International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, Sixteen Days of Activism against Gender Violence

Speech: #HearMeToo: End Violence against Women and Girls

Speech for Anna-Karin Jatfors, UN Women Regional Director, a.i. Regional Commemoration for the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women at United Nations Conference Centre.

Date: Friday, November 23, 2018

[Check Against Delivery]

Your excellencies, distinguished guests and storytellers, UN partners, Dear friends,

Thank you for joining us today as we commemorate the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.

For far too long, the systematic silencing of victims/survivors and the impunity of perpetrators have allowed the global pandemic of violence against women to continue – unheard and unchallenged. The ubiquity of this violence continues to be revealed with shocking regularity through the stories and reports surfacing through the #MeToo movement and its sister movements across the globe.

These powerful stories show that in all corners of the world, witnesses, friends, families, colleagues, and even the very people charged with upholding laws and providing essential services, have been willing to stay silent, to look away, or have even placed the guilt on survivors, to the point that many even blamed themselves.

In a UN study launched earlier this year, called the Trial of Rape, which looked at the experiences of women seeking justice after suffering sexual assault, two brave survivors from our region told us this:

“I was so embarrassed and scared. I felt stupid for having trusted the person. I did not dare tell anyone. I only wanted to commit suicide.”

“I used to blame myself for what happened to me. I partied a lot… I trusted people too easily. I wore revealing dresses. What could I say to defend myself? I was raped. [I felt] it was partly my fault.”

These are just two stories amongst the millions of women who suffer violence every day.

The #MeToo movement has reminded us of the power of the personal story. And as more and more women are coming forward, using social media and other channels to tell their stories and demand change, as a community we have an obligation to listen to these voices and to say: “We believe you,” “we hear you” and “it’s not your fault.” And this is the essence of the theme of the UNiTE Campaign in 2018: #HearMeToo: End Violence against Women and Girls.

These social movements have shown the enormous magnitude of sexual harassment and other forms of violence at workplaces, schools, transportation, and in women’s lives everywhere. They have exposed the reach of violence, from corporate corner offices to factory floors, from journalism to the world of sports, from the entertainment industry to government agencies.

But they have also given new meaning to the concept and practice of zero tolerance – opening up new spaces for challenging the culture of gender discrimination and abuses of power that permeate every aspect of society, including our workplaces, and for holding offenders accountable.

We believe that the voices of survivors must be heard, along with the stories of advocates who are tirelessly working to make a difference in the lives of millions of women and girls.

This is why this year’s regional UN commemoration is different. This time, we are shining a light on the work of survivors and activists, who have endured violence, fought against it, or helped to prevent it from happening to others, by providing a platform for them to share their own stories of ending violence against women.

We are also extremely proud to be joined by Cindy Sirinya Bishop, creator of #DontTellMeHowToDress, Thailand’s response to the #MeToo movement. We are delighted that this exhibition – developed in partnership with the Government of Thailand, the Women and Men Progressive Foundation, the Embassy of Canada, and UN Women – will be held at the UN Conference Centre throughout the entire 16 Days of Activism, where it will be seen by government and civil society delegations from across the region. By showcasing the clothing that victims wore at the time they were assaulted, the exhibition challenges the notion that women’s appearance and behaviour are to blame. Clearly, it is not about the clothes. Attitudes and unequal power drive violence against women.

On the banners outside today, you will see quotes, findings and recommendations from the study I referred to earlier, which confirmed that myths and misconceptions about sexual violence are common, even among police and justice officials. Where responsibility, shame and stigma are placed on victims rather than on perpetrators, women can find it very difficult to report their cases, be turned away at the door when they do report, and may even give up on the very system that should look after their safety, freedom and justice.

This culture of impunity perpetuates the cycle of violence: the vast majority of perpetrators of violence against women and girls face no legal consequences. Only a small minority of cases are ever reported to the police; an even smaller percentage result in charges, and in only a fraction of those cases is there a conviction. The focus must change from questioning the credibility of the victim, to pursuing accountability of the perpetrator. Women’s safety should come first, not suspicion.

We all have an obligation to build on the momentum built by the courageous survivors and advocates around the world to end the systemic violence against women and girls. This means changing the ways in which women who speak out about sexual violence are heard, believed and supported.

And last but not least, we can all be champions for gender equality, the most powerful tool we have to create a world free of violence. Today and every day, we honour our storytellers, we thank you for your bravery, and we recognize that your story is our story.