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Thursday, September 23, 2010

Protecting Women's Fundamental Rights

September 23, 2010
Franco Frattini
Deccan Herald 

Trying to simply impose behaviours by law is not enough: we have to go to the roots of the problem.

Promoting women’s rights at the global level must aim to enhance women’s role as pro-active individuals and as the essential and most effective channel for development and peace. However, to achieve this requires protecting women’s fundamental rights, first and foremost the right not to be subjected to violence.

Italy has always been active with a number of initiatives and projects aimed at preventing violence against women. I am personally committed as a member of the ‘Network of Men Leaders’ launched last year by the UN secretary general within the scope of the campaign ‘Unite to End Violence Against Women.’

One of Italy’s main priorities in protecting and promoting human rights worldwide was combating Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). This practice is still a huge challenge in many parts of the world. In Africa, some traditional cultures consider it to be beneficial to women and their families, believing that it ensures girls a proper marriage and promotes chastity and family honour. Other countries in Europe, once unaffected by this practice, have become familiar with FGM over the last years, including Italy, where we have now an estimated 35,000 cases of FGM.

Roots of the problem

Female genital mutilation has been neglected for centuries. It was considered a kind of taboo, and the fact that it was often associated with ancestral traditions or religious myths complicated any open form of discussion or challenge. Illiteracy, poverty, and a lack of information have contributed greatly to the problem.

Luckily, over the last decade, the interest in and commitment to end this practice has reached a new level. FGM is now generally considered a violation of the human rights and physical integrity of women and girls.

Since the 1980s Italy has been actively engaged in programmes to combat and prevent FGM, starting in Somalia. In 2004 we initiated a partnership with Unicef aimed at the creation of a political, legal, and social framework for the abandonment of the practice of FGM. We are now one of the key donors to UN programmes in this field, including the Unicef/Unfpa joint programme on FGM.

We are keen to reinforce our global partnership on this issue. The challenge is huge and requires a comprehensive approach and a wide range of strategies to be addressed effectively. One element is crucial to guide our action: understanding the social and cultural dynamics related to FGM. Trying to simply impose behaviours by law is not enough: we have to go to the roots of the problem and work on positive actions as well, especially in the fields of education and public awareness campaigns.

I wish to clarify that there is no paternalism in our attitude nor have we any desire to impose ‘western standards’ on traditional cultures. Our objective is simply to support African ownership of this initiative and strengthen a process that Africa itself started a long time ago.

Besides, we are not starting from scratch. We can now build on several initiatives that have taken place over the last months: in September 2009 we held in New York the first ministerial meeting on FGM, which brought together an initial group of 14 countries committed at the national and international level to support the fight against FGM; two months later, the government of Burkina Faso, together with Italy and the NGO ‘No Peace Without Justice’ organised a high-level regional meeting in Ouagadougou entitled ‘Towards a Global Ban of FGM’; in March 2010, an event at the margins of the Commission on the Status of Women was co-chaired by the Ministers for Gender Issues of Egypt, Italy and Senegal, and a resolution on ending female genital mutilation was adopted by consensus, tabled by the African Group, and endorsed later by ECOSOC. Last but not least, in May 2010 an Inter-Parliamentary Conference took place in Dakar, with representatives of parliaments and civil society from 28 African countries, and a declaration was adopted urging, inter alia, the UN General Assembly to adopt a resolution banning FGM in the world  in 2010.

We believe that the time has come to present an ad-hoc resolution on FGM at this session of the UN General Assembly. Such a resolution should be brief and touch on a selected number of priorities: a solemn ban on FGM, a reference to the main legal and cultural instruments underlying that goal, an appeal to the international community and the UN system, and a light follow-up mechanism.

The main point, however, is that this would be the first time the supreme body of the United Nations had spoken out on this matter — a major achievement in itself. This is one of the goals that we have set for this upcoming session of the General Assembly and I trust that the international community will be able to achieve it.