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UN: World Needs to Increase Focus on Violence Against Women - 2002-04-10

The U.N. investigator on violence against women has said practices like female genital mutilation, honor killings, and sex slavery deserve the same international fight taken up against torture and racial discrimination.

U.N. Human Rights Commission Investigator Radhika Cumaraswamy said her focus on women this year has been cultural practices in the family that are violent towards women.

She said such practices include honor killings, female genital mutilation, pledging of young girls to become concubines and sex slaves, and laws upholding unilateral divorce. Many of these practices, she said, take place in the Middle East, Asia, and among migrant communities in Europe and the Americas.

Ms. Cumaraswamy said it is difficult to know exactly how many women are affected. She said particularly in the case of honor killings, governments neither investigate, prosecute, or punish.

"A lot of this takes place invisibly, because what is it are women who really transgress the social norms such as either they commit adultery, they fall in love like in Pakistan and Turkey, they fall in love with somebody. That is seen as defying the honor. Rape victims because somehow they have been defiled," she said. "This whole array of various crimes and sometimes just walking in the street without a burqa or anything that brings shame to the male members of the family results in them being killed."

Ms. Cumaraswamy said the international standards are clear. The U.N. Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women said religion, custom, and tradition should not be used to justify violence against women. But many countries and cultures hotly contest this. She says a common global solution must be found.

Ms. Cumaraswamy traveled to Sierra Leone recently where many girls have been abducted and forced into becoming sex slaves and soldiers. She says the sexual violence against girls goes beyond imaginable proportions.

"Girls between the ages of 12 to 16 being taken from their homes made into sex slaves, impregnated many times and then having children and having to live with those who have raped them," she said.

Ms. Cumaraswamy urged the international special court on Sierra Leone be set up as soon as possible. She also said that one of the best strategies to eliminate abuse against women is to encourage and strengthen national women's groups to help fight cases in their own country and cultural context.