RESPECT for Women seminar - Irene Khan

RESPECT for Women seminar

Thursday 9 September 2004

Setting the scene

Presentation by Ms Irene Khan, Secretary General, Amnesty International

MS IRENE KHAN: Kate, Lowitja, Elizabeth and friends, I begin informally, because, having been in Adelaide for about 10 hours, I already feel very much at home. Let me start by acknowledging the Kaurna people on whose land we meet today.

I think the issue that we have here today is one that affects us all around the world, and what I would like to do is perhaps bring that global picture to here in South Australia. A nation is like a bird with two wings: if one is broken the bird cannot fly. That was something that Semas Humma, a woman human rights defender in Afghanistan, told me last year when I visited Kabul; and in a sense we have a world today, I would say, with one broken wing. I am going to tell you the story of five women that I have met in the last 3 years during my time as Amnesty Secretary-General. They will almost seem like parables, because from each one of them I think we can draw a certain lesson.

Let me start, first, with the story of Jemila. Now, Jemila, when I met her last year in Kabul, was 16 years old. I met her in a women's prison in Kabul, and that prison was full of women who were accused of having committed adultery or who wanted to marry the man of their choice or who were fleeing brutal husbands. 95 per cent of the women there were there for those reasons.

Now, Jemila told me that at the age of 15, a year before I met her, she had been abducted from her home. The person who abducted her wanted to force her into marriage. She told me that she didn't accept the marriage, her hands and feet were bound during the marriage ceremony, that he then abused her, raped her, attacked her, and then finally she couldn't bear it any more so she ran away. 

The police found her, brought her back, she faced more abuse, she fled again, and this time round the police took her to the prison and put her there for protection

She said to me the only thing that she really wanted to do was to go home to her parents, but she was afraid that if she went home her father would kill her because she had tainted his honour; or, she said, if he didn't kill her certainly the people who had abducted her would kill her. And her fears are not unfounded, because in March last year President Karzai of Afghanistan actually gave amnesty to 20 such women and released them from prison, and one of them was killed by her own family as soon as she was released and a number of others have disappeared. So that is Jemila's story.

Let us not forget that when military action in Afghanistan was undertaken, there was a lot of talk in the international community about how the Taliban had treated the women in Afghanistan and what the world would do to restore the rights of these women.

The second story that I would like to tell you is of Rosie. One of the first tasks that I did when I became Secretary-General of Amnesty was to go to Durban in 2001 to the World Conference Against Racism. Now, when I went there - it was a huge, big conference, as these are, with lots of Government delegations, air-conditioned rooms, convention halls and so on - I wanted to see a bit of South Africa. So my colleagues from Amnesty took me with them to a township outside Durban and to a women's centre that had been set up there to talk to the women there.

Of course, what I found when I went there were really stories of domestic violence. The counsellors told me all the problems that were taking place there. I met an elderly lady who had taken in eight children whose parents had died of AIDS, and then, of course, one of the counsellors told me the story of Rosie. Now, listening to stories of domestic violence it is important to keep in mind that South Africa actually has introduced one of the best laws against domestic violence in the world, so it has a fantastic legal system.

The counsellor told me that Rosie had been married for about 15 years, she was the mother of five children, her husband was extremely brutal and had beaten her several times. She had had to be hospitalised, she had broken her ribs, she had broken her arm, and then one day he beat her so badly that she actually died. 

So, having heard about the domestic violence Bill and then Rosie's story, I asked the counsellor (under the South African domestic law all a woman has to do now is to seek a protection order from the magistrate and the man would be denied access to the home), so I said, "Why didn't Rosie ask for that protection order; what went wrong in Rosie's case?" And the counsellor told me that what went wrong in Rosie's case was that she didn't have the $2 that she needed to take a bus from her village to the magistrate's court, so her life had gone because of the missing rand.

Then let me tell you the story of Francine. Now, I met Francine in Eastern Congo last October, and that is a part of the world which has witnessed some of the worst atrocities in a war that has made the rape of women a tool of military strategy. I went to a women's centre. Now, what that women's centre actually consisted of was a plastic sheet in a parking lot on tarmac, but hundreds of women were coming there to talk to each other, basically to share solidarity at that moment. There the women talk about their problems, about children that are born out of rape, about how they have been rejected by their families, what problems they have in terms of HIV AIDS and so on.

Francine is a teacher, 28 years old, and she told me that she was attacked and raped by the opposite faction because of the political activities of her husband. Her husband has now abandoned her, because he thinks that she has been tainted by rape, stigmatised. She has a 10-year-old daughter who keeps asking her whether she will die of HIV AIDS, and Francine told me that frankly she was too scared to find out. She thought she probably had been infected, but she just couldn't bear to find out.

