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Source: United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA)
25 November 2008



Speech by the Commissioner General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, Karen Koning AbuZayd

Gaza, 25 November 2008

Good morning.

Today, the twenty-fifth of November 2008, is the ninth anniversary of the United Nations declared International Day for the Elimination of All Forms of Violence Against Women. Today, on the 48th anniversary of the assassination of the Mirabel sisters – Minerva, Patria and Maria Teresa – for their opposition to the fascist dictatorship of their homeland, the Dominican Republic, there is still a need to boldly stand for the protection of girls and women against abuse in all its forms.

Each year, we mark this day:


The causes of violence are many and varied. They include poverty, unemployment, ignorance, erroneous beliefs about women’s inferiority and abuse of power. The Israeli occupation is also a vehicle of violence inflicted through extreme violations of the human rights and freedoms of Palestinians. While all Palestinians suffer the effects of the occupation, closure and movement restrictions, women often find themselves bearing an especially heavy burden. They are constrained in meeting their special health, maternity and social welfare needs. And many are compelled to become breadwinners when their spouses or other male relatives are arrested, injured or worse. Regardless of the reason, violence against girls and women is always unacceptable.

Violence respects no boundaries and borders. It is a global issue that transcends culture and religion. This fact is recognised in many binding international instruments. Clearly stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which turned 60 this year, is the right of all "to life, liberty and security of person"(1). The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, known as CEDAW, recognises that "equality of rights and respect for human dignity" are essential for development and prosperity, both of the family and of society. CEDAW advocates for social and cultural changes that eliminate beliefs and behaviours that hold women to be inferior to men(2). Then there is the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, in which the United Nations recognised "the urgent need for the universal application to women of the rights and principles with regard to equality, security, liberty, integrity and dignity of all human beings" because "violence against women is a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women, which have led to domination over and discrimination against women by men and to the prevention of the full advancement of women"(3).

These globally shared principles and proclamations are important foundations for dealing with violence. They are a starting point for all. They are a starting point for UNRWA in working with Palestinian women.

UNRWA is working directly with communities and their organisations to eliminate violence against women. This year in the Gaza Strip alone we have worked together in running discussion groups that raise awareness about violence amongst girls, amongst women, amongst families and amongst men.

More than 1,800 girls, women and men have participated in the discussion groups, where they learn, where they share their experiences, where they find solutions to their problems in safe environments. The discussion groups have produced supportive networks that challenge the isolation of women in the home. Growing awareness and understanding of domestic violence is taking place.

One of the issues that has provoked much reaction is that of early marriage. Girls and women have voiced their opposition to early marriage, considering it a form of violence. Mothers in particular are adopting stronger positions when it comes to the fate of their daughters.

Men are also profiting from the discussion groups, as they provide them with non-violent skills and strategies for dealing with their anger and frustration, in addition to raising awareness. Sometimes, in the beginning, the men are highly vocal, constantly talking, and expressing their opinions, while at the same time resisting new and challenging information, believing that violence within the home is not a big issue and that men have the right to "discipline" wives and children. As the sessions unfold, the men start to listen more and talk less. More questions are asked. They begin to see situations and women differently. Their outlooks alter. What was once considered a right, or normal, is now understood to be abuse. With more open minds, seeds of empathy and recognition of rights, behaviour changes in the interests of both the men and the women.

You have told us that discussion groups are "important" and "excellent"; that they are needed, as one means, to address domestic violence because they give you the opportunity to listen to one another, to think about what is going on in your lives, to receive information, to interact with others, to exchange ideas and to share your experiences. The discussion groups have highlighted that domestic violence, so you tell us, is about rights, responsibilities and care.

The issue of care is also part of the educational workshops that we are running for our staff in the UNRWA Health Clinics. These workshops for health-care workers are designed to promote understanding of domestic violence, as well as of the role of health-care workers in responding to domestic violence. In this way, the doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, and other medical practitioners, will be even more attuned to the violence that you suffer, and better able to assist.

What we are seeing is that with greater understanding, combined with supportive networks, you, Palestinian women, are regarding yourselves in a different light. Your sense of self-worth is stronger, you have more skills to deal with violence in the home, and you are empowered to assert your rights, taking control over your lives and those of your daughters. We should not underestimate the courage that you are showing in speaking-out and in supporting one another to eliminate the violence in your lives.

Many of you here today are engaged in the activities supported by UNRWA in your local organisations. We have recognised the importance of creating safe and suitable spaces for women in the community. Each month more than two thousand girls and women participate in a range of activities, from computer courses and health workshops to drama and crafts. One of the benefits, or pleasures, of these activities, is the opportunity to be outside of the home, to engage with other women and to release some of the pressures of daily life. You are claiming your presence in society.

Palestinian women are not alone in this endeavour. Female infanticide, emotional and physical abuse, child or early marriage, rape, differential access to food, education and medical care, harassment in the workplace and confiscation of property are just some of the issues that women elsewhere in the world are experiencing.

In Tanzania there are community-based Crisis Intervention Teams that provide survivors of violence with comprehensive support. Across the Atlantic Ocean, in Mexico, midwives receive training to identify and help victims of violence, as well as to engage in community outreach(4). In Armenia earlier this month, the Government of Armenia signed an agreement to establish an Anti-Trafficking Support and Resource Unit. Armenian women who are victims of human trafficking will have a source of national support(5). Bangladesh, Paraguay and Jordan, for example, have developed National Action Plans to combat violence against women. Recognising that strength comes from working together, more than 200 organisations are participating in the drafting of a National Plan of Action to combat violence against women in Australia. Women from Greece and from Turkey also saw power from collective action, joining forces to form WINPEACE, which seeks to foster a culture of peace wherein women have a leading role in conflict resolution. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the organisation Medica Zenica provides counselling to girls and women traumatised by violence, along with offering vocational training(6). In Jordan, there is the "Say No to Violence Against Women" campaign. In one region of the United Kingdom, an effort was made to educate young people about domestic violence by creating a mobile theatre that visited secondary schools. The awareness of students, both boys and girls, was raised by their being able to interact around a play and discussion.

It is through such locally-based efforts, in the framework of international covenants, that we will both prevent and progressively eliminate violence against women. What is evident, from all the projects and programs throughout the world, is that women, and often men, are united around common and specific goals. There is recognition of the power of the collective, of working together, such that women have the strength, skill and support to deal effectively with the violence in their lives. In this way, the necessary shift in power relations, a shift in favour of greater balance between women and men, along with women claiming control of their lives, will lead to the eradication of the abuse and oppression from which women throughout the world suffer.

It is only through education, skill-building and recognition of the rights of all that there will be development and peace. Silence is compliance. We cannot condone, under any circumstances, acts of violence committed against girls and women. The sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights this year is a timely reminder of the need for all of us, for Palestinians, for UNRWA, for women and men, to actively contribute to efforts aimed at eliminating all forms of violence against women.


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(1) Article 3, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, http://www.un.org/Overview/rights.html

(2) http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/text/econvention.htm

(3) http://www.unhchr.ch/huridocda/huridoca.nsf/(Symbol)/A.RES.48.104.En

(4) UNHCR, Prevention and Response to Sexual and Gender-Based Violence in Refugee Situations, Inter-Agency Lessons Learned Conference Proceedings, 27-29 March 2001, Geneva.

(5) http://www.stopvaw.org/Armenia_Makes_New_Strides_in_Anti-Trafficking_Plans.html

(6) INSTRAW, Violence Against Women: New Challenges (Review and Appraisal of the Beijing Platform for Action), www.un-instraw.org


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