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35th session of the Human Rights Council
Panel 1: Accelerating efforts to eliminate violence against women: engaging men and

   Addresses by Ms. Kate Gilmore, United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights

Geneva, 13 June 2017
Salle XX, Palais des Nations

Mr. President, Excellencies, colleagues and friends,

It is an honour to open this panel of leaders and experts on the occasion of the annual full day of discussion on the human rights of women.

We all now know enough.  Enough to know that gender-based violence against women is the most widespread human rights abuse.  Enough to know that one third of all women and girls will experience violence in their lifetime.  That in in certain places, at certain times under certain conditions, those rates escalate – in fragile settings, after crisis, during conflict.  One in three!

Although violence against women and girls has direct physical and health consequences for its victims, these act are much more than mere altercations. This is the expression of power and a source of fear in the lives of women and girls the world over.  The looming threat of violence, be it at the hands of a partner, a boss, a soldier or a stranger drives an atmosphere of fear and intimidation that for many women and girls dictates the way they go about their daily lives. Restrained in their freedom of movement, contained in their freedom of dress, knowing well they will be blamed if they do not meticulously monitor the situations in which they “put themselves”, the fear, threat and reality of violence influences women’s ability to make those choices that happily most men can take for granted – choices with regard to daily life, marriage, education, employment and participation in public life.

Women and girls too, affected by intersecting and multiple forms of discrimination – based on their age, ethnicity, social and migration status, poverty, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity including lesbian women - are particularly exposed to both intimate and public violence. Yet, international human rights standards guarantee equal enjoyment of rights for all – not merely some - in both the public and private spheres. But this is a promise unfulfilled and an obligation unmet so long as one half of the population lives in fear.

Violence against women and girls – regardless of her identity - is cruel, degrading and inhuman - a manifestation of discriminatory norms that establish and reinforce notions of masculinity and femininity that we can ill afford.   Any custom or practice that is rooted in violations of physical or mental integrity by the more powerful against the less powerful is not a valuable tradition but rather a system of violation. Myths to the contrary don’t make this more acceptable.  Even if under cover of marriage or union, surely a culture’s integrity cannot depend on sexual violation of a child – that is not culture, that is exploitation and abuse.  A rite of passage into adulthood cannot require the mutilation of a girl – that is not initiation, that is degradation. A marriage cannot provide sexual dignity for the man only – that is not a marital contract, that is oppression.

We can prevent gender based violence, and uphold the human rights for all, but only if we dismantle and transform these harmful social norms.


To ascend the transformative shifts that the sustainable development agenda inspires, if we are to want not then we must waste not.  We must waste not human talent or capacity or contribution - neither through bigotry nor exclusion; nor by neglect or design.  To the contrary, through realization of human rights for each of us, to the exclusion of none of us, we can more surely better act in the interests of all of us. 

For their talent, creativity and contribution to be fully available to human progress, women and girls, must be fully free from gender based violence, including child, early and forced marriage and FGM; they must have the opportunity to decide on the number and timing of their children and they must be able to walk the streets, path and lane ways of the camps, town ships, villages and suburb without fear; the martial bed and family home must not become prisons of pain. 

Albert Einstein once observed that “you cannot fix a problem with the same thinking that you used to create it”.  If we are to step forwards into a future that is sustainably different from that which so troubles us today, then we must not only think out-of-the-box, we must get out of these gendered boxes.  Masculinity and femininity after all are not primary states – human-inity is.

This means that common conceptualizations of the categories of “man” and “masculinity” must be challenged.  Those narrow categories of “man” are just so small … tiny boxes with too many “get-out” exits – “if you cry, you are not a man”; “if you stay home to care for children, you are not a man”; “if you negotiate consensual sex in marriage or out of marriage …”, “if you are not in charge …..” then out of masculinity’s small box you shall go. 

Any identity that is walled in by such rigidities of bigotry about either the self or the other, confines human possibility, restricts human potential and undermines human diversity – for the boxed in, the boxed out and the boxed about.
We must claim and better centre a place for men and boys in the struggle against these confinements and violations, in the struggle against gender inequality, and its noxious by-products of gender violence.  We must release gender and our other intersecting identities to flow into and fill out all the fullest contours of human potential.  

It is not too late but it is most certainly overdue, for the world to convert the power of condemnation of gender based violence into effective action at scale for gender justice so that a larger, more diverse and inclusive community of both women and men are joined together in an understanding that everyone’s dignity is undermined when anyone’s dignity is undermined.

Towards this end, Governments – as duty bearers – must make engagement of men and boys in the erosion of gendered rigidities a central plank of national policies and programmes to eliminate gender based violence, but not at the expense of investment in women’s empowerment.  Young men and boys must be directly engaged in this struggle but this must be underpinned with gender sensitive and comprehensive sexuality education.  And we must extend our gratitude and solidarity to men who struggle to transform masculinity so that no woman or girl has to pay its corrosive toll.  However, in doing so, we must not allow compassion to be pitched in competition with justice or allow engagement of men to become an excuse for impunity.

Excellencies, our departure point today is with men and boys and rightly so …  But, we journey in the interests of women and girls too, travelling forward to our ultimate destination which is humanity for us all – in all our diversity, our uniqueness and our commonality; a humanity underpinned by that dignity which only human rights upheld can provide. In this there can be no compassion if without justice; No inclusion if with impunity; No engagement if without accountability; No hope if without human rights.  Thank you.


