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Ms. Balbo, in her introductory statement, said women should be involved in designing and carrying out humanitarian responses to armed conflicts and should be the primary actors in the reconstruction of their lives and communities. Most gender-based acts of intolerance and revenge during armed conflicts were practiced by men, yet few women actively opposed them, and those who did often acted in isolation, she said.

Ms. Grandits said violence against women during armed conflict was only a continuation of violence against women in times of peace -- it was important to remember that those who committed such acts were also fathers, brothers, and sons; if they did such horrible things during war it meant that such acts were acceptable to them in times of peace; and as long as society allowed violence against women in times of peace it would continue to be carried out in more extreme form in times of conflict.

Ms. Milicevic told the meeting that the victims of war and armed conflict were most frequently women and children -- it sometimes seemed that women were not considered human, that one could not be human and a woman at the same time.

Those offering comments and asking questions from the floor included members of national delegations, representatives of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and officials of international agencies.

Toward the beginning of the meeting a minute of silence was observed in memory of women and men who had died as a result of violence.

The preparatory conference, organized by the Economic Commission for Europe (ECE), in partnership with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), the UN Division for the Advancement of Women, the Council of Europe, and the European Commission, will continue through Friday. Its purpose is to provide European input for a special session of the United Nations General Assembly entitled "Women 2000: Gender Equality, Development and Peace for the Twenty-First Century" to be held in June in New York. The General Assembly will focus on progress made in the wake of the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing five years ago.

Providing comments from the floor during the meeting were representatives of the NGO Caucus on Violence against Women; United States; France; Women for Women's Human Rights; Austria; European Women's Lobby; Italy; Norway; National Women's Information Centre of Poland; Greece; Denmark; Turkey; World Population Foundation; Israel; Belarus; NGO Caucus on the Status of Women Working Group on Girls; Sweden; Azerbaijan; and Ukraine.

The preparatory session will resume at 3 p.m. to continue its panel discussion on women and violence. At the conclusion of that debate, a panel discussion will begin on the topic of women in power and decision-making.

Statements of panellists

CHARLOTTE BUNCH, President of the Centre for Women's Global Leadership, of the United States, said one of the greatest gains of the women's movement recently had been to put the issue of violence against women on the global agenda; when it came to such violence, there were no "developed countries". Such violence affected the realization of other rights of women. While the problem was recognized, there had been little progress in ending it over the past five years -- nowhere was the gap between rhetoric and reality larger. Funding was nowhere near sufficient. Systematic national and international campaigns were needed on the scale of those launched against smoking and other hazards. The solution would not be simple; multi-faceted strategies were needed that attacked root causes.

In the United States, many women's shelters reported that it was vital for victims of domestic violence to be able to find jobs and child care to escape situations in which they were prone to violence. Education and prevention strategies that countered prevailing attitudes and attacked improper portrayals in the mass media also were necessary. Offenders had to be held accountable for their actions; the greatest cause for such continuing offenses was that men thought and believed they could get away with it. Legal discrimination against women in relation to violence had to be rectified -- many countries still had not outlawed domestic violence or related offenses, such as incest. Clear guidelines for those in the justice system and training for law-enforcement officials in dealing with issues of violence against women were critical. More data and research were also needed, based on uniform standards and indicators. A feminist human-rights perspective on trafficking in women required that all steps to end such offenses look at the matter from the point of view of the well-being of the women involved.

GORAN LINDBERG, Chief Commissioner of the Uppsala County Police Department and Expert Adviser on Gender Equality for the Government of Sweden, said there was an enormous amount of violence in society, and men accounted for the overwhelming proportion of it. Violence, unfortunately, often was glorified. In Sweden, violence committed by men against women and children had been increasing and had grown more severe in character. Every week a woman in Sweden was murdered in a case of domestic violence; every hour in Sweden a woman was beaten in a domestic incident. It was a myth that men who beat women were usually drunk or otherwise abnormally stimulated; men who beat women were everywhere and were present in the course of normal life. At root, such violence was a matter of value; if a man looked upon a woman as having equal value to himself, he would not beat or rape her. But the truth was that discrimination and undervaluation of women were widespread and continuing: women in fact were not considered as valuable as men.

Only a broad response attacking this pervasive discrimination would succeed in ending violence against women. Economic discrimination had to be ended and women's roles in child-raising and homemaking had to be recognized and given greater value. When cases of violence did occur there had to be an immediate response; police had to be sensitive to the issues involved; victims needed to have legal aid; all authorities involved in the process should be well-trained; and women needed to be provided with medical and social aid. Follow-up contact with victims was vital -- in Sweden the police checked in every week with former victims and provided greater protection if it was needed.

RUTH DREIFUSS, Federal Counsellor of the Interior Federal Department of Switzerland, said violence against women remained the most shocking manifestation of inequality between women and men. Women who were economically dependent could not effectively defend themselves against such attacks, and social attitudes reinforcing the myth of male superiority/female inferiority perpetuated the problem. Trafficking in women and girls was carried out by organized criminal groups who played on such attitudes and economic weaknesses. Law-enforcement efforts to fight the practice were in general too fragmented; national Governments had to recognize that such trafficking was threatening to undermine their societies; trafficking represented one of the most flagrant and widespread violations of human rights in Europe.

