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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Launch of booklet on Women of African Descent human rights challenges and achievements

Women of African Descent

08 March 2018

Remarks by Kate Gilmore, Deputy High Commissioner
Geneva, UNOG Cinema Room, 8 March 2018, 13:30-15:00

Excellencies, Colleagues, Friends,

Happy International Women’s Day.  

Chandra Mohanty, renowned Indian professor of Gender Studies - once observed – and I paraphrase – that the identity of “woman” in an “illusory unity.”  Indeed, because and after all - the primordial unity is not that of hormone and genitalia – it is that which the Universal Declaration of Human rights affirms - for human we are born – all of us –  equal in dignity and rights. 

And as the High Commissioner told the HRC just yesterday, every one of our differences subsequently and our diversities – such as they are - is bolted onto that steady state - common base - of our shared and equal humanity. 

Yet those bitter bolts of our constructed differences bite bitter deep.  And with their fictional stratification by false (de)grading claims that “I am more human than you”, bigotry, prejudice, and, frankly, hate, rust constructed differences so tightly in place that they then falsely, wrongly, unlawfully contain, restrain and enchain.

By our learned prejudices about gender, ethnicity, race, religion, sexual orientation, nationality, migration status, class, disability and age, our invented “other” is wrongfully chained. And still she rises. And still they rise. 

We have gathered today to recall, honour and celebrate the achievements of women and girls of African Descent, despite those chains – how invisible they may be.  For in the face of entrenched discrimination, still women and girls of African descent rise; in their uniqueness, talent and through their resilience, despite barrier, opposition and exclusion, they have made and are making indelible marks on science, development, sport, law, family, arts, politics, and through activism.…

For she has run with speed fast like light; has etched truth into canvas with sharp line and colour bright; devised mathematic equations for spacecraft’s safer and longer flight.

She has powered a ball over the tennis net at supersonic speed.  Drawn into a graphic comics squares and bubbles, epic tales of superheroes, villains and their struggles. 

She invented breakthroughs with the very first computers and she gave us her cells from which we broke through to prevent cervical cancer. 

She has kept the deep silences of deep faith; held strong faith that we could not keep the deep silences about sexual violence. She sang out loud and lush; and cried so quietly that no one ever heard her in the hush.

She has whipped up a storm; and has stormed against the whip and against the scorn.

She helped draft the UN Charter although not seen as having done so thereafter. She has written stories with beautiful poetry. Lived beautiful lives, whose poetry will never be written down.

She mothered a nation.  Mothered a child.  Taught a boy to be a man.  Taught a girl to survive until she can.  Marched until she had the vote.  Voted until the executions ended.

She has been a child, borne a child, birthed a child, raised a child - all while still a child.

She has been the underground railway that freed the slave.  Planted seeds for the forest to be saved. Rested for but a moment – but not too long.  And, stayed when others were long gone. 

She cared for parent, for partner, for the patient and the poor.  All this she has done and she has done so much more.

The booklet we are launching today, entitled “Women and Girls of African descent, human rights challenges and achievements”, is dedicated to them all.


The booklet is based on the Secretary-General’s report on the International Decade for People of African Descent, as given last year to the UN General Assembly and it illustrates the realities of discrimination that would chain, and still do constrain, the opportunities, fairness and justice for, and celebration of, women and girls of African descent. 

Many of those realties have been corroborated by Geneva hosted human rights mechanisms:

  • Human rights mechanisms confirm that in Latin America, that poverty is disproportionately high for women - but even higher still for women of African descent.
  • The Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent have found that in the US, 37 per cent of households headed by African-American women live below the poverty line.
  • The Special Rapporteur on violence against women established that in the UK, women of African descent are more likely to depend on State benefits and have been particularly struck by austerity measures.
  • The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women revealed that First Nations Canadian and Afro-Canadian women and girls have lower educational and academic achievements and were more likely to drop out of formal schooling.

There is progress too in more than the reporting of these human rights violations – vital as that is; progress in that:

  • Many countries have integrated protective measures for people of African descent into laws and constitutions;

  • Many countries now collect disaggregated statistical data on the demographics of Afro-descendants;

  • Many countries that have adopted national action plans to combat racial discrimination;

  • Many have launched awareness raising campaigns to combating prejudice against people of African descent.

Our booklet also sets out recommendations that if implemented will help to eat away at the legacy of centuries of structural race and sex discrimination.  The Decade for People of African Descent, together with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, give us the essential ingredients of a significant opportunity to robustly enforce laws and implement policies that will tangibly and materially better respect, protect and fulfil the rights of millions of women and girls of African descent.

Our distinguished panel will enable us to learn more about just how possible this is.

Excellencies and friends,

When human rights activist and artist Billy Holliday sang out, with poet’s voice and heavy heart, against the lynching of African descendant Americans in US southern states, her lyrics were these:   

“Southern trees bear strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root / Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze / Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees”.

Today, in this world - that betrays so casually hard won universal values; that flourishes so readily xenophobia’s bitter harvests and feeds without care the toxic bounties of hatred and bigotry, - strange fruit yet again buds on populist trees.

Friends, that strange fruit has no place here and it must find no home there or anywhere.  This year as we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we are not asked to be the Uniform Nations, but we surely must be THE United Nations – united once and for all - against race based hatred, against gender based contempt and against ethnic based attack – united in our determination to unchain further and farther, the power, creativity, achievement and gift of women and girls of African descent worldwide. Thank you.