NEW YORK, 28 February 2005
UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy on Beijing+10:
Ten years ago, at the time of the Beijing Conference on Women, I had just begun my job as Executive Director of UNICEF. Now, as we commemorate Beijing Plus 10, I am only a few months away from leaving UNICEF. So I have come full circle – I started with Beijing, last week I actually was in Beijing, and I am talking about Beijing today.
So what have we accomplished for women since that landmark conference 10 years ago? Not nearly enough.
I am sorry to see that positions of power continue to elude women, including here at the UN. I am pleased that my successor at UNICEF is a woman, yet I am dismayed that UNICEF is among the few UN agencies currently headed by a woman. There are of course many present opportunities starting with the openings heading up UNDP and The World Bank.
After 10 years heading UNICEF, I’d like to share a few thoughts about the importance of women in all development efforts and a few examples of where they are being grievously overlooked.
Women are central to UNICEF’s mission in that their well-being directly impacts families and children. If women are not strong, then families are not strong. If families are not strong, children are in jeopardy. They suffer today and have limited reason to hope for the future.
The importance of women in the lives of children is such that there probably has not been a single day during my decade leading UNICEF that I have not talked in some way about women and girls -- about their rights, the myriad ways that those rights are abused, and the lasting toll this takes on their lives and the lives of their children.
For this I have on occassion been called a radical feminist. I have been accused of singling out girls and women for preferential treatment.
But let us be clear about who is singling out women and girls, and for what.
Since 1990, 90 percent of conflict-related deaths have been civilians, and 80 percent of these deaths have been women and children. All civilians caught up in conflict must battle disease, poor nutrition, and a lack of shelter and healthcare. But evidence shows that men and women are affected differently by armed conflict. Men and boys are forced to fight and kill. Boys are forced to become child soldiers, made to witness and commit despicable acts of violence. The world has addressed the disturbing phenomenon of child soldiers and has embraced the goal of getting them out of the ranks of fighting groups and back into civil society.
But what about the girls and women swept into the horror of conflict?
During the past two decades, there has been a dramatic increase in the use of rape and sexual violence as a deliberate tactic of war – a way of demoralizing and humiliating the enemy and destabilizing entire communities. In situations of armed conflict, girls and women are routinely raped, trafficked, used in prostitution, held by armed groups in sexual slavery, mutilated and forced to carry pregnancies. And we have barely begun to talk about it.
It is decent and right –- and not radical -- to demand an end to the systematic rape of girls as young as five and women as old as 85. It is right to insist that governments hold their troops accountable when they are on UN peacekeeping missions. And to provide support, as UNICEF tries to do, to programs providing assistance to girls and women raped during conflict. These are not “radical” acts, but acts of basic humanity.
When labels like “radical feminism” are tossed about disparagingly, the end result is that people become reluctant to speak out against discrimination for fear of being accused of promoting special interests. But who else are we to speak on behalf of than those marginalized, discriminated and abused groups who are denied a voice of their own?
In my travels over the years in conflict-ridden areas such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eastern Europe, and Darfur to name a few, I listened time and again to girls and women tell me how they were too afraid to tell family and community members that they had been raped. But the stigma of rape goes far beyond the village level.
It extends up to the highest levels of power where it unfortunately collides with something even more damaging – apathy. In conflicts throughout the world, government authorities simply do not care that thousands of women and children are being raped and the perpetrators are going unpunished.
It is time that we stopped being afraid of talking about the realities of what it means to be a woman or a girl caught up in armed conflict today. The perpetrators of these horrendous crimes against women may be men, but there are also men, and women, in a position to prevent and punish these crimes. They must not be afraid to speak out for and defend the rights of women and children.
In my ten years at UNICEF, I have tried to focus on issues that not only affect children today, but that carry long-term implications for this generation and the next. The rape of girls in armed conflict is precisely that kind of issue – a trauma today and a tragedy that shadows tomorrow.