The treatment of women and girls who were trafficked was utterly unacceptable. In Europe, at least 300,000 women were estimated to be victims of trafficking. Economic difficulties in eastern Europe were exacerbating the problem, but it also had to be noted that demand for trafficked women was growing in countries of destination. In most cases the victims were only seeking better futures for themselves and their families; once these women crossed borders, their papers were taken away from them and they were forced to engage in prostitution or in virtual slave labour. If there was no demand for these abysmal services, they would not occur, and the victims would not perform them if they were not under duress. Resolving the problem required attacking the root causes of economic and social insecurity that made women vulnerable, and required ending such unacceptable activities as sex tourism.

LAURA BALBO, Minister of Equal Opportunities of Italy, said the war in the Balkans last year had made a difference in the way Europe addressed issues of conflict and peace; Europe's inability to prevent conflicts over the past decade on its own soil was a tragic reminder of how far Europe was from implementation of the Beijing Platform of Action. Reducing the risk of conflict and making social and economic reconstruction as effective as possible were part of protecting women in times of armed conflict. Civilian populations had been targets in recent conflicts. It still was not realized how crucial the gender factor was in such crises -- for example, gender was not yet sufficiently considered in the design and management of refugee camps. It also was time to consider women not as "weak" victims but as potential agents of positive change. Women should be involved in designing and carrying out humanitarian responses to armed conflicts and should be the primary actors in the reconstruction of their lives and communities.

Introducing a gender perspective into military action was complex and difficult, as the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia had indicated; but a clearer focus was needed on how gender had or had not been considered effectively in peacekeeping operations in the Balkans. Most acts of intolerance and revenge were practiced by men, yet few women actively opposed them, and those who did often acted in isolation. Domestic-violence rates were reported to be high in post-conflict situations, and so peacekeeping and humanitarian-response activities had to take this into account and act to prevent such abuses.

MARIJANA GRANDITS, former Member of Parliament and a political scientist, and consultant, of Austria, said a new millennium was beginning and unfortunately violence against women in times of war was still a serious problem. It was necessary to admit that the pattern of warfare had changed greatly in recent years; women and children now were the most frequent victims; in Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, 75 per cent of those killed were women and children, and the great majority of refugees were women and children. Rape, forced prostitution, and other forms of sexual violence were being used more often as a tool of war. Although it was sometimes said that rape in Bosnia and Herzegovina marked the first such occasion of systematic use of this "tool", that probably was not true -- instead, Bosnia and Herzegovina had been the first time such systematic violations had been talked about and recognized. This awareness raising was valuable.

The connection had to be stressed that violence against women during armed conflict was only a continuation of violence against women in times of peace -- it was important to remember that those who committed such acts were also fathers, brothers, and sons; they could not change context so thoroughly; if they did such horrible things during war it meant that such acts were acceptable to them in times of peace; as long as society allowed violence against women in times of peace it would continue to be carried out in more extreme form in times of conflict. Impunity must be ended; those known to have committed such atrocities during the recent conflicts in the Balkans, for example, must be brought to trial, and it had to be noted that peacekeepers themselves had been known to commit violence and sexual offenses against women, and should be held accountable for such human-rights violations.

JADRANKA MILICEVIC, Member of the Managing Board of Zene Zenama and Women in Black, of Bosnia and Herzegovina, said the mistakes made in the formation of the new European democracies and the frictions and economic consequences of those changes had most brutally affected women. In armed conflict situations it sometimes seemed that women were not considered human -- it was as if one could not be human and a woman at the same time. In war now the most frequent victims were women and children.

In the Balkan region, women activists and women's NGOs had come to the fore in the wake of the recent conflicts, often as a result of serious human-rights abuses or the loss of family members; in their advocacy roles, they frequently suffered new discrimination, violence, and even imprisonment.

Discussion

A number of speakers stressed that efforts to date to end violence against women were insufficient, and that attention given to the matter was not thorough enough. A representative of the NGO Caucus on Violence against Women said it was important to consider the matter not only in terms of physical attack but from the point of view of psychological damage and in terms of sexual offense. It also was noted that women who were trafficked for economic reasons rather than for sexual exploitation were numerous and deserved international attention and protection. Participants in the debate urged repeatedly that victims of trafficking must not be treated as criminals, as persons illegally present in foreign countries or as persons carrying out illegal activities. A series of country representatives described national efforts to combat domestic violence and trafficking in women, including through the use of hotlines, police-training programmes, establishment of shelters, and enhancement of coordination between law-enforcement and social-protection agencies.

Speakers said in several cases that international trafficking required much greater coordination at national and international levels than had been seen to date, and that humane treatment of victims in countries of destination had to be followed up with humane treatment when they returned to their countries of origin; others said legal issues such as "consent" of the victims in matters of trafficking should not be used to place the burden of proof on the victims; overall, it was noted, severe violations of human rights were involved in trafficking and in violence of all kinds carried out against women. Punishing clients of prostitution was urged, as were pursuit and punishment of traffickers across international borders, media campaigns in countries of origin on the dangers of trafficking to alert potential victims, particular attention to offenses committed against adolescent women, and development of a binding international convention on trafficking. Such offenses as wife-burning and honour killing should be placed in the category of violence against women, a representative of Turkey said. The Chairperson of the NGO Caucus on the Status of Women Working Group on Girls said surveys indicated that one in three young women was sexually abused and that much greater attention was needed on the matter.

* * *

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