by Rebekah Mintzer
UNITED NATIONS, Nov. 24 (Xinhua) -- The woman at the head of one of the world's most prominent organizations advocating for gender equality and female empowerment believes that major progress in saving the dignities and lives of women is only 16 steps away.
"It's not a private issue, violence against women," Michelle Bachelet, UN under-secretary-general and executive director of UN Women, told Xinhua in a recent interview. "It's a public issue and everybody has to be involved and committed to stop violence against women. We know what works, we know what we have to do, there's no excuse not to do it -- so we need to take bold action now."
On the occasion of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, which falls on Nov. 25, Bachelet, who is also the former president of Chile, has released a policy agenda that outlines 16 policy actions that countries and individuals can undertake to end the scourge of such violence.
These steps will help to guide the 16 Days of Activism on behalf of women that will follow the international day.
WORKING TO SOLVE A PREVALENT PROBLEM
The four UN women's organizations that were consolidated to form UN Women in July 2010 have long been engaged in solving the problem of violence against women.
Bachelet said that the work of these formerly separate groups as well as other parts of the UN system has resulted in much progress on the ground and at the grassroots level, giving UN Women a very helpful foundation for its efforts.
"There is a long history of working on different interventions that will permit us, first of all to try to avoid violence against women and prevent it; second, to protect women who are affected by violence; and third, to provide them with the basic services that any person and particularly survivors need," she said. "So we are focusing in this 16 days campaign on 16 steps that will provide a comprehensive framework of policies dealing with prevention, protection, and provision of services."
Bachelet noted that violence against women and girls is a widespread problem that does not discriminate based on creed, class, or nationality.
"You find it in very rich families and very poor families," she said. "You find it in very highly sophisticated families in terms of education and qualification but also you find it in very low- income families with low levels of education. You find it in all regions of the world and in all kinds of cultures and so on, and religions and so on."
Estimates indicate that up to six out of 10 women have experienced physical or sexual violence in their lifetimes. There are many different forms that such violence can take.
"When we talk about violence against women of course we're talking about domestic violence that's one issue, rape is another, but so is gender-based violence, trafficking of women with sexual slavery or labor slavery as an objective," said Bachelet. "We're also taking about early forced marriage, we are also talking about female genital mutilation, and we are also talking about honor crimes."
PREVENTING VIOLENCE AND PROTECTING WOMEN
One of the 16 policy actions is ensuring that laws to protect women from violence are created, and promulgated on both national and international levels.
Bachelet explained that although 125 countries have laws preventing violence against women, "there are still 603 million women living in countries where it's not considered a crime or a huge problem. So we need to advance much more."
She said that simply having legal protections for women has proven to have an impact on how women are treated.
"It's interesting with the laws because even if they are not completely implemented in some places, in those countries where you have laws in place, there are less incidents of violence," she noted.
However, Bachelet emphasized that ending impunity remains extremely important because laws that protect women are not always enforced and the authorities can be dismissive of women when they report perpetrators of violence.
"We need to work with the judiciary system to train them and with the police force to train them so they are sensitive to violence because we have seen places in the world where the perpetrators are taken to justice, they go to trial, but judges, many of them male and who don't consider this a crime, they just let them go," said Bachelet.
In addition to reforming legal systems and processes, UN Women' s 16-step agenda calls for increased public awareness of the problem and its deeply negative impact on women, children, and families.
"We need to work much more on cultural issues because unfortunately in many countries in the world, you see that sometimes, 20 percent of the population in some surveys believe that beating a woman is acceptable, that it's passable," Bachelet said. "So we need to work on that, and what that means, it means that we need everybody to be engaged -- governments, women's organizations, civil society -- but also men and boys."
In 2009, as part of his initiative, UNiTE to End Violence Against Women, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon launched a Network of Men Leaders. The network is a group of prominent men from all over the world who are fighting the normalization of gender inequality and speaking out against those who would commit violent acts against women.
Bachelet said that Ban's campaign with men leaders is an excellent way to create positive change.
"Of course education in school is very important, education at the home level is very important, because then you learn in your early stages of life and that will be part of how you will behave in the future," she said. "But also this kind of good education needs to be reinforced once in a while with strong people who can say strength is not about beating women, strength is about having very good values and principles and behaving consistently with that."
According to Bachelet, UN Women is working with positive male role models on the country-level to set good examples for boys and men. She described a recent event in Uruguay that brought together important men from the country, including Uruguayan stars of television and music to express their objections to violence against women.
"Every country decides on its own campaign according to its own needs and wishes, but all with the same idea of standing up clearly against violence against women," she said.
PROVIDING ESSENTIAL SERVICES TO WOMEN AND SURVIVORS
Another integral part of UN Women's 16-point policy plan is helping women who have already survived violence.
"One of the things that we have found works very well is the so- called 'one-stop shop,'" said Bachelet. "It means that in one place, women that are victims, that are affected by violence they can go there, they can receive all of the necessary assistance, for example health services, physical and mental."
In such a setting, women can report the crimes of their attackers and take any relevant forensic examinations. They can also receive help from social workers who will aid them in deciding what the future holds and help them get job training if it is decided that they would be better off leaving their living situations.
Bachelet said that she holds these comprehensive centers, which have been set up in Rwanda and South Africa and imitated in other places around the world, in high regard.
In addition, she emphasized the importance of hotlines that women can call after they have experienced violence in order to obtain emotional support and practical advice.
"Hotlines are very good because they give a woman, in a very difficult moment, the possibility to get in touch with somebody who can guide her and say,'Look, here are your options, you can go to this place and you will receive the care and the treatment that you need,'" Bachelet said.
The UN Women's work extends to China, where Bachelet said the protection of women from violence and gender inequality under the law has made a great deal of progress.
"In China, we have a project that is working in three provinces, Hunan, Sichuan, and Gansu, and the project is specifically intending to involve and to engage men and boys in the fight against violence against women," she said.
In other South Asian countries, Bachelet said that her organization has been engaged in ending violence against women in the context of human trafficking and the HIV/AIDS epidemic. UN Women is spreading messages of gender equality and women's empowerment in the region as well.
"We are working very strongly, in Thailand for example, we are working with people who are living with HIV/AIDS and prevention of violence," she said. "In Cambodia the same, in Cambodia we are working with youth and also involving men and boys."
BOLD ACTION FOR FUTURE GENERATIONS
Eliminating violence against women is important, according to Bachelet, not just because it helps women preserve their rights, health, and dignity, but because it has profoundly positive effects on one of a society's most precious resources -- its children.
Bachelet noted aside from stopping the psychological stress and negative behavior modeling that violence against mothers causes for their children, protecting women is also important because one of the most important factors in a child's future has proven to be the education of his or her mother. Some women, she said, if they are allowed to attend school at all, have been attacked on the way or even by teachers on school grounds, deterring them from attending.
"Because of violence, you are diminishing the possibility of women and girls being educated and they will be given fewer chances not only to confront their own possible violent situation but also to improve the situation of the children in the future," said Bachelet.
Women must be educated so they can become more financially self- reliant and can escape abusive situations for their own sake and for the sake of their children, Bachelet indicated.
"If women have economic autonomy they can make choices," she said. "They can decide they don't want to live anymore a life full of violence, and they can have their own home and their own incomes and feed their families."
As the international community commemorates the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and embarks on 16 Days of Activism, Bachelet said she would like women experiencing violence to know that although that they may feel isolated, they are not.
"It's not their fault, they are not alone and they can change the situation," she said. "It doesn't have to be forever."