Op-Ed Remarks of Ambassador Sheila Gwaltney on International Human Rights Day

This year, in marking International Human Rights Day on December 10, we also celebrated the 70th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations.  In 1945, World leaders, in the aftermath of the horrors of WW2, based the UN’s Charter on their shared desire to foster peace, promote human rights, and chart a path forward for global social progress.

One of the first major steps taken by the UN toward its goal of protecting human rights was the UN General Assembly’s unanimous adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948.  Each year, we mark the anniversary of the Declaration’s approval as International Human Rights Day.  The Universal Declaration reflects the consensus of the international community on a core set of rights that belongs to all human beings, regardless of race, religion, gender, or the form of government under which they live.  It applies equally whether one lives in Boston, Bangkok, or Bishkek.

One of the Declaration’s fundamental principles is the equality of men and women under the law.  And while as a global community we have come a long way, there is still much work to be done to achieve gender equality.  Of critical importance is stopping the scourge of discrimination and violence against women and girls.

In 1999 the UN recognized this by designating November 25 as the “International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.”  And now, each year, organizations around the globe raise public awareness about gender-based violence from November 25 through Human Rights Day on December 10.

Each year, as part of this concerted global “16 Days of Activism,” many organizations here in Kyrgyzstan carry out exceptional work to inform the public about the issues, their past achievements, and their plans to do more to address gender based violence.  Here in Bishkek, for instance, the Sezim Crisis Center carried out skits and public information sessions, and held a journalism competition and media tour to increase awareness about the extent and brutality of gender based violence.  I was honored to be included in Sezim’s final public awareness event which was held at our American Corner in Bishkek on December 9.

At this event, we celebrated the achievements of the Sezim Crisis Center, and its director Byubyusara Ryskulova.  Ms. Ryskulova is an incredible woman, who, following her return from an international visitor program to the United States in 1998, set up the crisis center and a hotline for victims.  Over the years, Sezim has provided immediate assistance and longer-term rehabilitation to thousands of abused women and children.  Ms. Ryskulova was also a key figure in the passing of the 2003 domestic violence law, and she continues to tirelessly advocate for the safety of women and children.  She is a true Kyrgyz hero.

During the event at the American Corner, we also reflected on the Kyrgyz Parliament’s successful passing of the bride kidnapping law in 2012, which established tougher punishments for that often extremely brutal crime.  I had the opportunity to meet Member of Parliament Ainuru Altybaeva, who played an instrumental role in passing the law, and continues to advocate for greater protections for women and children.  Thanks to the Kyrgyz Parliament’s passing of the law, fewer young women are kidnapped, humiliated and abused each year.  The law and its implementation also serve as a model for other countries on how to effectively use legislation to decrease violence against women.  I applaud these efforts and congratulate Kyrgyzstan on advancing protections for women and children.

I also note though, that globally there is still much work to be done.  Worldwide,  one in three women will be physically or sexually abused in her lifetime, and one in five will experience rape or attempted rape.  According to UN Women, violence against women causes more death and disability for women and girls between the ages of 15 and 44 than cancer, traffic accidents, malaria, and war combined.  In other words, an uncountable number of human rights violations happen each day in each community across the globe.  No country is immune – not the United States, not Kyrgyzstan.

This violence and discrimination though are not inevitable, and each of us can do something to stop it.  We must take a hard and honest look at ourselves and our societies to find the roots of this problem, and to find ways we can work together to limit violence. We must act, all of us, men and women, boys and girls, government officials and community leaders.

Eliminating violence against women will not only save individuals from painful, demoralizing and harmful abuse, it will rid our societies of a social ill that divides communities and stunts social and economic progress.  Studies show that when governments and societies afford women and girls the opportunity to lead healthy, safe, and productive lives, greater economic growth and stronger societies emerge.

This is why the United States believes that gender equality is critical to our global shared goals of prosperity, stability, and peace, and why eliminating violence against women is critical to U.S. foreign policy.  The United States is working with the United Nations to end gender-based violence with the new “2030 Agenda”, which highlights sustainable development goals for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.

As President Obama stated:

“Women’s equality is a core civil and human rights principle in the United States and around the world.  Where women are full participants in a country’s politics or economy, societies are more likely to succeed.”

I am truly proud that my team at the U.S. Embassy has for many years partnered with Kyrgyz Republic stakeholders to address gender based violence, and to empower women, create opportunities for them, and expand their political and economic participation in society.  Through these programs, women, particularly from rural and disadvantaged areas, have achieved a greater level of social and economic independence, and now contribute more fully to the future of the country.  It is a great privilege for me and my team to personally to know, and work with, and learn from Kyrgyz government and civil society leaders who work tirelessly each day for the social, political and economic advancement of Kyrgyzstan and the region.

In closing, I would like to say that only through collective action will violence and discrimination against women be eliminated.  Every individual has the power to make a difference.  I challenge each reader to look at yourselves and your communities, and take action to promote gender equality.  If you see something that is not right, have the courage to take a stand.  Every voice is important, and only by respecting and empowering all people, regardless of gender, will we know true success.