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Human Rights

A staggering one-in-three women, experience physical, sexual abuse

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Violence against women and girls is among the most widespread, and devastating human rights violations in the world, but much of it is often unreported due to impunity, shame and gender inequality, the UN highlighted ahead of Monday’s World Day to stamp out abuse of women and girls.

Here is the grim reality, in numbers: A third of all women and girls experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, half of women killed worldwide were killed by their partners or family, and violence perpetrated against women is as common a cause of death and incapacity for those of reproductive age, as cancer, and a greater cause of ill health than road accidents and malaria combined.

The prevalence of the issue, “means someone around you. A family member, a co-worker, a friend, or even yourself” has experienced this type of abuse, Secretary-General António Guterres said in his message to mark the Day.

“Sexual violence against women and girls is rooted in centuries of male domination”, he added, reminding the world that stigma, misconceptions, under-reporting and poor enforcement of laws perpetuate impunity in rape cases.

“All of this must change…now”, the UN chief urged.

Damaging flesh, imprinted in memory

To spotlight the scale of the problem, on this year’s International Day of the Elimination of Violence against Women, the United Nations is sharing the many ways in which the scourge manifests itself in physical, sexual and psychological forms, and the organisation is underscoring the life-altering, adverse consequences women suffer as a result.

  • intimate partner violence (battering, psychological abuse, marital rape, femicide);
  • sexual violence and harassment (rape, forced sexual acts, unwanted sexual advances, child sexual abuse, forced marriage, street harassment, stalking, cyber- harassment);
  • human trafficking (slavery, sexual exploitation);
  • female genital mutilation
  • child marriage.

The Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, issued by the UN General Assembly in 1993, defines violence against women as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life”, the UN highlighted on the Day.

Beginning Monday, and for the upcoming two years, the UN chief’s UNiTe to End Violence against Women campaign will focus on the issue of rape as a specific form of harm, encouraging people to join the initiative and “Orange the World.”

UN Women’s Executive Director, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, expressed her concerns when it comes to rape specifically.

She said the end of the horrendous act would mean eliminating a “significant weapon of war from the arsenal of conflict”, the absence of a daily risk assessment for girls and women who actively work to avoid an incident that could leave them scarred.

“Rape isn’t an isolated brief act. It damages flesh and reverberates in memory. It can have life changing, unchosen results – a pregnancy or a transmitted disease”, Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka stressed, adding that consequences of a one-time act can sprawl into damaging long-term effects.

“It’s long-lasting, devastating effects reach others: family, friends, partners and colleagues”, she continued. ­

In addition, research by the World Health Organization (WHO), details disturbing impacts of violence on women’s physical, sexual, reproductive and mental health:

Women who experience physical or sexual abuse are twice as likely to have an abortion, and the experience nearly doubles their likelihood of falling into depression. In some regions, they are 1.5 times more likely to acquire HIV, and evidence exists that sexually assaulted women are 2.3 times more likely to have alcohol disorders.

More women abused than not, in US

Some national studies examining incidents in the United States show that up to 70 per cent of women have experienced physical and or sexual violence from an intimate partner, according to UN Women.

The agency cited that nearly a quarter of female college students reported having experienced sexual assault or misconduct in the US, but harm targeting women and girls knows no bounds. 

Multi-country investigations by WHO show partner violence to be a reality for 65 per cent of women in some parts of sub-Saharan Africa, and around 40 per cent of women in South Asia, as well as Andean parts of Latin America.

Meanwhile, even in regions where incidents are less likely, as in East Asia and Western Europe, more than 16 per cent and 19 per cent of women have experienced intimate partner violence, respectively.

Psychological violence is another layer to the problem, with some 82 per cent of women parliamentarians in a recent study, reporting having experienced remarks, gestures, threats, or sexist comments while serving – most often via social media.

While gender-based violence can happen to anyone, women who identify with the LGBTI community, migrants and refugees, indigenous minorities, and those living through humanitarian crises, are particularly vulnerable to gender-based harm.

“Almost universally, most perpetrators of rape go unreported or unpunished”, Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka explained. “For women to report in the first place requires a great deal of resilience to re-live the attack…In many countries, women know that they are overwhelmingly more likely to be blamed than believed.”

Attacks targeting women continue to be an obstacle to achieving equality, and impede the promise of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to leave no one behind.

