Female Government Leaders Recount Personal Experiences of Threats, Attacks, Structural Obstacles, as Commission Discusses Ways to End Violence against Women
Amid Global Expansion of Internet, Women’s Right to Free Expression, Safety in World’s ‘New Public Space’ Must Be Guaranteed, Speakers Stress
Current and former Government officials, many speaking candidly from personal experience, explored the daily threats faced by women in positions of authority — both offline and in the world’s “new public space”, the Internet — as the Commission on the Status of Women continued its work today.
Entering the third day of its sixty-fifth session, the Commission held two virtual interactive panel discussions related to its 2021 theme “Women's full and effective participation and decision-making in public life, as well as the elimination of violence, for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls”. Panelists representing Governments, civil society groups and academia, as well as leaders of United Nations agencies, examined challenges to women’s participation, as well as policy options. Several recounted threats, violence and structural obstacles they experienced throughout their own careers as women in senior-level posts. Others spotlighted the broader social implications of such targeted attacks, especially online, noting that they are often intended to silence the voices of women at the highest levels.
Åsa Regnér, Deputy Executive Director of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN-Women), speaking as both an intergovernmental official and a former female politician, said the barriers encountered by women leaders is often sexualized and intended to ridicule and isolate them. Noting that women who enter politics do tend to challenge traditional budget allocations, often shifting funds to critical social issues, she said other leaders can sometimes feel threatened. She herself received threats during her political tenure, leading to one individual being imprisoned, she said, adding: “When you’re a woman politician taking up these issues, the space you have to do so is smaller than men.”
Sandra Pepera, Senior Associate and Director for Gender, Women and Democracy at the National Democratic Institute of the United Kingdom, warned that violence against women in politics is not only an affront to individuals, but has also “become part of the playbook of authoritarians” in recent years. Gender-based violence, threats and slander are often specifically intended to constrain the number of women in power, manipulate voters and limit the voices that can be heard. In some cases, violence against women leaders — especially online — is carried out by groups close to the State and can be characterized as “patriotic trolling” or sexualized “gender disinformation”. She urged countries to pay close attention to that insidious new form of attack on democracy.
Wafa Bani Mustafa, Chair of the Coalition of Women Members of Parliament from Arab Countries to Combat Violence against Women, and a former Member of Parliament of Jordan, said her group was formed in response to a complete denial of the phenomenon of political violence against women in the Arab region. Noting that many women in leadership roles in Jordan eventually leave their posts due to harassment and threats, she outlined her work to criminalize political violence and ensure that women receive their fair share of seats in both local government and in Parliament.
Meanwhile, Racha Haffar, Chief Executive Officer and co-founder of the Youth Against Slavery Movement and the Anti-Slavery Collective for Generation Equality of Tunisia, drew parallels between efforts to combat political violence against women and other human rights movements. “When we talk about feminist movements, we talk about an umbrella movement that will liberate all oppressed groups,” she said, noting that women need to be in leadership positions in order to tackle all the issues that affect them — ranging from trafficking to violence, injustice and discrimination.
Following those presentations, high-level delegates representing Governments around the world took part in an interactive discussion with the panelists. Some noted that women have experienced the threat of violence on public streets throughout history — as was just seen last week in the high-profile case of Sarah Everard, a British woman who tragically lost her life in London on 3 March “for the crime of walking home” at night — and demanded an end to the expectation that women simply live with, or adjust their behavior, to accommodate these age-old abuses.
Other speakers described the Internet as the world’s “new public space” and emphasized that, as the world moves increasingly online, women must feel safe realizing their right to free expression. Some spotlighted the lasting impacts of the global #MeToo movement while warning that too many women still experience slander online, have their intimate information shared without their consent and suffer threats of rape. As a result, many delegates stressed, women who enter public life often leave quickly and too many never enter in the first place.
Also serving as panellists throughout the day were Nino Lomjaria, Public Defender of Georgia; Laura Albaine, Researcher, National Council for Scientific and Technical Research from the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina; Véronique Tognifodé, Minister for Social Affairs and Microfinance of Benin; Hannah Neumann, Member of the European Parliament, serving as Peace and Human Rights Coordinator for the Greens/EFA Group Vice-Chair of the Human Rights Committee, and Member of the Committees on Foreign Affairs and Security and Defence Policy; and Ximena Miriam Fajardo Navarro, Deputy Delegate for the Enforcement and Exercise of the Human Rights of Children, Adolescents, Women and Vulnerable Populations of the Ombudsman’s Office of Bolivia.
