International Women's Day 2009

Published: 9 March 2009

Address by Ibrahim Osman, Deputy Secretary General, at the IFRC on the occasion of International Women's Day, in Geneva

Thank you all very much for coming together here to celebrate with us the International Women`s Day (IWD). It is an occasion for stopping and reflecting -- what are the key challenges women worldwide are facing today?

This year, the theme chosen for IWD is “unite to end violence against women”.

As this topic makes clear, both women and men, the young and the old, from all parts of the world need to join forces to end this wide-spread and abusive violation of the most basic of rights and dignity.

Even now, in 2009, violence against women and girls represents the most pervasive human rights violation that we know. But besides being a severe human rights problem, violence against women is a global health issue, a dangerous driver of the HIV epidemic, it devastates lives, fractures communities, and stalls development.

While taking a distressing toll on women`s lives, it damages or destroys families, and has a serious negative impact on society as a whole.

It has been recorded that at least one out of every three women worldwide are beaten, coerced into sex, forced to marry (and in too many cases to marry very early to much older men), or are genitally mutilated. The list is long of the grave forms of violence that too many women have to experience in their lifetime.

In some countries, these rates reach 70%! More women between the age of 15 to 44 are subject to rape and domestic violence than to cancer, heart disease, AIDS, motor vehicle accidents, or war together.

Living free from violence is a human right. As we have demonstrated, millions of women and girls around the world encounter rape, domestic abuse, mutilation, and other forms of gender-based violence.

While most countries prohibit such hideous aggression and cruelty, the sad fact is that too often the crimes are not properly investigated and nobody is held accountable. Many times such violence is considered a private matter, a cultural habit, or a minor issue not worth investigating and addressing.

This has left many victims helpless, hopeless, and more prone to further violence.

Sometimes, tragically, the victim is herself converted into the guilty person.

We in the IFRC recognise that there is an expectation from the outside world that our organisation will speak out to defend vulnerable people, whether they are children, women, the elderly, or men.

This is indeed integral to our mission. Through our Fundamental Principles and underpinning humanitarian values, we explicitly condemn any form of violence inflicted on another human being. We consider such acts as a violation of human dignity and human rights. We work to prevent and alleviate human suffering without discrimination, in accordance with our Fundamental Principle of impartiality!

This is our humanitarian mandate and includes addressing women`s particular vulnerabilities from any form of sexual or gender based violence, whether in our emergency or development operations.

The IFRC is working with its National Society members to support governments in addressing and prevention of all forms of violence inflicted on women.

A holistic approach has been adopted by our National Societies to work with other actors to address this problem. Special projects, campaigns, awareness raising and training activities have been and are being conducted, even as we speak.

They are carried out in order to empower women, inform men, and to help all to understand and defend their rights.

Some examples of such vital work are the community based support centers for victims of domestic abuse in Malawi, joint training with local institutions such as police, health centres, legal and educational entities in Argentina, temporary shelter for pregnant girls and women in Paraguay, among others.

The IFRC strongly supporting these initiatives, one example of which is work being done through its Zonal office in Southern Africa to developing a regional sex and gender based violence strategy, as well as global guidelines on the same topic.

The IFRC Secretariat is strongly committed to continue our work with National Societies, Governments, and other actors, to stop violence against women and to hold perpetrators responsible for their acts.

We are committed to support efforts to end this cycle of violence against women and will continue to join forces and unite with other stakeholders, to achieve this vital objective.

Violence is unacceptable! It is unacceptable in any case, anywhere. All of us need to send a clear message that whatever form it takes, it is unacceptable. We need to reinforce that point.

At IFRC, one expression of our strong commitment to achieve this is our ZERO TOLERANCE policy towards sexual exploitation and abuse, as well as our harassment policy.

The IFRC Human Resources Department is actively engaged in reinforcing and implementing such policies in order to ensure, that violence, abuse and exploitation can not take roots within our organisation.

The Zero Tolerance Policy as constituted in our pledge 101 delivered in 2007 at the International Conference of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is fully consistent with a UN-wide mandatory policy now being implemented by many other humanitarian and development organisations.

In line with our pledge, we are supporting the signature of it by all National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, within the coming year.

I wish you all a thoughtful IWD and that the spirit of this day will accompany all of us for the future and help build the mindset that every organisation needs if it is to be an effective partner in the struggle against violence.

This means that one of the most important tasks for Governments as they take steps to address the financial crisis is to ensure the capacity of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and other relevant civil society actors to bring reliable information about vulnerability and need to attention.

This capacity-building is required everywhere in the world, but particular attention is required in the least developed countries most at risk. It is also essential that the capacity-building work prioritises those most likely to make strong contributions to national effort. Gender is vital in this context.

This last point completes the circle of this speech.

Youth must have a strong place in helping governments unravel this financial crisis and the other global crises on the agenda. The reasons for this are obvious and I won’t repeat them.