I am very pleased to be here this morning to participate in the opening session of this meeting of Experts of the Caribbean Sub-Region on Violence against Women, and I wish to thank the organizers for giving me the opportunity to make a few brief remarks on this occasion.
The Inter-American Commission on Women is taking another important step in addressing the scourge of violence against women which plagues our societies, by undertaking the analysis of national programs for the prevention, punishment, and eradication of violence against women in the Americas. I wish to commend the Commission, and the other agencies collaborating on this initiative – the International Centre for Criminal Law Reform and Criminal Justice Policy (ICCLR) and the Latin American Institute of the United Nations for the Prevention of Crime and Treatment of Offenders (ILANUD). This kind of collaboration is welcome and necessary if we are to identify effective solutions to the scourge of violence against women.
Domestic violence has been with us for a long time. It exists in every society in one form or another but has generally been unacknowledged, or perhaps it has generally been silently accepted. It exists at every level of society, and continues to be the single most devastating barrier in the way of women's full enjoyment of their basic human rights and freedoms.
Despite significant governmental and non-governmental action, a brief perusal of the newspapers in the region, or a quick look at the TV news, provides evidence that the battering and murder of women and, indeed of children, continues.
For a long time, and even within the women's movement, domestic violence, and particularly violence against women in the home remained behind closed doors. Violence against women is being brought from the shadows of shame and secrecy, out into the open, where we can examine the deleterious effects of it on women, on society as a whole, and come up with sound solutions to eradicate it.
It has only been within the last decade or so that the issue of violence against women has found a firm position on the global agenda of women's issues. This was signalled in 1992 when the UN Committee on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women defined gender-based violence against women as a major obstacle to women's enjoyment of their human rights and their right to equality in all aspects of human life.
The Convention of Belém do Pará, and it's ratification in a short period of time by almost all of the countries in the Caribbean Sub-Region, substantiates the seriousness with which this issue is viewed.
At the Regional level, though, we were quicker in moving the issue of domestic violence unto our agenda. In the 1980's, the Women's Bureaux of the Region, in initiating an investigation into the legal status of women cited the lack of legal provisions to deal with domestic violence. The ensuing work, undertaken through the collaboration of the CARICOM Secretariat, CIDA and the Commonwealth Secretariat, identified weaknesses in the national laws as they related to women and prepared model legislation for use by Member States as they sought to strengthen the legal status of women. Domestic violence was among the areas covered by the Model Legislation.
CARICOM Ministers responsible for Women's Affairs in 1991 adopted the model legislation and during the decade of the 90's most Member States passed laws strengthening the status of women. Critical in reinforcing this, though, is the supporting legal and judicial infrastructure which will guarantee the protection which the legal instrument seeks to provide. Without this supporting infrastructure the laws will not be effective.
CARICOM's Model Legislation is an important step in empowering women to recognize that violence in any form is wrong, to confront it and to reject it.
But although legislative reform is a major achievement it is not enough. Legislative reform alone will not solve the problem of domestic violence.
At the Third Caribbean Ministerial Conference on Women held in October 1999 in Trinidad and Tobago, Caribbean Ministers with responsibility for Women's Affairs recognised this, when they agreed to address the root causes of violence against women, noting that policy and programmatic interventions should be based on an understanding of the nature and types of violence against women and of how this violence, in all its manifestations, is constructed, perpetuated and reproduced.
There is a clear acknowledgement of the need for societal change. In order to remove the lingering shame and stigma that erodes the self-esteem of women existing in violent circumstances, in order to remove the violence which many women face I their daily lives, a fundamental change in behavioural attitudes is required.
There is need to clarify for women (and men who are often the perpetrators of violence against their domestic partners) what constitutes a violent act. There is need to reassure women, who are often uncertain themselves, of the need to change the perception that violence against women can ever be justified. And there is the need to sensitise the public that “violence is unacceptable for settling differences, as a means of entertainment and as an expression of power”.
How do we achieve this transformation? On the one hand, it is true that it is necessary for women to perceive themselves differently, to value themselves more highly and to project that thinking into the wider society. But this change in perception of self by women, by itself is not sufficient. There is also a need for fundamental change in the way men perceive themselves. Most fundamentally, there also needs to be a shift in the way women and men perceive each other.
We hope that education and awareness initiatives, accompanied by legislative reform, will accelerate the pace at which we can expect to see the eradication of violence against women.
Over the next two days, as you discuss and analyse the issue of Violence against Women in the Region, and assess progress since the adoption of the The Convention of Belém do Pará, , I know that you will seek to use the information and analysis as the basis for appropriate strategy development, encompassing both legal and societal reform.
I wish you all the best in your deliberations and look forward to the fruits of your work.