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Interview with UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women

ANKARA, 24 Nov 2005 (IRIN) - Yakın Ertürk, a sociology professor at the Middle East Technical University in the Turkish capital, Ankara, was appointed United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, its Causes and Consequences, in August 2003. Since then, she has visited a number of countries, including, El Salvador, Guatemala, Russia, Iran, Sudan, the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), Mexico and most recently Afghanistan.

©  Yakin Erturk

Yakın Ertürk, a sociology professor at the Middle East Technical University in the Turkish capital, Ankara, was appointed United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women in August 2003

In a special interview with IRIN to mark the international 16 days of activism on violence against women that begins on Friday, Ertürk said that the rule of law had been women's best friend globally, but that violence against women persisted everywhere, even in developed democracies, partly because so many abuses occur in the private sphere.

QUESTION: What exactly is the role of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences?

ANSWER: It's a post that was created in 1994, after the UN's declaration on violence against women, adopted by the [UN] General Assembly in 1993. Basically it has three functions: to prepare thematic reports on violence against women, its causes and consequences; fact-finding missions in countries where widespread violence against women is reported to be taking place and then to present reports to the UN Human Rights Commission and to the General Assembly, and make recommendations to the governments concerned; and thirdly to receive individual complaints on specific cases or general situations and to communicate with the governments concerned and, if necessary, appeal for urgent action.

Special mechanisms of the CHR [UN Committee on Human Rights] contain about 40 mandates, most being thematic mandates like violence against women. Human rights are still largely understood as being violations of rights at the hands of the state, taking place in the public sphere. Whereas, the majority of violations of women's rights are within the private sphere. Until recently these violations were perceived to be something private, not concerning law, human rights and needing state intervention. But women's organisations have challenged this view and since the 1993 Vienna conference on human rights, violence against women became firmly established as a human rights issue, which resulted in expanding the understanding of state accountability for acts of violence even when committed by non-state actors in the private sphere.

One of my objectives is to push this agenda further, to ensure that states not only respond to violence when it happens but also to prevent it from happening at all whether in the public spheres or private spheres of life. While the objective is not to promote an interventionist state in our private lives, it is important that the state ensures the safety of individuals even in the bedroom. In this regard many governments have adopted domestic violence bills which have provided women with some recourse.

Q: You were in Afghanistan earlier this year, what did you achieve there?

A: Afghanistan was on my agenda from the very first day I was appointed. I was only able to go this year because previously the security situation did not allow me. Afghanistan represents a post-conflict situation where the social fabric of society and the informal institutional mechanisms have been destroyed, and state-building is very fragile. The country is still very much divided and fragmented into tribal and local power blocks, which makes the establishment of the rule of law a difficult process. Where there is no rule of law naturally the rule of power dictates; this has adverse consequences for women as well as for others who are marginal to power.

Historically, the creation of the nation state based on the rule of law enabled excluded groups, including women, to challenge the boundaries of law and rights. As citizens in the initial periods of the formation of nation states, women's rights were limited. But the principle of equal citizenship engrained in law allowed them to contest gender-based discrimination that violated the legal provision for equality. When such a standardised legal system is lacking, individuals are very much locked up in the collective will of the group they are affiliated with, which more often than not means total subordination for women.

In places like Afghanistan, where multiple power blocks exist, the promotion and protection of rights, particularly of women, is a major problem. On the one hand, there is no state that can reach all corners of the country with its legal system. On the other hand, due to years of war and displacement, all informal systems of social protection have been destroyed. As a result, Afghanistan is an extreme case where the fate of individuals is monopolised by those who command power. Under such circumstances it is the weak ones who suffer most, children and women being the first. I found this to be most striking and worrisome aspect of Afghanistan. According to reports there are other countries, particularly where extreme forms of conflict are continuing - such as the Democratic Republic of Congo [DRC] - lawlessness and human rights violations of women are extensive. I hope to undertake a mission to the DRC in the future. Among all the countries I have visited, I found Afghanistan the most difficult in terms of identifying viable entry points for change.

Girls as young as six years old are being sold in the name of marriage. I cannot come to terms with the marriage of a six-year-old girl; it is more like a sale or servitude. These are important problems. The society is challenged with overall reconstruction, no doubt. We have to realise the serious constraints there. But on the other hand, unless there is a prioritisation of basic human rights, I think that reconstruction will fail and security will be endangered. So there's a need for a dual strategy: to be able to respond quickly to human rights abuses and protect those in imminent danger, that's mainly women and girls; and secondly to build the society from grassroots up and inject the conditions that would nurture the emergence of a nation. A state without a nation can only survive by using force and by forming alliances with other power blocks in society.

Q: In Afghanistan there were parliamentary elections recently. There were many complaints from female candidates, saying the contest was not a level playing field. Was that a function of the lack of a basic legal system in the country?

A: That's part of it. But we have to remember the women of Afghanistan came out from under the covers, literally, only recently. And all of a sudden they are encouraged to be professionals, parliamentarians, prominent public figures etc., while the mentality that cleansed the public sphere from women still persists. It's not easy for women to break those barriers, even the wearing of the burka [all enveloping traditional garment for women]. When I was in Afghanistan I spoke to some of the women candidates. They explained they were disadvantaged because they did not have the same freedom of movement or access to certain places that men have, which prevented them from a fair campaign. There was also a great deal of intimidation and outright threats on female candidates; the hardliners were trying to push women out. So there were many obstacles.

