It was 10 a. m. Sunday, when the Air Canada jet taxied to a stop.
We had left Truro the evening before, headed for meetings at the United Nations Headquarters, Geneva, Switzerland. The next day, Nov. 1, we gathered our registration documents that permitted us entry into the United Nations. We, along with 700 women, a few men, from 56 countries in Europe, from Central Asia, Australia, New Zealand and North America, filled Salle XVII of the United Nations building. As members of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and or women’s human rights advocates, our next three days were spent at the Geneva NGO Forum – Beijing+20 meeting.
The Geneva NGO Forum – Beijing+20 takes its name from the fourth World Conference on Women held near Beijing, China, in 1995. More than 40,000 various participants attended, including 4,000 NGOs. At this world conference two documents were created—the Platform for Action and the Beijing Declaration. The Beijing Declaration said it was essential to globally advance the human rights and human equality of women and girls.
To achieve women’s and girls’ human rights and equality in relation to men and boys, actions by governments and others had to be taken in 12 critical areas. This action plan is known as the Platform for Action. For example, one critical area was promoting the equal right of women to education. Today, 64 per cent of illiterate adults are women—that’s two out of three. But a child whose mother can read 50 per cent is more likely to survive past the age of five. And, if girls can be kept in school beyond Grade 7, they would be more likely to marry four years later, be less likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth, have 2.2 less children and will be more likely to send their children to school.
Another critical concern was for the girl child. Preventing child ‘marriage’ is important because every day, 39,000 girls are forced into early marriage—that’s 27 girls a minute. This includes girls as young as six and 11 being married to men in their mid-20s and 40s.
Preventing female genital mutilation was considered a critical human right violation. It is estimated that 133 million women and girls have undergone female genital mutilation. Human trafficking involves sexualized exploitation of 4.5 million people, 98 per cent are women and girls. These too must stop.
Women’s work and lack of equal pay are critical inequalities. Women work two-thirds of the world’s hours yet earn 10th of the world’s income. When it comes to political involvement, more than 100 countries have laws restricting women’s participation in the economy.
Globally, nearly 40 per cent of femicides are committed by an intimate partner. One in four women is physically abused during pregnancy. One in three women worldwide has experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence.
Eliminating all forms of oppression and violence against women and girls and gaining their human rights equality were the major critical issues discussed during the Geneva NGO Forum – Beijing+20. Our goal was to attempt to achieve recognition that torture was another form of violence inflicted against women and girls by private individuals. Private individuals can be parents, grandparents, other family members, guardians, spouses, traffickers, pimps, johns and pornographers, for example. Human rights language refers to them as non-state actors. The term “actors” simply means the person doing the act, in this case, the private individual who is torturing. Non-state actor is a term used to separate the private torturer from a torturer who is a government employee. They are known as state actors.
For 21 years we have been supporting persons, mainly women, who have survived torture within intimate relationships, most often beginning in very early childhood. In 2004 we were invited to present at a gathering of NGOs at the United Nations in New York. That began our work at the United Nations level to promote women’s and girls’ human right not to be subjected to non-state torture. As members of the NGO, the Canadian Federation of University Women, our advocacy policy calls on the Canadian government to create a distinct non-state torture law—this has yet to occur.
Globally, a huge wall of discrimination has nurtured a belief that only men in war or terrorism risk being tortured. This changed on the third day of the Geneva NGO Forum – Beijing+20. In the final report listing recommendations that countries need to take, it is written on Page 6:
“All States must ensure national laws criminalize non-State torture perpetrated by non-State actors and that laws prohibit and hold perpetrators accountable for gender-based non-State torture crimes.”
This feels almost surreal. It is the first global step in acknowledging the human right equality of women and girls not to be subjected to torture.
Linda MacDonald and Jeanne Sarson are co-founders of Persons Against Torture.