Mlambo-Ngcuka: Violence against women is an issue for us all

Violence against women is so endemic it is impossible to work on any issue relating to women without it being addressed, according to the head of UN Women.

Speaking in the run-up to a high-level summit on protecting women and girls in emergencies, held in London on Wednesday, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of the UN agency, told the Guardian: "I don't think now it is possible to work with women and not have this as a central issue because it is crucial. Women are facing domestic violence, and violence affects young girls, through early marriage, though thankfully we may finally be turning it around on female genital mutilation.

"Poverty is a form of violence against women as well. It's an issue not just for us [UN Women], but all agencies, and civil society. We're calling for everybody, men and boys as well, to make it a priority as well. This has got to be something we all work on."

Mlambo-Ngcuka, who was appointed executive director of UN Women in July, replacing Michelle Bachelet, praised the UK government for its leadership in addressing violence against women. The Department for International Development, which is hosting Wednesday's event, led the talks for a new resolution on conflict prevention, resolution and peace-building, which was passed by the UN security council last month. Meanwhile, in 2012, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office launched its preventing sexual violence initiative to prevent and better respond to sexual violence in conflict and prosecute perpetrators.

The high-level meeting, to be attended by UN agencies, government leaders and NGOs, is expected to result in a call to action to ensure protecting girls and women in emergencies is a priority and to agree on policies to bring about lasting change.

The mass displacement that comes during conflict or after natural disasters often leads to a breakdown in social structures, which can leave women more exposed than men to sexual violence. According to a report this year on the civil war in Syria by the International Rescue Committee, sexual violence against women and girls was a "significant and disturbing" feature of the conflict. But because they were refugees many of those who had been attacked had been unable to access the physical and emotional support they needed.

Practical responses
In the Philippines, the UN office for the coordination of humanitarian affairs estimates that of the total number of people affected by Typhoon Haiyan, 47,600 women aged between 15 and 49 are at risk of sexual violence.

Mlambo-Ngcuka, South Africa's former deputy president, said more attention needed to be given to the practical responses to an emergency in order to protect women. For example, building toilet blocks or water points that are not situated far from where people are living and are well lit. But she added that after the initial throes of a crisis, women needed more longer-term support to ensure their rights are upheld.

"Organisations like us … will be working with governments to see that the impact [of an emergency] is not disproportionately borne by women," she said.

Women can find it more difficult than men to "re-establish their identity" or uphold their right to land if documents are lost during a disaster, she said. And sometimes the extra responsibility involved in looking after orphans, which often falls to women, is not acknowledged by governments or local leaders when resources are being distributed. "These are some of the details that could make the post-crisis life of women more bearable if we pay attention to them."


Rape
In times of fighting, such as in areas of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where an estimated 40 women a day are raped in South Kivu alone, women must have access to appropriate health services, such as emergency contraception, said Mlambo-Ngcuka, although she acknowledged that access to abortion as a result of rape in conflict was a fraught topic.

Explicit mention of ensuring women who have been raped in conflict have access to safe abortions was included in the outcome document of this year's UN Commission on the Status of Women, but it came with the proviso that abortion services have to be permitted by national law. Many governments still do not allow abortion or do so only if a women's life is at risk.

Mlambo-Ngcuka admitted this "makes it a bit tricky", and was not a "position we want to put women in. Unfortunately, it's not as perfect as one would like to be," she said. But she added that women's organisaitons were critical for implementing change. "We're not going to win the battle in the offices in New York. The battle will be won in the countries where women engage and confront their governments." – guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013 

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.

Liz Ford
Liz Ford works from London. Deputy editor of the @Guardian's #globaldev desk @GdnDevelopment, leading on women's rights and gender equality. Previously editor of the @GuardianKatine. Liz Ford has over 10013 followers on Twitter.
Advertising

Coalition politics and law: The fight over Tshwane

With coalition politics on the rise, particularly in local government, this kind of court case is likely to become more common

High court declares Dudu Myeni delinquent

Disgraced former SAA chairperson Dudu Myeni has been declared a delinquent director by the...

SANDF inquiry clears soldiers of the death of Collins Khosa

The board of inquiry also found that it was Khosa and his brother-in-law Thabiso Muvhango who caused the altercation with the defence force members

No back to school for teachers just yet

Last week the basic education minister was adamant that teachers will return to school on May 25, but some provinces say not all Covid-19 measures are in place to prevent its spread
Advertising

Press Releases

Road to recovery for the tourism sector: The South African perspective

The best-case scenario is that South Africa's tourism sector’s recovery will only begin in earnest towards the end of this year

What Africa can learn from Cuba in combating the Covid-19 pandemic

Africa should abandon the neoliberal path to be able to deal with Covid-19 and other health system challenges likely to emerge in future

Coexisting with Covid-19: Saving lives and the economy in India

A staggered exit from the lockdown accompanied by stepped-up testing to cover every district is necessary for India right now

Covid-19: Eased lockdown and rule of law Webinar

If you are arrested and fined in lockdown, you do get a criminal record if you pay the admission of guilt fine

Covid-19 and Frontline Workers

Who is caring for the healthcare workers? 'Working together is how we are going to get through this. It’s not just a marathon, it’s a relay'.

PPS webinar Part 2: Small business, big risk

The risks that businesses face and how they can be dealt with are something all business owners should be well acquainted with

Call for applications for the position of GCRO executive director

The Gauteng City-Region Observatory is seeking to appoint a high-calibre researcher and manager to be the executive director and to lead it

DriveRisk stays safe with high-tech thermal camera solution

Itec Evolve installed the screening device within a few days to help the driver behaviour company become compliant with health and safety regulations

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday