The UN declared the theme of today's celebration of International Women's Day (IWD) to be "A promise is a promise: Time for action to end violence against women." It's been nearly 20 years since the Beijing Platform for Action was adopted by 189 governments who pledged to work towards achieving gender equality for women. Though we are still very far from achieving this goal, progress has been made to move the agenda forward. Since that 1995 meeting, and more than 100 years after the celebration of the first IWD, commitments have been made by governments around the world to enact laws and policies to protect and promote the rights of women and girls. Existing international legal and normative frameworks encompass the language we need to accomplish this. Now, as activists, NGO leaders and policy makers from around the world are in New York for the 57th session on the Commission of the Status of Women (CSW 57), it is time for the UN and governments to act on these promises by adopting a Global Implementation Plan to End Violence against Women and Girls.
At a UN-commissioned expert group meeting that I attended in advance of CSW 57 last September in Bangkok, our final report concluded that preventing violence against women and girls "cannot be achieved without the full implementation of existing legal obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women." While frameworks are essential to the process, application of the policies codified in them is critical to achieving the ultimate goal. This means that benchmarks need to be put in place that will indicate what needs to be achieved and governments must pledge to hold themselves accountable to accomplishing them. These concrete programs must: incorporate specific, common targets; ensure that legal tools are in place and accessible; be supported by significant human and financial resources; institutionalize work on violence against women in national frameworks; and contain special measures for countries undergoing transition.
Lack of implementation by governments, individuals, departments and organizations responsible for fulfilling existing commitments to end violence against women has had a devastating effect on women and girls in all countries. At Equality Now, the progress we've achieved on many of our hard fought campaigns has been possible through partnership with local organizations and individuals pushing steadfastly for accountability and change. International monitoring mechanisms have also played a significant role. While we welcome the positive change promoted by individual governments, what is needed is for all governments to pro-actively develop, in partnership with civil society, detailed systems that properly integrate and embed measures to address violence and discrimination against women and girls. Here are just a few examples from our work of how early and committed action by governments could have prevented abuse or ensured justice if violence occurred:
• Mary from Zambia was raped by her teacher when she was 13 years old. Neither her school nor the police took any action when it was reported, although the school had been aware of past sexual violence by the teacher. While the teacher was finally arrested, due to the efforts of Mary's aunt, he was subsequently released without trial. Equality Now and our partners took on this case and in 2008 were able to get Mary a settlement; however her rapist was never criminally charged and evidently left the country.
• According to Girls Not Brides, of which Equality Now is a member, "While most countries legislate for a minimum legal age for marriage, this is often not enforced. Some countries continue to have a legal age for marriage lower than in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The legal age for marriage is also higher for men than women in many countries." Failure to protect girls from early marriage meant that, among countless others, Fatima of Saudi Arabia was married off aged 12 and Wafa of Yemen at age 11. If governments were to enact and enforce minimum age of marriage laws, girls would be free from the abuse and exploitation inherent in child marriage and would have the chance to develop physically, emotionally, socially and educationally to be in a stronger position to make their own choices as adults.
• Following a campaign by Equality Now and our partners to stop the facilitation by the U.S. military of access by its servicemen to prostitution in South Korea, where women were trafficked in from other countries to satisfy the demand, the U.S. government amended the Manual for Courts-Martial to specifically enumerate "patronizing a prostitute" as a violation of Article 134 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice in 2005. However, as of 2012 there have only been 31 cases brought globally for "patronizing a prostitute" or "pandering" and only 19 individuals have been convicted. In 2012, The Korea Times reported that women are trafficked to and exploited in brothels around U.S. military bases in South Korea "despite the military's 'zero tolerance policy.'" If the U.S. government were to enforce even its own Code, the grave human rights abuse and violence that women suffer at the hands of traffickers and pimps, and the buyers who exploit them, could be more effectively addressed.
Standards are in place to end violence and discrimination against women and girls. Governments must not be allowed to backtrack on their pledges. Rather, we must move forward and concentrate all efforts on implementation, now. The Commission on the Status of Women should pledge to develop a Global Implementation Plan, as advocated by members of women's rights groups all over the world that focuses on implementation of the commitments made in the past decades. Women have waited long enough.