Also serving as panellists were Mandeep Tiwana, Chief Programmes Officer at CIVICUS; Bafana Khumalo, Co-Founder and Co-Executive Director of Sonke Gender Justice; Simon Springett, United Nations Resident Coordinator in the Republic of Moldova; Kenita Placide, Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Eastern Caribbean Alliance for Diversity and Equality, known as ECADE; Sarah Macharia, Director of the Global Media Monitoring Project; and Ewa Ruminska-Zimny, President of the International Women’s Forum in Poland and Vice President of the Congress of Women Association. Martin Chungong, Secretary General of the Inter‑Parliamentary Union, and Emilia Sáiz, Secretary General of United Cities and Local Government, served as the sessions’ moderators.
The Commission will reconvene at 9 a.m. on Thursday, 18 March, to hold another series of interactive discussions.
Interactive Dialogue I
This morning, the Commission held the first of two high-level interactive dialogues of the day. The first, on the theme “Eliminating violence against women in public life”, was moderated by Martin Chungong, Secretary General of the Inter‑Parliamentary Union (IPU). It featured presentations by six panellists: Åsa Regnér, Deputy Executive Director of UN-Women; Wafa Bani Mustafa, Chair of the Coalition of Women Members of Parliament from Arab Countries to Combat Violence against Women, and Former Member of Parliament of Jordan; Nino Lomjaria, Public Defender of Georgia; Sandra Pepera, Senior Associate and Director for Gender, Women and Democracy at the National Democratic Institute of the United Kingdom; Laura Albaine, Researcher, National Council for Scientific and Technical Research from the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina; and Racha Haffar, Chief Executive Officer and co-founder of the Youth Against Slavery Movement and the Anti-Slavery Collective for Generation Equality of Tunisia.
Opening the dialogue, Mr. CHUNGONG said the present session is a good opportunity to share experiences and best practices that can be emulated and expanded widely. He recalled that the 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action clearly underlined the right of all people to participate in public life, called for power‑sharing between women and men and identified violence against women as a critical area of concern. Today, violence against women in political and public life remains pervasive around the globe and may even accelerate as more women take on leadership roles.
Ms. REGNÉR said today’s topic resonates with her personally as both a leader of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN‑Women) and a former female politician. The barriers and threats encountered by women leaders is often sexualized and intended to ridicule and isolate them. “When women enter politics, they do change the agenda”, she said, towards a more explicit focus on social issues, which changes budget allocations and sometimes makes others feel threatened. “When you’re a woman politician taking up these issues, the space you have to do so is much smaller than men,” she stressed, recalling that an individual was sent to prison for threatening her during her own time as a Government minister. Male politicians and citizens must play a key role in prevention, as such threats usually come from men. In many countries, political parties themselves have also listened to women leaders experiencing this violence and taken up action to combat it.
Ms. MUSTAFA said her organization, the Coalition of Women Members of Parliament from Arab Countries to Combat Violence against Women, was formed amid a complete denial of the phenomenon of political violence against women in the Arab region. Noting that many women in leadership roles in Jordan eventually leave their posts due to harassment and cyberviolence, she outlined her work to criminalize political violence during her three terms of office in the country’s Parliament, as well as to ensure that women receive their fair share of seats in both local-level government and in Parliament. Outlining outreach to television, radio and other media channels to push forward such efforts, she went on to underline the importance of ensuring that violence and harassment against female politicians is enshrined in the internal bylaws and codes of conduct of parliaments and other political bodies themselves.
Ms. LOMJARIA, sharing the point of view of a national-level public defender, said the Public Defender’s Office was the first in Georgia to incorporate a gender perspective. Outlining the Office’s 2016 creation of a femicide watch mechanism, she said the initiative has made important progress in protecting women in the country. Among other things, it helped the national courts designate the premeditated murder of women on the grounds of gender as an “aggravating circumstance” in a crime. Noting that the Office also works closely with civil society groups, international and non-governmental organizations to support women’s rights, she nevertheless said challenges remain in increasing women’s participation in high-level positions in Georgia.
Ms. PEPERA said the diversity of today’s participants show how far the world has come in building a multilevel and multisectoral coalition to combat violence against women. Today, the world has much better data on the phenomenon and UN‑Women is leading the way in developing solid indicators to combat it. “Violence against women in politics has now become part of the playbook of authoritarians,” she said, noting that it is specifically intended to constrain the number of women in power, manipulate voters and limit the voices that can be heard. In some cases, violence against women leaders — especially online — is carried out by groups close to the State, a phenomenon she described as “patriotic trolling” or “gender disinformation” which is often sexualized. She urged countries to pay close attention to that insidious new form of attack on democracy, and to focus on smaller, denser social networks rather than mainstream ones.
