Welcome remarks by UN Resident Coordinator Louisa Vinton at International Women’s Day 2018: #TimeIsNow

Mar 8, 2018

Dear Prime Minister Zoran Zaev
Dear Minister of Labor and Social Policy Mila Carovska
Dear Minister of Health Venko Filipce
Dear Mayor of Skopje Petre Shilegov
Excellencies
Dear UN colleagues,
Dear friends from civil society,
Dear representatives of the media,
Ladies and gentlemen:
 
On behalf of the entire United Nations family, it’s a great pleasure – especially as we welcome what seems to be the onset of spring today in the gloriously sudden burst of sunshine and warmth that I think is unique to this country – to greet such a large and distinguished audience for this year’s joint UN celebration of International Women’s Day.
 
We are especially pleased to welcome the participation of the Prime Minister and the Ministers of Labor and Social Policy and Health, as we see this as a reaffirmation of the Government’s strong commitment to gender equality and the elimination of all violence against women and girls.
 
One purpose of today’s event is congratulate the Government and the Parliament on the ratification late last year of the “Istanbul Convention” – more formally known as the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.
 
This Convention is recognized worldwide as the “gold standard” in fighting gender-based violence, and we take its swift ratification last December – after languishing in limbo for seven long years – as just one sign of the Government’s broader commitment to the principles of equality, human rights and individual dignity that are the heart and soul of the Sustainable Development Goals.
 
Ratification in this country is all the more commendable given that it comes at a time when many European countries that initially signed the Convention – with even some EU members among them, despite the signing of the Convention by the European Union in 2017 – are backing away in the face of a conservative backlash that bizarrely equates equality for women with “moral decay.”
 
The UN team here is proud to have advocated for ratification for many years, and we look forward to supporting partners across Government and civil society as we move ahead with implementation.  
 
Here, if we are honest with ourselves, we need to recognize that ratification was really the easy part. As hard as getting here might have seemed, implementation is a much bigger challenge.
 
Given the work that lies ahead, we are pleased to be able to focus today on the “next steps.”
 
What makes the Istanbul Convention such a strong instrument for eliminating violence is also what makes implementation so challenging, and let me point to four distinguishing factors here:
o   First, the Convention sees the roots of gender-based violence not in the flaws of individual character, but rather in the “historic power imbalances” between men and women. The solution to violence against women is thus not simply to punish the perpetrators, but rather to ensure that full gender equality prevails in all areas of life.
o   Second, through the principle of “due diligence” the Convention makes it the obligation of the state to take all possible measures without delay to prevent violence against women, protect its victims and prosecute the perpetrators. Failure to do so makes violence the state’s responsibility, and not solely that of the perpetrator.
o   Third, the Convention defines clear and quantified standards that countries must meet in all three of its main areas of application: protection, prevention and prosecution.
o   And, fourth, it imposes regular and rigorous monitoring to assess compliance.
 
A look at how this country compares to the minimum standards of the Convention spotlights the considerable distance we still need to travel – and here it is important to keep in mind that the deficits are particularly pronounced everywhere outside of the capital, Skopje.
 
For example, the Convention mandates the provision of shelters sufficient for one family unit (one woman and two children) for every 10,000 residents, yet here less than 10 percent of that minimum is currently available to survivors of violence.
 
What’s more, four of the eight planning regions have no shelters at all.
 
The Convention also requires one rape crisis center for every 200,000 citizens, or at least 10 for the country, and at least one sexual assault center for every 400,000 citizens, or five centers.
 
Yet until this year, the country has not had a single center of either type.
 
The Convention also mandates a recalibration of the justice system, which currently fails to criminalize many forms of gender-based violence and also, in prosecution and sentencing, tends to treat violence against women far more leniently than it does other forms of violence.
 
 We even lack much of the basic data we need to assess the prevalence of violence against women. Although helpful survey initiatives by OSCE and other providers are currently under way, it will be important for the State Statistical Office to adapt its data-collection to Convention standards and ensure that unified standards are applied across all institutions.
 
And of course all this costs money, so proper budget allocations need to be secured – though here it has to be stressed that, whatever the implementation costs, the price-tag for prevention is sure to be many multiples smaller than the very real but seldom measured costs of violence.
 
Under the guidance of UN Women, all the United Nations agencies in the country are strongly committed to providing every possible assistance in closing these many gaps.
 
We’re very pleased to announce here that, with UN support, construction work has been completed on the country’s first three sexual assault centers, located at hospitals in Kumanovo, Skopje and Tetovo, and that work on protocols and staff training is currently under way.
 
The country’s first rape crisis center is also in preparation.
 
We look forward to opening all four centers in the coming months.  
 
In addition, the UN team is providing help to align national legal frameworks with international norms; to assess the costs of the many new services and functions that will need to be developed; to work with civil society organizations and local governments to offer services for victims in the areas where they are most needed; and, most broadly, to identify how partners across all sectors can translate gender equality from abstract theory into everyday practice.
 
None of this is simple, of course, and it is easy to be discouraged by the challenges.
 
There are grounds for optimism, however, as the global winds are shifting, perhaps decisively.
 
Women are finding their voice as never before, whether globally in the #MeToo movement or here in the country with #СегаКажувам, and the UN human rights experts who focus on gender equality see this as a pivotal moment, perhaps even a global “tipping point”.
 
“By speaking out on this scale,” they say, “women are shaking centuries-old established discriminatory norms which normalize, accept and justify sexual violence against women and have constrained women in well-defined roles of inferiority and subordination.”
 
Is this too hopeful? Perhaps.
 
But the new momentum is clear, and this is why the UN is using this year’s International Women’s Day to celebrate the activism that is crucial to progress, both locally and globally.
 
We are all indebted to the many activists in this room – some of whom are now in Government -- who fought the good fight, in dark times as well as bright ones, to get us where we are today.
 
We look forward to continuing this fight, and are proud to be your allies.
 
 As our UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has said in his statement for International Women’s Day 2018, “Achieving gender equality and empowering women and girls is the unfinished business of our time, and the greatest human rights challenge in our world.”
 
Thank you for your resolve today in joining us to finish this job once and for all.

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