In that blue tent I met dozens of women who came and talked to me, and the one thing that they said to me was, "We want you to hear our story. We've walked all these miles to come and tell you our story, so that you can carry it out to others and tell them how women are becoming a tool of war, how militarisation is affecting women." Sudan, where I will be going to soon, is again another story of rape being used as a tool of war.

Then let me tell you another story from another part of the world - Paloma. Now, I never met Paloma, but I heard her story from her mother. Paloma is one of about 370 women who have been killed in Ciudad Juaraez. This is a small town on the border of northern Mexico, just across from El Paso. When I went there, you know, where the door is, where the exit sign is, that is where I could see the skyscrapers of Texas, and on this side are the poor slums that have come about.

Because of tax regulations, American companies are setting up assembly plants across the border in Mexico, attracting a lot of cheap labour from poor parts of Mexico, and, of course, the cheap labour happens to be largely women coming to work there, and most of these women are coming there to improve their lives. But it is also a town of great violence, organised crime, drug smuggling and so on, and many of these women who work in the machilladoros - machilladoro meaning assembly plants - have been victims of violence for the last 10 years and the police, the local authorities, have done nothing to investigate those, and Amnesty had taken up their case.

I met with President Fox. His first reaction to me was, "Yes, what you are saying is correct, I don't dispute your facts, but I have no authority to intervene in a state matter; I am part of the Federal Government." Finally, we did manage to bring pressure on him, and we brought pressure on him not only because of Amnesty; we actually brought pressure on him because of the mothers of Ciudad Juaraez. The women had organised themselves and for the last 10 years they have been fighting to draw attention to these cases, because they want justice. So here, in northern Mexico, you have a situation where women are actually contributing to the global economy, helping to fuel the global economy, but that economy, that society, has failed to protect them.

My last, fifth, story is about Esperenza. Now, Esperenza I met in Spain in Madrid. She is a women's activist there. She set up a centre for women who were suffering from domestic violence, and she is campaigning now in Spain to strengthen the laws. Spanish society, like so many other societies, tends to be very macho in its approach, and she is trying to really address the prejudices there.

I listened with great admiration to the story that she was telling me of the work that she was doing and so on. Then, as she was leaving, she turned to me and she said, "I have an apology to make." I said, "What do you want to apologise about?" And she said, "Actually, you know, my name is not Esperenza." Esperenza in Spanish means hope, and she said, "My name is not Esperenza. I cannot use my own name because my husband has threatened to kill me, and so I have to work under a false name." So here in Madrid - this is Western Europe - in the heart of Western Europe, women are living with false names because the state is unable to protect them from violence.

So, from these stories, there are many lessons that we can draw, but I would like to make five points from the five stories. First, that violence against women is a global problem. We say human rights are universal. Now the human rights abuses that women suffer make universality a shame in this particular case. It is a global scandal, and I think what that also makes us remember is that it is not something that just happens over there. As I was listening to you here earlier, Kate, it is the realisation that happens here, everywhere, in our homes, in our own communities.

The second point, of course, is that violence against women is very severe. One in three women around the world - these are UN statistics - will suffer some kind of severe violence in their life: sexual violence, attack, assault or sex. Now, if you look around this room, you have six people sitting at each table - one in three. Statistically, two of us have suffered an incident like that. 

What is also awful is that here in Australia, for example, one in four women experience violence in their intimate relationships; and 35 per cent of women in Australia experience violence from their partner after separation; one in eight is subjected to violence from their partner while pregnant here in Australia. I was listening earlier to a women from an institute in Cairo, and she told me that in Egypt as well they have discovered that violence actually increases when women are pregnant.

The third point I want to make is that violence against women is hidden. Women are too ashamed and afraid to report it or they are not taken seriously if they do. Sometimes they are threatened if they do. So we actually only know the tip of the iceberg. In the United Kingdom only one in four attacks on women is ever reported, and that is a trend. I am using the UK as an example, but it is a trend globally.

My fourth point is that violence against women takes many forms. Domestic violence is, of course, a very common form that we all know about; but sometimes it is issues like female genital mutilation; at other times it is rape during war; there is bride burning in India. In my own country, in Bangladesh, there is a growing practice of throwing acid on the faces of women. So there are many different ways in which violence occurs.

