It is good to be back in Washington, D.C. In the past 10 months as the Executive Director of UNICEF, I have come to appreciate the unique character of both New York City and Washington, D.C. There are similarities, of course: Both are power centers on the East Coast. But there are also differences.
A humorist recently wrote that New York women dress in case they will get photographed, while DC women dress in case they will have to testify.
But seriously, it is an honor for me to address such a distinguished group on such a meaningful occasion: International Women’s Day. I am grateful for the invitation to be with you today.
A few weeks ago, the world lost a towering figure with the death of Betty Friedan. She was a leading protagonist of a simple but profoundly important ideal: that women should be empowered to control their own lives and destinies.
Each of us here today is an inheritor of decades of progress and opportunities. I am personally grateful to those who blazed a trail for my generation and those to follow, the leaders who laid the foundation upon which we continue to build today.
We are all benefactors of the Western world’s embrace, however imperfect, of equality and dignity for all people, and we have indeed “come a long way.”
But around the globe today, especially in developing countries, girls and women suffer in silence, out of range of the cameras, and off society’s radar. In too many nations and regions, they are still devalued and denied, or treated as second-class citizens. They are the victims of gross inequity, or all too often, much worse.
Violence against women is the extreme form of inequality, and it is hard to think of an act against women that can be more damaging or enduring than sexual violence. While it is problem that is not limited to any particular country or culture, it takes on new dimensions in developing countries and conflict zones.
Just a few days ago, I returned from Africa, for the second time in just three weeks. One of the countries I visited, the Democratic Republic of Congo, has suffered through years of conflict that has taken millions of lives, and where sexual violence has been a weapon of war.
In the eastern part of the country, in Baraka, I met with three survivors of sexual violence, an experience that I will carry with me for a long time.
One of the victims was an orphan girl who is just 12 years old, she looked like she was only 9 or 10. In August 2005, she left her refugee camp to gather firewood. Four men attacked her in the bush, raping and beating her. She was left, unable to move, on the ground. Eventually she was found and taken back to the camp.
At the end of our conversation, I asked what she wanted to be when she grows up, and her reply, which spoke volumes, was: a nun.
The second victim was a 60-year-old woman. In April 2004, she went to the field to look for food for her family. There she was confronted by two soldiers who tied her up, and raped and beat her. She cried for help, and the first to arrive on the scene was her 27-year-old son. The soldiers shot her son, and he died instantly before her eyes.
She was rescued by the villagers, who carried her back home. When her husband learned of the attack and the son’s death, he collapsed and died of a heart attack.
The third victim was a 53-year-old woman, raped, beaten and left for dead by five soldiers.
The tears ran down their faces as they related these horrific experiences. I tried humbly to comfort each as she told her story.
Rape as a weapon of war is used to terrify and demoralize communities, to exact vengeance on the men through the women, or simply because too many perpetrators simply believe that they can do so with impunity.
On both of my recent trips to Africa, I traveled to Rwanda, where more than 1 million people died in the 1994 genocide.
Sexual violence was a weapon of the genocide. At least 500,000 women were brutally raped and beaten, often by men who were known to have HIV. Survivors have died from the effects of AIDS, or live under its debilitating influence.
I visited a project in Rwanda where orphans from the genocide were learning agricultural skills. During my visit there, a 16-year-old girl made a very eloquent presentation about the needs of her country. At the end, she asked a very direct question: What are you going to do to help stop the rapes?
Economic factors are often behind the abuse of girls and women, such as cases of human trafficking and sexual exploitation.
In December, when I launched UNICEF’s annual “State of the World’s Children” report in London, I met a courageous young woman from Romania. She publicly told the story about her dream of a better life abroad.
When she was 17, through a friend, she met a man who she thought was going to help her get a job in a restaurant in Ireland. But her dream soon became a nightmare.
She was taken into Italy on a false passport, and then onto Ireland, where she was forced into a life of prostitution. She tried many times to escape, but she was beaten and threatened. If it had not been for a police raid two months later, her story might have had an even more tragic ending.
Violence against women and girls can take many forms, some of which are largely unfamiliar to those who are in developed countries.
There are what are known as so-called “honor” crimes, but they are anything but honorable. These acts vary in severity from culture to culture, but the common thread is violence, or even murder that occurs when a woman’s actions are thought to have damaged a man’s honor.
Some of the most horrific of these crimes are disfiguring acid attacks or burnings. In many cases, communities and the criminal justice system simply look the other way. In Turkey, it is estimated that about half of the women who are killed by family members are victims of honor killings, while in Pakistan, an estimated 1,000 such crimes occur every year.
A related form of violence is often referred to as “dowry crimes.” In some societies, it is not unusual for a woman to be viciously attacked when there is a dispute between the bride and the groom’s family about the payment of dowry.