Several public events are being coordinated for this year’s International Day to commemorate the fight against gender-based violence, spotlighting rape specifically.

Criminalizing the offense, placing women in positions of power, and strengthening the capacity of law enforcement, are some steps to increase accountability in incidents of sexual assault.

The effects of such violations suppress voices and traumatize, at “an intolerable cost to society”, said Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka.

“No further generations must struggle to cope with a legacy of violation.”

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Human Rights

No safe harbour: lifting the lid on a misunderstood trafficking crime

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photo © UNICEF/Noorani

The crime of harbouring, in which victims of human trafficking are accommodated or forced to stay in a specific location, is not universally understood by courts around the world. A new UN study aims to address that issue, and improve protection for victims.

A journey of exploitation

Harbouring is one of five actions that constitute an ‘act’ in the internationally recognised definition of human trafficking, and is often used by prosecutors and judges for convictions of this crime.

The act can take place before and during exploitation, or between periods of abuse, encompassing a wide variety of settings, including brothels, private homes, factories, farms, or fishing vessels.

These locations can be dangerous, inhumane and unsanitary, and cn be controlled by criminals involved in the trafficking network.  

In another case, victims who had been brought from Thailand to Australia were harboured during transit and at the place of exploitation: while being transported the victims were accommodated in hotels and accompanied by minders.

Once they were received by the offenders, the victims were either accommodated in the brothel where they were forced to work, or alternatively stayed at the offenders’ house, and were transported to and from the brothel each day.

Trafficking victims can also be subjected to harbouring once they arrive at the place of exploitation. In a case from the Dominican Republic, the offenders, a married couple, recruited a Chinese national to work in their business.

They promised to pay her and provide her with food. Instead, she was not paid, forced into domestic servitude and subjected to abuse.

A misunderstood concept

However, a new publication from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has found that there is neither a uniform understanding of the act of harbouring, nor a consistent approach to this concept during court proceedings.

“Harbouring is one of the most frequent acts when committing human trafficking, but the concept is not interpreted in the same way throughout the world,” says Martin Hemmi, the UNODC expert who led the study. 

“Some countries require the victims to be concealed or moved between locations for harbouring to be considered as an act of human trafficking. Others stipulate a minimum amount of time for the harbouring process,” adds Mr. Hemmi. “It is important to fully understand the concept to get justice for victims of this crime.”

The language barrier

Further findings show there are different meanings of the word ‘harbouring’ in the various language versions of the UN Trafficking in Persons Protocol,  which is the world’s primary legal instrument to combat this crime.

In French and Arabic, the word used for harbouring has a positive connotation in the sense of hosting, while in English, Chinese and Russian, it can be perceived as having a negative meaning in the sense of hiding or concealing.

“Due to these discrepancies, the same conduct is considered human trafficking in one country but not necessarily in another,” says Mr. Hemmi.  

“This has wide consequences. For the perpetrator, it can have an effect on the sentence. For the victim, it has an impact on rights and protection measures. For the courts, it can hamper requests for legal assistance and international cooperation.” 

Wherever and however it occurs, harbouring with the intent of exploitation is an act of human trafficking and a violation of the victim’s rights and dignity, says Martin Hemmi.  

“We hope that our new study will be used by investigators, prosecutors and judges to lead to a better understanding of this terrible crime and support measures to effectively protect victims and punish traffickers,” he concludes.

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Human Rights

Only ‘real equality’ can end vicious cycle of poverty

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Children play outside a metal polishing workshop in a slum in Uttar Pradesh, India. © UNICEF/Niklas Halle'n

Although poverty and privilege “continue to reproduce themselves in vicious cycles”, it is possible to break the chain and shift the paradigm, an independent UN human rights expert told the General Assembly on Wednesday. 

Presenting his reportThe persistence of poverty: how real equality can break the vicious cycle, Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Olivier De Shutter, said that “with political will”, it is possible to end centuries of entrenched inequality and “move from fate to opportunity”.  

Early investment 

“Investing in early childhood, promoting inclusive education, given young adults a basic income financed through inheritance taxes, and combating anti-poor discrimination are the key ingredients needed to break the cycles of advantage and disadvantage”, Mr. De Shutter said in his statement.  