My fifth point is that violence against women is so perverse; it is so global, it happens because of impunity, because of inequality and because of apathy. It happens because Governments turn a blind eye to them. In many countries the laws do not protect women. Seventy-nine countries in the world have no laws on domestic violence; 127 countries in the world have no laws against sexual harassment; and only 16 countries in the world have specific laws on sexual assault; and, even where there are laws, they don't work. I just mentioned to you the situation in South Africa, for example.

There are in many countries laws and policies that specifically discriminate against women. At least 54 countries in the world have laws: under the law the woman is unequal. Earlier, Kate talked about Rwanda. In Rwanda women have no access to land, or did not have access to land until after the genocide when a lot of men were killed and the women couldn't till the land because they didn't own it; they couldn't own the land.

So, very often violence against women happens because women do not have equal access to economic and social rights, and there is increasingly what economists call the feminisation of poverty, and what that means is that more and more of the poor today are women. We see this, and this has been reinforced more and more because of the global economy that has been created.

Finally, violence against women happens because we allow it to happen. I think it is very important to take responsibility here, and I say this as a human rights activist: the tendency is, of course, to look at state responsibility. And we do look at state responsibility here, but we've got to look also at the responsibility of society. We allow it to happen as women. We are too afraid or ashamed to speak of it. As men, they deny it, and as society we tolerate it, and that is the real problem about it.

Now, what do human rights bring to this issue? Because, of course, violence against women is something the women's movements around the world have been campaigning against for decades now, and they have had remarkable achievements. I think what human rights brings to it, first, is the notion that the right to be free from violence is a universal right that belongs to every woman, every man, every person, because they are human beings. And that means you cannot use culture, custom, any excuse, to justify violence against women.

The second thing that human rights brings to it is accountability. Human rights are based on the notion that if someone has a right someone else has a duty, and therefore it places obligations on the state. Violence against women is not something that is just a private concern; it is actually a public concern, and society and state must take responsibility for it, even where the violence is perpetrated by a private act.

The third issue that I believe human rights do is to empower those who have those rights. They empower the women themselves to stand up, and this is actually what has been happening. If we have seen progress in this area, it is because of women, because of people like you and others around the world, who have organised themselves to resist this.

The fourth thing that human rights bring to this debate is that they bring to it the standards of non-discrimination, of justice, of equality. These are fundamental human rights standards that can be used to put the women's issue very centrally on the human rights agenda. Women's rights are human rights. It might seem very obvious to us today, but that point was made really very forcefully for the first time only in 1993 at the Vienna World Conference on Women: not so long ago; just over a decade ago.

Now, as some of you may know, Amnesty has launched a campaign to stop violence against women, and actually the Australian campaign was launched here at WOMADELAIDE earlier this year, and it is the campaign that we started in cooperation with women's movements around the world. We believe that we are there to support them, and what we hope to bring to it is the human rights community. The human rights community is made up of both men and women, and it is very important that in discussing this issue and trying to tackle it we draw men to it.

Mara Moustafine, Director of Amnesty Australia, has told me that at WOMADELAIDE, when Amnesty opened its banner and asked for people to put their handprint on it, the first person who rushed to do so was a man, and he put his handprint and he signed underneath it, "For Mum." That is what we would like to do. We would like to see men come on board, because they have to be part of that solution.

In our campaign we are focusing on three key areas. The first is challenging discrimination. We see that as a major issue, because that is really at the root of a lot of the violence, and next year will be 10 years to the Beijing conference. There was a platform of action at Beijing Women's Conference, where commitments were made by Governments. We would like to put those commitments to test there and demand change.

We hope that in that context Australia would adopt a national plan, because this is a country where not only is there a high incidence of violence against women, but there is a disproportionately high incidence of violence against indigenous women, and something has to be done about it. Adopting a national plan, by making it a national priority, I think Australia will also be setting itself up as a role model for this region where, of course, this problem happens to be very severe, and I'm talking about the Asia Pacific region.

The second project that we want to focus on is to challenge impunity against violence in armed conflict situations. Now, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court that was adopted recently has made one very important contribution to international law, where rape has been identified as a war crime and a crime against humanity. That is a signal that no impunity should be allowed for violations against women in armed conflict situations, and we would like to take that up very strongly.

The third aspect of our campaign is about what we call making women's rights a reality: bridging the gap between rhetoric and reality. And here we would like to focus on the responsibility of the state, of the Governments, their responsibility of due diligence; that they ensure that they have done everything possible to make sure that women are protected against violence, no matter what the source of it. There we hope to have a strong focus on domestic violence, violence that happens in the privacy of the home, because that is a very peculiar type of violence that you don't normally see in human rights abuses. Because there is a strange relationship between the victim and the perpetrator, it makes it very difficult to address that violence; and yet that is the most pervasive, the most difficult one that needs to be addressed.