In India, an estimated 25,000 brides are killed or maimed every year in such crimes. In 2000, the United Nations reported that five women per day die in India in supposedly “accidental” kitchen fires that follow dowry disputes.
One of the most deplorable but culturally widespread traditions that girls face is known as female genital mutilation. It is prominent in several African countries, but also in other parts of the world. This can take many forms, up to the removal of most of a girl’s external genitalia.
It is practiced for many reasons, including a desire to control a woman’s sexuality, lower risk of premarital or extramarital affairs, or a family who wants to ensure a higher “bride price” for her when she is married. An estimated 3 million girls are subjected to this practice every year, and an estimated 100 to 140 million women have undergone it.
But the physical effects are severe, and can last a lifetime. These include not just the immediate pain, shock and bleeding, but urinary and reproductive tract infections, infertility, obstructed labor, and a higher risk of HIV transmission.
Early marriage is also another issue that harms girls in many areas of the world. Many parents are eager to marry off their daughters early because it sometimes comes with money paid by the groom’s family, or perhaps because they view girls as economic burdens.
Women who delay marriage are more likely to have careers of their own, and to be more independent.
On the other hand, girls who marry young are less able to protect themselves against HIV, more likely to be victims of violence within marriage, and more likely to bear children at ages that put their own health at risk.
One such risk is known as fistula. It is a condition that is caused by severe tearing during the birth process, in women whose bodies are too small to accommodate such trauma.
It can cause loss of control over bodily functions, which sometimes results in the shunning of women by their own families and communities.
Around the world, women are denied in many ways, even before birth. Take, for instance, sex selection of children.
UNICEF estimates that 1 million female babies die each year because of discriminatory practices, such as pre-natal sex selection, or even after a girl is born, infanticide. The result can be an imbalance in the ratio of males to females in a society.
In India, for example, which I visited in December, female-to-male ratios in some areas are as low as 861 women per 1,000 men.
In some cultures, when a woman’s husband dies, the widow is required to have sex with a so-called “cleanser” in order to be accepted back into her community.
Some of these “cleansers” are contributing to the rapid spread of HIV in countries such as many of those in Africa.
In many countries, women are denied a voice in the political and economic systems.
Some countries, such as Kuwait, recently gave women the right to vote, but in Saudi Arabia, women are still generally prohibited from voting or running for public office, driving vehicles or traveling abroad.
In some countries, especially those that follow the Muslim Sharia law, women do not enjoy the same property and inheritance rights as men.
Girls in many societies and communities are also denied an education. In some places, school fees, or the cost of uniforms, textbooks or other materials make it impossible for parents to send their children to school.
For some families, it is simply too expensive, and if there are not enough resources to send all the children to school, boys are chosen over girls. In many other places, little if any value is put on a girl’s education, and parents think it is more worthwhile for her to work in the fields or collect water. Lack of gender-specific latrines, or sexual abuse by teachers, are other factors that create barriers to girls attending school.
If current trends do not change, it is estimated that by 2015, there will be 6 million fewer girls than boys in school worldwide.
It is long past time that countries, cultures and communities everywhere, and particularly their men, accept that it is in their own best interests to treat women as equals.
Common sense and economics alike tell us that a society cannot possibly marginalize half its population and expect positive outcomes.
Women under the Taliban in Afghanistan were prohibited from virtually every meaningful interaction in their communities, including obtaining an education or employment. It is no coincidence that Afghanistan today is one of the most impoverished, illiterate and under-developed countries in the world.
Education must be a critical area of focus. When women are educated, their own health improves, and the survival of their children improves. Literacy rates increase, and families are lifted out of hunger and poverty.
As Secretary-General Kofi Annan said, “Gender equality is more than a goal in itself. It is a precondition for meeting the challenge of reducing poverty, promoting sustainable development and building good governance.”
Or as a woman in developing country recently put it, a country’s development is like a cart with two wheels, man and woman. If one of those wheels is not moving, the cart will not get very far.
Another critical need is for changing values and the reassessment of attitudes toward girls and women. Many of the worst abuses have historically been justified by reasons of religion, culture and tradition.
Societies have proved that they can change harmful or abusive practices against women in a relatively short time, such as foot-binding in of women in Asia. But there is also a culture of silence and apathy that surrounds many issues, particularly those related to violence.
Some have used a lack of resources as an excuse not to prosecute the offenses that are committed. But surely we can start by aggressively pursuing and punishing the worst crimes and violations against children, because any society that overlooks its children is also neglecting its future.
Equality must be viewed through a prism that will benefit not just half our population, but all of the world. The empowerment of women is not just an issue for women, it is an issue for everyone.
When one woman suffers, we all suffer.
When one woman is abused, exploited or denied, all of humanity is debased.
It is up to each of us to speak out about these depredations, to give a voice to the voiceless, and to cast light into the shadows. Thank you very much.