'Build future where there's zero tolerance towards violence against women'
Women's empowerment and gender equality are taking centrestage at the UN which is hosting the 57th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) at its headquarters in New York (March 4-15). Lakshmi Puri, Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations and Deputy Executive Director of UN Women, talks to Vrushali Haldipur about the key issues that perpetuate discrimination against women and novel strategies that citizens, NGOs and governments can undertake to eliminate it
What are the aims of the CSW?
The CSW is the premier international body for policy deliberations and dialogues on women’s empowerment and gender equality for governments, civil society and organisations. This year’s priority theme at CSW is ending violence against women. The United Nations General Assembly has passed a resolution to ending violence against women. We are working to translate those into laws, norms and policies at the national level. We also work on the ground with countries through programmes such as the UN Global Safe Cities Initiative, which includes New Delhi where we seek to support the 4 Ps of ending violence against women — Prevention, Protection, Provision of services and Prosecution of perpetuators. We believe that one must intervene before violence happens. We have also undertaken the COMMIT initiative that government and civil society can use to get action. What is the value of this piece of paper, one might ask. I was told by the minister of Cameroon that because of the Female Genital Mutilation-related resolution passed by the United Nations General Assembly, she could take it up with her country’s traditional leaders, government colleagues and say to them as they had committed to this internationally, they were bound to implement it. So it can be a very powerful instrument to drive change at home. India has one of the best civil society movements in the world for gender equality. We have to draw upon women power in that sense, at the grassroots, national, regional and global levels.
The idea that violence against woman is normal still persists. How do you work to change that attitude?
Globally violence against women is a pandemic — it happens in all countries — rich or poor, big or small. Based on our work in Africa, Latin America, Asia-Pacific and India on this theme, what is very clear to us is that first of all, one has to prioritise this as not only a gender issue or a human rights issue, but also see it as an economic development issue. One has to recognise the economical and social costs of violence against women and how it fractures families. These linkages have to be recognised by not just organisations but also by every single citizen.
The New Delhi rape case really raised awareness about the heinousness and the gravity of this as not only a crime against women but also more specifically a human rights violation. There has been a call to address the framework within which these kinds of crimes happen. We have seen a very uplifting upsurge of public outrage and outcry against these crimes. There have been discussions over governance, having a multi-sectoral strategy for both prevention and response, which is reflected so well in the Justice Verma commission report.
I think the media played a very positive role here. The print media was enlightening and forthcoming and TV channels were consistently carrying interviews and talk shows on this issue. So this soul-searching, what we in India call manthan, or the churning that this has brought about on the issue of gender equality and women’s empowerment and how our society, our community, can allow this, is the kind of awareness that is important and I hope that this will be a departure point.
To what extent does culture play a role in violence against women?
Any culture, tradition or religion is worth its name if it in anyway sanctions or sanctifies violence against women in any form. Having said that, we know that for power relations purposes, culture, religion and tradition is often invoked. We see it in India, we see it elsewhere. We have done a study, which found there are around 3000 harmful customary practices in Africa alone that perpetuate violence against women. These customs affect the overall women’s empowerment. For example, bride kidnapping in Central Asia, where men can kidnap a woman, rape her and force her to marry. Forced marriage, bride price, dowry, female genital mutilation, these are all the so-called cultural practices. What we need is really a new culture, which fosters gender equality.
How safe are women at work or public spaces in India and what are some of the measures that can be adopted to make it safer?
Safety issue is one dimension of it, what is more important is how we make our cities safer for all, as the Justice Verma Commission Report has pointed out. For women’s safety, additional effort is required. In rural areas also safety of women is linked to provision of essential services and the lack of it. You are working in an isolated field, or going to fetch water, you are prey to violence or even trafficking.
In India we need to have this multi sectoral, one-stop crisis centres that help female survivors of violence. South Africa, Brazil and Thailand along with few developing countries have invested in these. It’s a designated violence crisis centre — a one- stop centre where a woman if she faces violence, can call a hotline 24 hours, get medical attention and if she is raped, has forensic services on hand. They also provide psychological and legal counselling, and the police is also there to record FIRs.
The conviction of sexual violence perpetrators has been 87 per cent in such centres in South Africa, as compared to 17 per cent where such one-stop services were not available. We strongly urge that this should be followed in India and other countries.
At UN Women, we are developing a protocol in terms of what must be done for gender sensitivity, infrastructure in cities, especially when there is an infrastructure deficit. Women are most disproportionately affected by this lack of infrastructure — transport, sanitation (lack of sanitation means they have to go out at night in slum areas or in rural areas which is unsafe). So there are many such issues that need to be dealt with in a gender-specific and gender-sensitive way.
We have so much commitment towards this issue, so many positive models that can be replicated, that we should draw upon this. We should build a future where there is zero tolerance towards violence against women.