29 November 2012

Gambia: Celebration of the Day of Elimination of Violence Against Women

This Day was originally set aside as a tribute to three Dominican sisters, political activists known as the Hermanas Mirabal, who were brutally assassinated by the Trujillo dictatorship on 25 November 1960. The sisters, referred to as the "unforgettable butterflies", worked tirelessly for the freedom and respect for human rights of all, in the face of constant persecution. They have become the symbol of both popular and feminist resistance.

The importance of this Day in raising awareness of the appalling suffering that millions of women and girls face everyday cannot be overstated. No country is immune to the scourge of violence against women - it is present in every country, and cuts across boundaries of culture, class, education, income, ethnicity and age. It is hard to imagine the scale of the problem - up to 70% of women experience physical or sexual violence from men in their lifetime; between 100 and 140 million girls and women in the world have experienced female genital mutilation/cutting; and more than 60 million girls worldwide are child brides, married before the age of 18.

I came across a comment made by Archbishop Desmond Tutu just weeks ago which I found extremely pertinent to our discussion today. He said that coercing girls under the age of 18 into marriage was as repugnant as apartheid and should be battled with the same vigour. I think he was right to say that this practice, like apartheid, hamstrings entire communities, preventing them from developing as they could have developed if girl children were given the opportunity of staying at school longer. But if entire communities are impaired, the damage inflicted on the individual girls is devastating. The effects in terms of their physical and psychological health are far-reaching and even life-threatening.

The EU has a long-term political commitment to promoting women's rights and fighting violence and discrimination against them. The EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Catherine Ashton, has described violence against women as arguably the most widespread human rights violation of our time. We are leading work to help prevent violence, provide women with access to economic opportunities and empower them, and repeal laws and practices that continue to discriminate against them. Concretely, we have made protection from gender-based violence a key feature of the EU's human rights strategy, and we have cleared the way for greater cooperation between the EU and the UN on this agenda.

Here in The Gambia, I am sure that everybody present would agree that important challenges remain to tackling violence against women, where up to 80% of girls are submitted to the practice of FGM. Early marriage and domestic violence also pose a problem here. I know that the Government is taking measures to address these problems and better defend vulnerable girls and women. For our part, the EU is striving to address these issues in our cooperation with The Gambia, for example through our support to the fight against FGM through our Non State Actors Programme earlier this year.

I am very happy to have the participation of so many women that are making a difference here in The Gambia on these issues, and I am looking forwards to an interesting discussion with you all. I would like to emphasise the EU's firm commitment to continuing our close collaboration with many of you present here in our joint efforts to empower women.

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