Ms. ALBAINE recounted progress made in combating violence against women in politics in Latin America, noting that 10 countries across the region have instituted some kind of legislative framework to tackle the phenomenon. Noting that those have different aims and scopes, she said concrete enforcement mechanisms are not always available. Laws also often evolve over time, she said, citing the example of Ecuador, which began by creating a general law against violence in politics, and rendered it more specific the following year. Agreeing with other panelists that obstacles related to violence and harassment continue to prevent women leaders from rising through the ranks, and that they must be reversed immediately, she said some Latin American countries are focusing more on monitoring gender violence in elections while others, like Mexico, are working through its political parties’ rules and protocols.
Ms. HAFFAR, spotlighting the link between political violence against women and the work of human rights advocacy groups, declared: “When we talk about feminist movements, we talk about an umbrella movement that will liberate all oppressed groups.” Intersectionality in the anti-human‑trafficking movement can help amplify women’s voices, in turn fostering more peaceful and prosperous societies. Women need to be in leadership positions in order to tackle the issues that affect them the most, working across traditional silos to draw inextricable links between trafficking, violence, discrimination and injustice. New laws are needed to stop all forms of violence against women, both in public and private spaces, and prevention strategies “must not be limited to awareness-raising and one-off initiatives”. Women must have more seats in every leadership sphere, which can only be achieved by implementing gender quotas, in order to ensure that gender issues are at the heart of decision-making and budgeting at the highest levels.
As the floor was opened for questions and comments, many delegates pointed out that women have regrettably experienced the threat of violence on public streets throughout history, describing the Internet as the world’s “new public space”, and emphasizing that women must feel safe realizing their right to free expression. Noting that those new dynamics only continue to lay bare age-old power imbalances, some spotlighted the lasting impacts of the global #MeToo movement while warning that too many women still experience slander online, have their intimate information shared without their consent and suffer threats of rape. It remains difficult to speak out, and women who do are often blamed for ruining men’s lives. As a result, women who enter public life often leave quickly, while many never enter in the first place.
The representative of the United Kingdom, recalling the high-profile case of Sarah Everard, a British woman who tragically lost her life in London on 3 March “for the crime of walking home” at night, rejected the notion that women should have to adapt their lives to such threats of violence or murder. She called upon Governments around the globe to make eliminating violence against women and girls a top priority by enacting and enforcing national laws against gender-based violence; improving judicial systems through enhancing training; and increased investment in education and training against gender-based violence in both the formal and informal sectors.
The representative of China said violence against women transcends borders, cultures, age and race, and is rooted in an unequal power structure. “COVID-19 has increased the risk of violence faced by women and girls,” he said, calling for strengthened efforts to identify and prosecute the perpetrators of such crimes. China has made eradicating gender violence one of its priorities, including through strengthened legislation and initiatives to crack down on gender-based violence in cyberspace.
The representative of Sri Lanka said countries are all too aware that progress in combating violence against women, and increasing women’s leadership in public life, remains slow. The lagging pace begs the question: “Why are policies not matching up with reality?” To tackle those challenges, Sri Lanka relies on its Constitutionally enshrined equality clause, as well as laws that criminalize sexual harassment and provide zero tolerance for gender-based violence crimes.
A Member of Parliament of Uganda said her Government has invested in a range of legal and policy frameworks to address gender-based violence, including prevention and protection mechanisms for survivors. Noting that disasters and emergencies escalate violence levels, she said her country has nevertheless built strategic partnerships with donors, cultural institutions, faith-based organizations and civil society groups, and provides awareness and sensitization trainings, leading to a number of public declarations and pronouncements against such forms of violence as child marriage and female genital mutilation.
The representative of Qatar, speaking on behalf of her country’s National Committee for Women, Children, Elderly and Persons with Disabilities Affairs, outlined a range of initiatives — including workshops, trainings, awareness‑raising campaigns and partnerships with non-governmental groups — aimed at combating violence against women and amplifying women’s voices in societies.
A representative of the non-governmental organization Save the Children expressed concern that the Commission’s discussions too often fail to recognize the particular experiences and challenges of adolescent girls. Age restrictions in public events and the holding of political decision-making meetings during school hours are just some examples of how young women are left out of leadership roles, she said, underlining the need to include their voices in discussions on all matters that impact their lives.
