WASHINGTON: Despite great progress for women in the past several decades, women throughout the world are still subjected to discrimination, violence and exploitation, UNICEF executive director Ann M. Veneman said Wednesday.
"Around the globe today, especially in developing countries, girls and women suffer in silence - out of range of the cameras and off society's radar," Veneman said, giving the keynote address at the Annual International Women's Day Luncheon in Washington. "In too many nations and regions, women are still devalued and denied or treated as second-class citizens. They are the victims of gross inequity or all too often, much worse."
Stressing the critical link between equality for women and development progress, Veneman drew attention to widespread abuse and exploitation of women and children, such as the sexual violence committed in armed conflict, trafficking, and practices such as honor killings, dowry crimes, early marriage, and female genital cutting/mutilation.
"Violence against women is the extreme form of inequality, and it is hard to think of an act against women that can be more damaging or enduring than sexual violence," Veneman said.
Noting that sexual violence is not limited to any particular country or culture, Veneman said it takes on new dimensions in developing countries and conflict zones. During the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, 500,000 women were raped and beaten, often by men known to have HIV, Veneman said.
Veneman told the gathering about some of the girls and women she met last week in the Democratic Republic of Congo who had been sexually assaulted. They included a 12-year-old girl, an orphan, who went to collect firewood and was raped and beaten by four men in the bush and a 60-year-old woman who was tied up and raped and beaten by two soldiers who attacked her when she went to the field to look for food for her family.
"Rape as a weapon of war is used to terrify and demoralize communities, to exact vengeance on the men through the women, or because too many perpetrators simply believe they can do so with impunity," Veneman said.
She also drew attention to female genital mutilation, which is practiced in many countries and has severe and lasting physical effects. Globally, an estimated 100 to 140 million women have undergone the procedure and an estimated three million girls are subjected to the practice every year. The nature and scale of violence against children globally will be detailed in the Secretary General's Study on Violence Against Children to be published in October 2006. The study is being developed in close consultation with UNICEF, which supports programs throughout the world to protect children from violence, abuse and exploitation.
Veneman also stressed the importance of education, particularly for girls. When girls are educated, they are more likely to be able to protect themselves from disease, including HIV/AIDS, as well as from abuse and exploitation.
"A society cannot possibly marginalize half its population and expect positive outcomes," she said. "The empowerment of women is not just an issue for women; it is an issue for everyone." - UNICEF