Human beings are born free and equal, both in rights and in dignity. This is the fundamental principle enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
On 10 December nearly 70 years ago, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the first international assertion of the “highest aspiration of the common people”, including the “promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms”, and “… a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want”.
On this Human Rights Day, the last day in the global campaign of 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, we repeat the deep connections between freedom from fear, freedom from want and ending gender-based violence, and we say: It is time to turn the tide of violence against women and end it.
The rising movement by both women and men to end impunity for sexual abuse and build understanding of its enduring consequences has shown us how with awareness comes the determination for change. And with unity of purpose comes the strength to accomplish it.
The Declaration emphasizes inclusiveness of effort, including “every individual and every organ of society” in the work to secure the observance of rights. We acknowledge the value of ordinary citizens doing extraordinary things—women and men—who risk standing up for the protection of rights and access to justice, as well as the civil society and media organizations who amplify these calls and do so much to hold their governments to the highest standards.
All around the world, in every country, women and girls still struggle to exercise their full human rights, even to be seen as full human beings. Violence against women and girls is perhaps the most obvious manifestation of the deep imbalances in power in our societies, and the vulnerabilities and limitations that follow them, especially for the most marginalized, and especially in crisis contexts, when vulnerabilities are at their peak and protections at their lowest point. Defending women and girls’ rights means understanding and addressing these effects holistically.
Worldwide, 1 in 3 women have experienced physical or sexual violence—most often by an intimate partner. Nearly 750 million women and girls alive today were married before their 18th birthday, and over 200 million have suffered female genital mutilation. More than 70 per cent of all trafficking victims worldwide are women and girls, and 3 out of 4 trafficked women and girls are sexually exploited. This must end.
Today, we, the executive heads of UNDP, UNFPA and UN Women together call for the elimination of violence against women and girls, and the guarantee of all rights, including reproductive rights, for all women everywhere.
We know what must be done. The Declaration asserted the key principles of equality, non-discrimination, participation and accountability to ensure women could enjoy their full human rights. That means working to overturn the more than 155 laws that discriminate against women, and enacting new laws that ensure their equality and empowerment. It means focusing on preventing violence by working with judges, police and men, as well as women’s organizations and youth groups, to dismantle stereotypes and discriminatory attitudes. It means supporting services for survivors of violence, including safe spaces and psychological counselling in humanitarian and fragile contexts. Collectively, we are reaching millions of women and girls, men and boys with the message that sexual and gender-based violence is never acceptable, and it is destructive both to our societies and our individual potential.
The UN is also working together on rights in new ways that cross sectors and offer hope. In September, we helped launch the Spotlight Initiative, a collaborative effort with the European Union to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls by 2030, in keeping with the Sustainable Development Goals. It has a particular focus on domestic and family violence, sexual and gender-based violence and harmful practices, femicide, trafficking in human beings and labour exploitation. Through this initiative, we will jointly work with public and private sectors to strengthen laws and ensure their implementation, to transform the social norms that underpin and perpetuate these abuses, and to support women’s empowerment.
In calling for equal rights for all people, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights laid the foundation for a world based on equal rights and opportunities for women, men, girls and boys. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development aims to complete that journey in less than 13 years. Its critical concept of leaving no one behind is ultimately a pledge to and for rights holders, and a powerful obligation for duty-bearers. It will take all of us working together to ensure these rights are comprehensively implemented, so that they can be enjoyed by all.
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka is the Executive Director of UN Women
Dr. Natalia Kanem is the Executive Director for the UN Population Fund
Achim Steiner is the Administrator of the UN Development Programme