Also speaking were senior Government officials from Brazil, Argentina, Maldives, Spain, Denmark, Kazakhstan, Georgia, Costa Rica and Morocco. Representatives of the non-governmental groups Asian-Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women (ARROW) and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems also participated.
Interactive Dialogue II
The afternoon featured an interactive dialogue via videoconference on the theme “Building alliances for women’s full and effective participation in public life”. Moderated by Emilia Sáiz, Secretary General of United Cities and Local Government, it featured the following nine panellists: Véronique Tognifodé, Minister for Social Affairs and Microfinance of Benin; Hannah Neumann, Member of the European Parliament, serving as Peace and Human Rights Coordinator for the Greens/EFA Group, Vice-Chair of the Human Rights Committee and Member of the Committees on Foreign Affairs and Security and Defence Policy; Ximena Miriam Fajardo Navarro, Deputy Delegate for the Enforcement and Exercise of the Human Rights of Children, Adolescents, Women and Vulnerable Populations of the Ombudsman’s Office of Bolivia; Mandeep Tiwana, Chief Programmes Officer at CIVICUS; Bafana Khumalo, Co-Founder and Co-Executive Director of Sonke Gender Justice; Simon Springett, United Nations Resident Coordinator in the Republic of Moldova; Kenita Placide, Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Eastern Caribbean Alliance for Diversity and Equality, known as ECADE; Sarah Macharia, Director of the Global Media Monitoring Project; and Ewa Ruminska-Zimny, President of the International Women’s Forum in Poland and Vice President of the Congress of Women Association.
Opening the discussion, Ms. SÁIZ said that, despite women’s increasing involvement in public life, they remain underrepresented in decision-making positions. Noting that the Beijing Platform for Action outlines ways to promote their roles and work towards gender equality, she said that collaboration and alliance-building among stakeholders has proven to be crucial for such objectives. Guiding the interactive dialogue and several question-and-answer segments, she first posed a range of questions to the panellists, asking them to elaborate on their work, challenges and approaches.
Dr. TOGNIFODÉ said the African Union has been working on alliances, including efforts centred on the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. African women have created networks to promote their participation in public life and subscribe to this synergy through alliances in order to ensure they reach decision-making positions. As Chair of the African Union’s Technical Committee on Gender Equality, she commended its recent adoption of a commitment towards these aims. Indeed, African States have made strides in implementing these commitments, she said, pointing to several countries on the continent — including Ethiopia, South Africa and Uganda — with high representation of women.
Dr. NEUMANN outlined ways the European Union is building alliances, highlighting the #SHEcurity campaign. Recently launched to demonstrate that women “have a place” in security policy discussions, the campaign focuses on forging alliances with such stakeholders as feminist organizations and representatives of the global South, and on identifying gender imbalances and discrimination.
Ms. FAJARDO NAVARRO cited a range of partnerships, including engaging non‑governmental organizations, UN-Women and local sex worker groups. COVID-19 has led to higher levels of violence against women in Bolivia, and an effective response has yet to take shape. Informal work, children asking for money in the streets and other concerns must be addressed. In order to deal with these and other issues, power structures must be generated and strengthened to enhance women’s participation alongside targeted efforts to eliminate violence and abuse against them. Broader development goals can only be realized by creating socioeconomic programmes that also reach women.
Mr. TIWANA said that, when examining the trajectory of women’s participation in public life, from gender-sensitive laws to running for office, critical components for success require support for community organizations and fostering allies in the Government. Democratic environments are a prerequisite for meaningful change, but unfortunately 87 per cent of the world lives in States where freedoms are not fully respected, with women’s organizations bearing the brunt of targeted violence alongside toxic online spaces.
Mr. KHUMALO said civil society partners must continue to engage men and boys in the quest for progress. Data shows there are areas to address imbalances of household work, including subsidizing childcare services. In South Africa, there are still no subsidized childcare services. In addition, increasing men and boys’ contribution at home to share the burden of care allows women to have more time to focus on themselves. Men who care for their families are less prone to violence and also enable women to participate more freely in public life.
During a question-and-answer segment, participants shared examples of national achievements and how to foster more progress, and asked for input on youth and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex (LGBTQI) community.
The representative of Nicaragua, citing a range of gains since 2007 resulting from strong political will and affirmative action plans, said women now comprise 55 per cent of the National Assembly and held 40 per cent of positions in local governments. Nicaragua is among States that have advanced the most in terms of gender equality, ranking first in terms of women’s participation.
The representative of Saudi Arabia outlined a private sector alliance launched in 2020, when her delegation served as President of the Group of 20. As a result, she said, 24 businesses signed a pledge to hire more women in Saudi Arabia, and more than 90 companies have since joined the alliance, demonstrating how multilateralism has contributed towards a common goal.
