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A global voice for women: The right to be heard

Thursday, 15 May 2014 17:50 GMT

Women protest against the government and violence against women in Istanbul on March 9, 2014. REUTERS/Osman Orsal

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

There is an erroneous assumption that the battles to combat violence and discrimination against women have been fought, and already won in ‘western’, ‘developed’ countries. It is a naïve notion at best and a dangerous one at worst.

 “If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights once and for all. Let us not forget that among those rights are the right to speak freely — and the right to be heard,” declared the-First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton at the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing almost 20 years ago.

Women around the world are increasingly being encouraged to speak out and stand up for their rights.  However, while governments, media outlets, and women’s and human rights organizations are providing a platform for the voices in Africa, India, the Middle East, the Far East, and Latin America, the voices in the ‘West’ are all too often forgotten and over-looked by these people and organizations.

 There is an erroneous assumption that the battles to combat violence and discrimination against women have been fought, and already won in ‘western’, ‘developed’ countries. An assumption that by simply passing laws, signing treaties and allocating a few billion dollars/euros to national and regional programs, thousands of years of gender-bias and oppression of women in these societies will be effectively challenged and eradicated. It is a naïve notion at best and a dangerous one at worst. 

 The Internet is overflowing with speeches and rhetoric from political leaders, women’s rights activists, and myriad groups around the world recognizing that violence against women “knows no boundaries of geography, culture or wealth,” as former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan put it.  

However, the idea that this is a ‘poor-person’ / ‘poor-country’ problem, and one that only takes the form of extreme physical and sexual violence, is so entrenched in the mind-set of people that the voices of victims that fall outside these parameters are silenced by the prejudices and ignorance of those around them.   

 Amnesty International – Spain, in "What Specialized Justice?", demonstrates that the problem lays not in the desire, fortitude, and willingness of women to stand up for their rights and denounce their abusers, but rather in the failure of judicial systems to provide protection to women who dare to raise their voices and speak out. 

As stated in their report, "Instead of justifying the inaction of institutions by contending that it is the ‘obligation’ of the woman to denounce the violence, authorities should verify the effectiveness of the legal protection available and identify the obstacles that, in the law and its application, impede women from accessing and obtaining justice and protection.” 

 It is time for governments, and particularly government regulatory agencies responsible for assuring accountability of judicial actors and transparency in judicial systems, to recognize that the barriers women face in reclaiming their rights will not be broken down by rhetoric alone.

 As Michelle Bachelet, former Executive Director of UN Women stated last year in her closing remarks at the UN Stakeholders’ Forum on Preventing and Eliminating Violence Against Women, “the shortcomings [in the protection of victims of domestic violence] are not in the vision, voices and the voluminous efforts undertaken by determined women around the world. No, the shortcomings lie elsewhere—in the lack of political prioritization… Now is the time for governments to translate international promises into concrete national action….”

 The UN further explains in Ending Impunity for Violence against Women and Girls that “the acceptance of violence against women and girls — either explicitly or tacitly — creates a culture of impunity, which perpetuates that violence. When the State fails to hold perpetrators accountable, it contributes to a culture of impunity in which justice is denied and the roots of gender inequality grow deeper. Abuses continue, violence against women and girls is normalized and accepted, and inequality is reinforced, creating a vicious cycle.”

 As Hillary Rodham Clinton recognized nearly two decades ago, women’s rights cannot be separated from human rights, and human rights cannot be separated from women’s rights. But, until those in power start recognizing and defending the right of every woman to be heard, in a systematic and comprehensive manner, the hundreds of millions of voices of women speaking out around the world will continue to fall on deaf ears, and be silenced by the inaction and apathy of authorities.


--Quenby Wilcox is the Founder of Global Expats, which assists expatriated families. She is also Founder of Safe Child International, whose mission is to promote and defend the rights of victims of domestic abuse, and publishes a monthly newsletter Family Courts in Crisis, which promotes domestic abuse as a human rights violation.