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Open Letter to Michelle Bachelet on the Launch of UN Women

To the Honorable Michelle Bachelet:

It is with great pleasure and anticipation that we reach out to you today. As an international women's human rights organization working in partnership with community-based women's groups around the world, we join many others in celebrating the launch of UN Women.

For decades, advocates have fought for the full recognition of women's human rights on the UN agenda. We negotiated landmark treaties that made specific reference to human rights violations that women face. We demanded a space for women's voices at decision-making tables. We struggled to ensure the necessary authority, funding and access to women's institutions and initiatives within the UN. Yet women's human rights endeavors at the UN remained chronically underfunded, and UN bodies set up to address women's issues were disjointed and uncoordinated.

Today, we attain a new milestone, one that women through the decades fought and hoped for. As UN Women sets forth, it must be more than another UN entity; it must be a powerful voice for global women's rights.

We have no doubt that you stand ready to face the many challenges that will confront you. We look forward to working with you to overcome whatever hurdles may stand in the way and to achieve our shared goals:

  • Recognizing and learning from women's peace building efforts: In the many armed conflicts that rage worldwide, women are caught in the crossfire. When communities are decimated, women shoulder much of the burden of caring for families and of rebuilding shattered community networks. Women are targeted for gender-based violence, turning their bodies into a warzone when rape is used as a weapon. And women are taking the lead in devising peace building solutions that embrace the needs of all people.

MADRE will support UN Women to insist on a space for women at the negotiating table. As recognized by UN Security Council Resolution 1325, for any peace agreement to last and to introduce a non-violent future, it must reflect the voices of those rendered most vulnerable by conflict.

  • Guaranteeing women worldwide the right to health: Lack of access to medical care plagues communities across the world, and women are disproportionately threatened. For the right to health to mean more than just words on paper, it must reflect and guarantee the full range of needs–including reproductive and sexual rights. 

MADRE will support UN Women to guard against the growing backlash to the advances women have made to guarantee their own health. These have often taken the form of attacks against reproductive and sexual rights, using the language of culture or morality to justify this assault. These threats do not only emerge from conservatives occupying seats of power. Those launching these attacks have also coopted the proven tactics and language of popular protest and local activism. This backlash marks the terrain that UN Women must navigate.

  • Combating violence against women: One in three women in the world will face physical or sexual violence in her lifetime. Pervasive violence against women in their homes and in public prevents women from exercising the full range of their human rights. Women targeted with violence are left with little agency to build a life of their own choosing. The fabric that holds communities together is weakened.

MADRE will support UN Women to use its platform to counter violence against women as a human rights violation. Too often, it is disregarded as incidental to larger concerns or as a private matter. This widespread mentality has been curbed by the work of women's human rights advocates who placed violence against women as a central concern–and UN Women must further chip away at that attitude.

  • Promoting an economically and environmentally sustainable future for women and for all: Women continue to be disproportionately represented among the poor, and they have been hard hit by recent economic crises. Women have also faced the ravages of environmental disasters linked to climate change and resource depletion. But they are also at the forefront of groundbreaking and innovative initiatives to build new and sustainable local economies. 

MADRE will support UN Women to uplift the examples that women have set worldwide: women farmers who sustain their communities through local, organic practices; women working in sweatshops who organize to defend their labor rights; women who confront long droughts by digging wells to provide their communities with clean water, and more. Following these local examples is our best hope to pull away from the dangerous tipping point our planet is approaching.

The path ahead will be difficult, but we have already seen the steps that grassroots women's human rights activists have taken to point the way. As MADRE continues our work with our local partners, we also look forward to a long and fruitful partnership with UN Women.

February 24, 2011