Acknowledging that many countries pride themselves on ensuring high levels of social mobility, the human rights expert stated that “the truth is that the persistence of privilege at the top, and deprivation at the bottom, are all too commonplace.” 

“The top 10 percent of people living in OECD countries control 52 percent of total net wealth, while the bottom 60 percent own just over 12 percent, condemning the poor to a lifetime of poverty”, he said. According to the report, based on data from countries which are part of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), it takes four to five generations for children in low-income households to reach the mean income in their country. In emerging countries such as Brazil, Colombia or South Africa, it can take up to nine or even more generations.  

Tougher with time 

Observing that children born in disadvantaged families were denied equal opportunity, the Special Rapporteur examined the channels through which poverty is perpetuated, in the areas of health, housing, education and employment. 

“Children born in poor families have less access to healthcare, decent housing, quality education and employment than those in better-off households”, De Shutter said. “This dramatically reduces their chances of breaking free from the poverty trap”.  

Describing the outcomes as “appalling”, the Rapporteur added that children born in a family experiencing poverty are more than three times as likely to be poor, aged 30, than those who were never poor. 

Poverty costs 

The UN rights expert reminded that child poverty is not only “morally unconscionable and a human rights violation”, but also expensive. “In the United States, child poverty costs over one trillion dollars annually, or 5.4% of its GDP, but for each dollar invested on reducing it, seven dollars would be saved,” said the expert.  

Calling for and end to the myth that inequality is an incentive that encourages people to work harder, Mr. De Shutter said that the facts point to the exact opposite: “Inequality lowers social mobility and entrenches advantage and disadvantage over decades. When we fetishize merit, we stigmatize those in poverty or with low incomes, and blame them for their own condition”.  

Call for action 

Stressing that “no child should be penalized for being born in poverty” in mind, and stating that, in fact, “poverty is a failure not of the individual, but of society”, Mr. De Shutter called on governments to act now, “before another generation is condemned to the same fate as their parents”.  

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Human Rights

Restore sexual, reproductive health rights lost during COVID, rights expert urges

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Adolescent girls attend a support group discussion on women’s health. © UNICEF/Tapash Paul

Sexual and reproductive health rights, are human rights, the independent UN expert on the right to health reminded Member States in the General Assembly on Wednesday, saying that it was essential to restore services in the field, that have been eroded during the COVID-19 pandemic

“Millions of women globally had limited or no access to maternal and new-born healthcare, some 14 million women lost access to contraception, and specialized services for victims of gender-based violence became inaccessible, when they were needed most”, said Dr. Tlaleng Mofokeng.

The Special Rapporteur pointed out that lockdowns, movement restrictions and diversion of funds due to COVID-19 have “jeopardized access to essential sexual and reproductive health services”.

In presenting her report on the effect of the pandemic on physical and mental health services, she also spoke of “new measures and laws in place across regions, further restricting access to safe abortion, a component of sexual and reproductive services encompassed in the right to health”.

Reversing a legacy

As part of the right to health, the UN expert called on States to move beyond the COVID-19 pandemic to rebuild and strengthen health systems for advancing sexual and reproductive health rights for all.

“Governments must remove obstacles and ensure full access to quality services, including maternal health care, contraception and abortion services, screening for reproductive cancers and comprehensive sexual education”, she said.

However, Dr. Mofokeng noted that many obstacles continue to stand between individuals and their exercise of their rights to health, rooted in patriarchy and colonialism, and others in structural and systemic inequalities.

“Patriarchal oppression is universal, permeates all societies and is at the very origin of the erosion of autonomy and the control of girls and women’s bodies and sexuality to the detriment of their enjoyment of sexual and reproductive rights”, she spelled out.

“Colonialism has permeated patriarchy across regions and its legacy continues today through laws, policies and practices that deny or restrict sexual and reproductive rights and criminalize gender diverse identities and consensual adult same-sex acts”, added the Special Rapporteur.

Rooted in law

She reminded governments that sexual and reproductive health rights are rooted in binding human rights treaties, jurisprudence, and consensus outcome documents of international conferences.

“I call on States to respect and protect key principles of autonomy, bodily integrity, dignity and well-being of individuals, especially in relation to sexual and reproductive health rights”, she said.

“I pledge to engage with States and all relevant actors to uphold the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health”.

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