The final aspect of our campaign is actually to change ourselves. For Amnesty International it is the first time in our history of 40-odd years as a human rights organisation that we are taking up a human rights abuse in which the victims and the perpetrators are also within Amnesty and not just outside. So we have got to change ourselves as an organisation, because we recognise that we have to change ourselves before we can change the world.

I think if all of us would look at this issue in that way, this is an issue that touches us personally, all of us, in many different ways. We have either suffered violence or we know people who have, and the key lies also with us in changing our attitudes in the way in which we respond to this issue and in the way in which we draw others to come and join us in this. 

So I wanted to put out to you some of these stories and to remember the women in Eastern Congo who said to me, "Carry our stories around the world so that other women will not have to suffer what we've gone through." I know that here, when I see a room like this fill up with women, you are not only talking about what is happening here in South Australia; you are actually reaching out to women around the world. And it is through that solidarity that we will make sure that the broken wing is healed. 

Thank you


QUESTION 1: Irene, I can't pretend to be any sort of expert in this area, but I just wonder about the dreadful R word. It seems to me a lot of the world's religions endorse the devaluing of women and perhaps some of these attitudes are rooted in beliefs. I am just interested in your comments on that.

MS KHAN: You have put your finger on it, and that is why I think a human rights approach to this issue is so important to underline the universality of it and not specificity or relativity. What I think is a very dangerous trend that we see now is the wave of fundamentalism - Christian fundamentalism, Muslim fundamentalism, Hindu fundamentalism - that is actually affecting women's rights. So, whether it is the Christian right that is talking about control over women's bodies or whether it is Islamic leaders that are talking about women's rights, the tone is very similar, and it is a very dangerous tone.

Now, I have often been asked by journalists around the world, who know that I am a Muslim, and they usually ask me the question, "Don't you think the Sharia law is a barrier to women's rights? As a Muslim how do you justify in your own mind what you are doing in this campaign?" My answer to them is that if you look at Islamic countries - Sharia law also, as many of you might know, forbids the taking of interest financially. Now, Muslim countries have no problem in adjusting themselves into the modern economy, despite Sharia law.

So why is there a problem in adjusting to modern society and giving women equal rights under Sharia law? So, to me, it is not a question of religion; it is really a question of power. And what we are talking about here when we are talking about violence against women is the imbalance of power in society and in politics and in the economy between men and women that allow this to happen, and religion is used as a cover to push that issue forward. So I think we've got to shift away from religion and look at global values that bring us together, and here is the value of human rights in trying to put this issue as a universal right to be free from violence regardless of whether you are a man or a woman.

QUESTION 2: Irene, I just wanted to make two quick comments about your presentation, just additions really, and then to ask a question. The one is that in a lot of the countries - and this goes for the Southern African example - the situation is complicated by the fact that relationships are often polygamous rather than just monogamous, and this has a compounding effect, particularly in the AIDS problem, and I have noticed that a lot of the examples do not stress that. The other thing is that, on the positive side, I have seen that a lot of the young women's magazines in Australia at the moment are actually stressing no respect, no relationship, and I think that is an interesting message to be communicated.

My question is: there is a lot of stress on physical violence in the campaign that you have outlined, and it seems to me that one of the important areas for Australian women - and, I'm sure, for women in many countries - is the area of psychological abuse. It often accompanies physical abuse, it is often the element that lasts long after the physical abuse has ceased, and it is also very common in workplaces, and it is perhaps at the base of what Kate had pointed out to us in terms of denying access to women to senior and executive management level, for example. So I just wondered about your comment on that important psychological abuse element.

MS KHAN: Yes, you are right about polygamous relationships - it is one of the aspects which I didn't mention, because obviously in 15 minutes there is only so much you can talk about - and the whole issue of sexuality and sexual rights. This is an area which is absolutely critical when you are talking about violence against women, for this is an area on which there is very little discussion. This is an area where there are a lot of divisions when you come to the issue of reproductive rights, issues of abortion and so on.

There are many different views on it, so it is a very controversial area, you know, and you move into prostitution or pornography and so on. There are many different views, even among the women's movements, on how to address those issues. But the fundamental thing is women's control over their own bodies. Research has actually shown, for example, that the prevalence of HIV AIDS increases in those situations where there is violence in the family, because women then have less ability to negotiate safe sex. 