One of the advantages that Afghanistan has is that there is a strong international presence committed politically and financially to reconstruction. But they will not remain there forever - the opportunity and the resources have to be used effectively. However, after the fall of the Taliban regime, the international community relaxed a bit with regard to the human rights situation in the country. Let's not forget similar human rights violations are still taking place. A woman was stoned to death in 2004, as a result of a local council decision. There was no international reaction to this whereas if it had happened during the Taliban time there would have been an outcry. This worries me and it gives the wrong message to the Afghan people - both the pro- and anti-human rights groups. Many human rights defenders whom I spoke to expressed their disappointment and argued that while stability is critical, justice should not be sacrificed.

Q: Can you give examples of where your work has made a tangible difference to women?

A: First of all my visits themselves have helped tremendously in some countries, for example Guatemala. There was incredible media interest in the mission including some threats, so I had to go round with a bodyguard. Powerful gangs are behind some of the crimes committed against women. Common crime is a huge problem there, with murder of women still very prevalent.

The visit received high visibility and women's groups capitalised on this in order to get their messages across in the meetings with government representatives. I was received by the president himself, which is a good sign of commitment. What exactly has changed as a result of the mission is hard to say, I don't have any concrete information in this regard. After a mission it's important to follow up annually and seek feedback from the government as to how they have used the recommendations in the mission report. I have sent a letter to the authorities regarding the missions I have already reported on, requesting them to inform me of developments since my visit. I have not yet received a reply.

I can, however, give you an example from the communications procedure regarding three Iranian women who came to Turkey to seek refugee status in a third country. Their case was rejected by UNHCR [the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees] on the grounds that they did not qualify as typical political asylum seekers. However, in the course of the two or more years they have been in Turkey, their personal circumstances changed, they got divorced or remarried and got involved politically, demonstrating against the regime in Tehran. So the women felt that if they were sent back to Iran they would face problems from their families and from the state. By the time they sent me a formal communication the Turkish government had issued a deportation order. I wrote to the Turkish government asking that they reconsider their decision given that these women may encounter violence if sent back. The deportation order was suspended and UNHCR reopened the files and two of the women were eventually granted refugee status.

I have also had feedback from groups in China indicating that the communications procedure has had a positive impact in some cases. One problem is that there are no mechanisms to follow up on the cases I communicate to the government. If follow-up mechanisms are enhanced the communications produced can be a powerful tool to make a difference in women's lives. Most governments respond with concern. Sometimes a government may not be aware of some of the problems women experience in their own country, since more often women's issues are not a priority on the public agenda. Therefore, the complaints procedure helps to start a dialogue with governments, which motivates them to address the issue.

Q: You sound busy, what are your other priorities globally over the next 12 months?

A: I have already gone to four countries that I will be reporting on in April 2006: Russia, including Chechnya; the Islamic Republic of Iran; Mexico and Afghanistan. So I am writing up my reports on these missions. I am also preparing a thematic report exploring the potential of the due diligence standard to expand state accountability to ensure that the root causes of violence against women are addressed. For 2007 reporting I have received invitations from the governments of Algeria, the Netherlands and Sweden to undertake a mission in their countries. I have also written to the Democratic Republic of Congo [DRC] indicating my interest to carry out a mission but have received no reply yet. My mandate ends in 2006, but I am working on the assumption that it will be renewed.

Q: What's the interest in countries like the Netherlands and Sweden?

A: When we talk about human rights, there is often an implicit assumption that abuses only take place in developing countries, where democratic institutions have not sufficiently developed. To some extent this is correct; I said earlier that the rule of law, where established, has provided women with a good legal basis to expand their rights. But this has not been enough as women's rights are very often violated in the private sphere and in ways not always sufficiently covered by the prevailing legislative framework.

It is in those areas where we need to learn and become more aware of how violence against women is reproduced even when basic legislative and institutional reform has been undertaken. Earlier this year Amnesty International released a report on the persistence of domestic violence in Sweden. This surprised everyone since Sweden is perceived to be a country where much has been done to empower women, yet still domestic violence continues. Examining the Swedish case enhances our understanding and strategies to combat violence.

The Netherlands is also interesting. People talk about the Netherlands as being the most tolerant country. Yet they have had a number of incidents lately with regard to violence within immigrant communities. These have raised new debates regarding integration, turned attention to violence against women particularly among Muslim immigrant communities which has implications for Europe at large.

European women's groups have been releasing reports in recent years complaining about the fact that violence in their societies has become normalised and depoliticised.

Also the legalisation of prostitution in the Netherlands and the phenomenon on trafficking of women for sexual exploitation are areas of debate warranting a closer examination of the situation. Because the sex sector, in general, inherently involves violence.

Q: It's a complicated and difficult mandate. Why did you decide to take it on?

A: I was a director of two UN entities for women from 1997 to 2001. I returned to my teaching position in 2002, eager to integrate my UN experience into academic work. Then I was approached in 2003 by some non-governmental organisations who wanted to nominate me as a candidate for the rapporteur's post, as that year was the time for the renewal of the post. Although I was reluctant at first, I gave in to the request. There were 12 prominent women candidates for the post from around the world. The chair of the Bureau of the Commission on Human Rights, after consultations with delegations, decided to appoint me.

It has been a real challenge but also a great privilege to be entrusted with such an important task. While I get very saddened to witness the severity and extent of violence encountered by women worldwide, at the same time, I become empowered to see how women are fighting back and resisting violence. I know that the violence against women mandate is making a difference to women's lives, that's really what keeps me going.

The above article comes to you via IRIN, a UN humanitarian information unit, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies. © UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2004

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