“Women hold up more than half the sky,” Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena said during a high-level event at United Nations headquarters in September this year, which saw 80 world leaders coming together to commit to ending discrimination against women by 2030. “It is a proven and accepted fact that women’s empowerment and their contribution are vital for the sustainable progress of all our nations, and the world.”
The event was organised against the backdrop of the adoption of a new global development agenda by UN Member States. Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development sets out 17 global goals, including a standalone goal on gender equality – the result of intense and sustained advocacy by UN Women and women’s groups. The targets specified under the goals include the “elimination of all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation” as well as the elimination of “all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation”.
Sri Lanka has made important strides in the journey towards gender equality. It adopted a ‘Women’s Charter’ in 1993, two years before the globally agreed Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action which recommended that countries draw up national plans of action to advance women’s rights. In addition, Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, 2005, seeks to address intra-family violence by providing a civil remedy. Existing laws have also been strengthened to enhance the scope of legal protection for women through amendments to the Penal Code. This includes Amendment No. 22 of 1995 which defined constituted rape, incest and sexual abuse, harassment and exploitation. The Ministry of Women and Child Affairs is in the process of formulating a National Action Plan on Sexual and Gender-Based Violence.
These are all very significant steps. However, in Sri Lanka and across all countries, violence against women continues to be one of the most widespread human rights violations. It is the outcome of pervasive discrimination and inequality and not only devastates lives but also damages communities and impairs development. Worldwide, one in three women have experienced physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, many of them from an intimate partner.
Ending violence against women is one of the UN’s key priorities. Around the world, in partnership with governments and women’s groups, UN Women helps governments strengthen and implement national laws and policies to address violence against women in conformity with international norms and standards. It helps women access the police and the justice system and provides much-needed support to survivors of violence. It focuses on prevention, for example by working with municipal bodies and community partners to ensure that cities are safe spaces for women and girls.
Through the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women, UN Women supports initiatives to end gender-based violence where they matter most. It manages the United Nations Secretary-General’s UNiTE to End Violence Against Women campaign, observing the 25th of every month as Orange Day, symbolizing a future free from violence against women and girls. To mark 16 Days of Activism to End Violence against Women, from 25 November to 10 December, UN Women mobilizes governments, civil society, students, volunteers, lawmakers and policymakers, urging action to prevent and end violence against women. In 2014, for example, UN Women and UN partners along with Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs launched a social media campaign that informed users about a helpline for victims of gender-based violence. Developed and managed by the National Committee on Women of the Ministry of Women and Child Affairs, the helpline provides information on legal aid, psycho-social support and counselling services available for survivors of violence. The trilingual campaign is estimated to have reached 256,000 users across Sri Lanka.
UN Women is convinced that gender equality is not a ‘women’s issue’. Involvement of men and boys is crucial to the success of all efforts to raise awareness, counter negative stereotypes and end violence against women. UN Women’s HeforShe Campaign speaks directly to this, providing a platform to men and boys to show their solidarity and stand up for gender equality. The Campaign will be launched in Sri Lanka in 2016, engaging individuals, communities, non-governmental organisations, private corporations, government leaders, activists and celebrities as agents of change.
The global march towards gender equality is now unstoppable, and Sri Lanka can show the way. President Sirisena’s commitment is an indication of strong political will to bring transformative change. This commitment, when matched by adequate resources and the involvement of the private sector, civil society, academia and women’s groups, can significantly accelerate the momentum towards gender equality and the achievement of ‘Planet 50:50’ by 2030.
*Dr. Rebecca Reichmann Tavares is Representative, UN Women Multi-Country Office for India, Bhutan, Maldives and Sri Lanka