So there are all kinds of implications of horrendous proportions when you think about the AIDS pandemic that are related to the situation of violence against women, and in a sense it is putting this issue more centrally on the agenda today. So in that sense we hope that will create greater realisation and, therefore, a greater urge to get action. You were talking about respect in relationship, and that comes back to the point that I was making about society, about social issues and social attitudes that have to change on this issue of violence. It is not only laws that will make the difference here; it is how we treat each other; how we look at women in our societies. The relationship between boys and girls is absolutely fundamental to that.

On mental health you are again very right: psychological abuse is absolutely a fundamental. In fact, the definition of violence against women actually includes - when I use the term, the international definition includes mental and physical abuse, so it is actually a very broad definition of violence, although it might be most manifest in physical abuse. Mental abuse is absolutely integral to it, because it is a question of power: you exert power through the mind, not only through the body.

My final point about women and power, and I do want to make this point, because it is a very important one. You know, I've been trying to push the issue of violence against women in business situations at places of work, and I wanted to bring it up at the World Economic Forum. So I went to see the head of the World Economic Forum, and he said to me that he had been trying to get powerful women, like Carla Forine, for example, women who have made it to the top of business, to take this issue up; and he said that he actually found resistance precisely from the women who make it to the top, because they don't want to be associated as being seen as women's issues. So I think there is more than just putting women in positions of power. It is changing our attitude to this issue that is also fundamental.

QUESTION 3: I just want to give a brief introduction. This is a question about the basic right to identity and to be respected for who we are. Each child has two parents, one male, one female, and a child has inherent rights to identity links to both parents. Is Amnesty doing anything about the discrimination against children of mothers compared to children of fathers regard their identity and citizenship rights?

MS KHAN: Under international law and the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, men and women have equal right to hand nationality to their children. So it goes without saying that this is an issue that we take up, because in many, many situations children at stateless precisely because only the father has the right to hand citizenship. And in many countries, even in Western countries, the law does discriminate on that particular issue, so this goes without saying. 

QUESTION 4: I'm just from a refugee camp in West Africa. I want to know what your organisation is doing towards the protection of women in our African countries, because our African leaders are very brutal to women there and there is nothing done. I hear you talking about global protection for women, but it does not extend to African women. We in Africa are suffering unjustly and there's nothing done. Our Governments are not doing anything to protect us. We are going through a lot of violence. What is your organisation doing to address that situation?

MS KHAN: From what I have said, you will see that at least two of my five stories were about African women, about South Africa and about the Congo. And precisely through those stories, global is not something that is abstract up there. Global is about what is happening down here in many different places, and what is happening in Africa is happening because African leaders allow it to happen. African society allows it to happen. If things are improving in Africa, it is because African women are organising themselves.

If you look at West Africa, you will probably know the story in Senegal where women's groups have organised themselves from village to village through education programs and awareness programs to tackle the problem of female genital mutilation, and they have actually succeeded in reducing it through their efforts. So there are fantastic stories of women's groups.

In South Africa I have met women activists, women's groups, that are actually coming together to address the situation of HIV AIDS in Africa, because AIDS in Africa actually affects women more than men now, and particularly young women, because of this myth, in South Africa, for example, that having sex with a virgin will cure you of HIV AIDS, so you find very young girls being raped. It is women's groups that are coming together to fight that story.

So it is not about Amnesty coming and doing anything, and I want to make that absolutely clear. I don't think anyone can come from outside to change things; the change happens from within. And in Africa it is African women that are standing up and saying this has to stop, and they are succeeding. What we need to do is to support them to push for change.

MS HO: Thank you, Irene. I just have a couple of things to say in relation to Irene in thanks. Irene has given us the benefit of an incredibly broad understanding of what is going on in the world, but she has given it to us in a way that brings out, I think, her sense of humanity. That really struck me last night and has struck me again today, because the stories are very personal, and then she moves us into the reality of international law, into the reality of the systems and the structures that we need to change in order to achieve the human rights which organisations like Amnesty International work so hard to achieve.

As I said, she leaves us today to go from this very pleasant, relatively safe environment, and she goes into the Sudan, which we all know is in a very, very difficult state. In memory of us, I have here a small gift. It is a brooch inside this box, and I'm going to explain what it is. It is actually a gum leaf. We thought that perhaps, Irene, you might wear this, because the gum leaf is a symbol of survival against odds. We hope that perhaps, when you go to the Sudan, it might be symbolic that there are many women, men and children who may survive as a result of your intervention.

The brooch has been made by Ida Maglai. She was born in 1964 in Hungary, she arrived in Australia in 1987, and she describes her work, "To see beyond ourselves, to encompass our deeper thoughts and the universe beyond our dreams. This is the driving force behind my work." So I would just like to issue a very, very warm thank you from all of us for being here today. 

Thank you