I am extremely grateful that we have this opportunity to speak together this morning and to do so with President Halonen, who most recently as co-chair of the WHO/OHCHR High Level Task Force on Health and Human Rights has provided once again invaluable global leadership on women’s health and rights.   The support of member States – Slovenia, Finland, Uruguay – for this side-event and the support too of UNFPA is invaluable.

I also want to thank Rajat Khosla and, through him, thank WHO – including my counterpart Dr Flavia Bustreo and Rajat’s other colleagues - for their partnership in this work and specifically for Rajat’s visionary effort that has enabled this work to come alive through the High Level Task Force.  We also thank for their generous financial support, the Governments of Finland and of the Netherlands – without which there would be no report on human rights to health and through health.

By many measures, we stand in the midst of unprecedented opportunity and yet unfathomable challenge – globally, there is a massive change-dynamic underway, unprecedented in its scale, significance, consequence, pace and urgency.  This is an unprecedented NOW.

For, there is alive today the largest generation of adolescents the world has ever seen; children making their way down the human development pathway to adulthood; children who are concentrated in greatest numbers in the toughest of places at the toughest of times; children who through puberty and adolescence have the right to emerge into adulthood with their rights in tact.

 Yet, conflict, contagion, climate instability, the crises of famine and feud -  are shaping cruel reality for unprecedented numbers of people and those countries suffering the gravest of these consequences have the youngest of populations.
The city unplanned and the sprawling slum; the contaminated water supply and insecure food chain; armed conflict and corruption’s erosion of peace – these too are having broader direct and indirect consequences for populations’ wellbeing and their physical and mental health. 

Deprivation of the basic dignities that only realization of the right to health provide would be wrong at any time.  However, in this unprecedented now and in the future into which we head, health emerges as a core strategic investment for stable, inclusive and sustainable states.  Sound health financing, reliable inclusive investment, provision of quality information and services and public accountability for health are strategic, essential and are obligations on the State.

And yet instead, people’s access to quality health services and information – without fear, stigma or discrimination - is being undermined, is threatened. The increased costs of healthcare jeopardise the stability of universal health care systems. Policies of low taxation restrict the fiscal space to progressively realise the right to health. Many people are prevented from purchasing health insurance by low wages and insecure work. Refugees, stateless persons and many migrants face barriers to healthcare even in countries where there is a universal system.

In the meantime, a misanthropic roll back on hard won health gains particularly for women and girls - is in play – with ramped up attempts to erode sexual and reproductive health and rights. The consequences of deliberate denial of access to sexual and reproductive health services and information brings selective devastating consequences for women and adolescent girls - devastating for their health, destructive for their exercise of all other rights, and exacting unaffordable costs on them, their families and their communities.

Deliberate targeting of health workers and health facilities too, particularly, but not only, in conflict settings is on the increase.  However, health workers – and all civilian objects - are protected by law in war and beyond – and as humanitarians for the right to health, health workers are human rights defenders – and their work should be protected and supported including against reprisals.

More people on the move, people forced out of their homes and livelihoods at record levels; more young people and growing numbers too of older people – unprecedented rates of urbanization and pollution, increasing climate instability, wide spread environmental degradation: these are the stories of our modern world, of our future and this is our now - an unprecedented now – whose urgency is real, possibilities are broad and encompassing and whose moment, if lost, will bring preventable suffering, sorrow and indignity for generations to come – a burden to be borne perhaps not by us directly but most certainly a burden that will bend the backs of our children and our children’s children.

In the midst of this unprecedented now, thanks to the Sustainable Development Agenda, we also have an unprecedented opportunity -  a mandate to truly achieve the conditions in which rights to health and through health can be realized, leaving no one behind.

  • Calling for more enabling environments for rights to and through health, the report advocates for the right to health to be enshrined in national law; for health financing to be rights based, for human rights including equality to be understood as key determinants of health, and for social, gender and cultural norms that erode health to be removed. 
  • Urging partnership with people themselves as agents of their own health, the reports calls for people to be supported to claim theirs rights; for health workers and advocates to be protected as they defend rights, and for health and related policy to be accountable directly to those who depend on it: i.e.  evidence based accountability to rights holders. 
  • Advocating stronger rooting of public accountability in evidence, the HLTF also calls for States to invest in more comprehensive and inclusive data collection and for States to report regularly on their work to realise rights through and to health to both the World Health Assembly and the Human Rights Council – two bodies that - with greater cooperation - could provide States greater underpinnings in support of realization of the interdependence between the right to health and other human rights.

The HLTF – comprised of global leaders in and for health and supported by eminent experts, concluded, however, that the gravest gap between the promises made and delivery achieved is, in reality, a leadership gap.

Government and other leaders – civil society, private sector, community leaders - must be more vocal as champions for human rights to health and through health, if development’s fruits are to be more equitably spread, more sustainably shared and if no one is to be left behind.

For OHCHR’s part, the High Commissioner has committed to working closely with WHO towards the implementation of these recommendations and to continuing to support Governments and other stakeholders’ efforts to prioritize health and human rights.

We know what needs doing, why we should do it and that it also makes financial sense, we want only for the conviction that this matters – that the health and wellbeing of women, children and adolescents in particular matter enough to invest in their futures and through them the future for us all.