An observer for the European Union said that removing institutional and structural constraints, discriminatory laws and cultural and attitudinal barriers remain central. With this in mind, she said, the bloc calls for increased joint efforts by all actors to address systemic discrimination that still hinders women’s and girls’ full, meaningful and effective participation in public life. It is crucial to broadly look at barriers in that regard, she said pointing to factors that enable their participation, such as economic independence, as well as access to quality education and training, adequate social protection, safe and affordable drinking water and sanitation, menstrual hygiene, quality social and care services, and sexual and reproductive health. Also important are work-life balance and the equal sharing of unpaid work, care and domestic work between women and men.
A representative of a civil society organization, highlighting a spike in violence against women and other vulnerable communities during the pandemic, asked how LGBTQI needs are being met.
A youth representative of the United Nations Foundation, underscoring the importance of education, asked the panellists what steps young people can take to foster alliances.
Mr. SPRINGETT, responding to the moderator’s question on how he approaches alliances as a United Nations Resident Coordinator, said a female President and Speaker of Parliament preside in the Republic of Moldova, but challenges remain, including tackling gender stereotypes and low levels of women’s representation in decision-making positions. The United Nations leads by example, he said, with women comprising 72 per cent of his office’s staff. In addition, his office supports a caucus in Parliament along with other steps to foster building and enhancing alliances to advance women’s rights.
Ms. PLACIDE said inclusion and diversity must be part of programmes and planning to build trust among partners. Representing organizations across the region, the Eastern Caribbean Alliance for Diversity and Equality works towards building such engagement across cross-sectional issues that affect many communities. For instance, gender equality is an issue that impacts a range of groups, which can help to build alliances and relationships in a quest towards common goals.
Ms. MACHARIA, responding to the moderator’s question about how the media can combat negative gender stereotypes, said changes can be made when journalists can take steps to, for example, find female experts. While women are participating more in the media than ever before, change is continuing at a snail’s pace. Women continue to be downplayed in leadership roles on news shows during the pandemic, and media monitoring during elections reveals skewed coverage. To tackle online gender discrimination, she proposed that States pass legislation to better regulate the Internet.
Dr. RUMINSKA-ZIMNY recalled that more than 5,000 women had gathered at a congress in Poland in 2011 to discuss pressing issues and concerns amid a backlash against their rights. The result was a proposal for a related law, which Parliament passed. Today, women’s representation in Parliament has risen to 29 per cent from 20 per cent, and another proposal is under discussion to close the gender wage gap.
During a second round of questions and answers, delegates and representatives of civil society exchanged views on approaches, with some offering suggestions on how best to forge alliances to affect meaningful change.
The representative of Soroptimist International said States are pivoting during the pandemic as inequalities are laid bare. Education can empower women and girls by giving them the tools they need, she said, adding that it is also crucial to raise awareness about the need to invest in their schooling.
The representative of the UK Civil Society Women’s Alliance, representing more than 450 organizations in the United Kingdom, said initiatives include engaging with the Government to establish a strong and respectful working relationship. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, efforts have brought issues to the attention of the Government through regular meetings, resulting in some positive changes for women and girls in the United Kingdom. Such alliances are vital if full equality is to be achieved, she said, adding that States can demonstrate the extent of their commitment to the outcome of Commission on the Status of Women sessions by ensuring a continuing conversation with civil society throughout the year.
The representative of Samoa said women and girls must be part of decision‑making processes. Citing several examples, he said constitutional amendments, policies and strategies have been guided by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. In addition, related services, including a family court, have been established with a view to promoting gender equality at all levels.
The Minister of State for Gender and Culture Affairs of Uganda highlighted several milestones reached after the Government engaged and strengthened collaboration with relevant stakeholders in a multisectoral approach to support women’s effective participation in public life. New units at Government ministries, departments and agencies are setting the pace to advocate for gender‑sensitive plans to create more space for female managerial positions, domesticate sexual harassment policies and pass regulations to protect women from exploitation. Institutions of traditional and cultural leaders have encouraged communities to abandon negative harmful practices that trigger violence and hinder women’s participation in public life, with such efforts as fostering positive cultural practices that promote human rights and creating awareness on the importance of their full inclusion in pubic spheres.
Also participating in the dialogue were ministers and representatives of Ecuador, Finland, Georgia, United States, Philippines, Argentina, Sri Lanka and Switzerland.
Representatives of several civil society organizations also spoke.