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World of Parliaments
Fifth meeting of women Speakers of Parliament

Dr. Theo-Ben Gurirab

IPU President, Dr. Theo-Ben Gurirab

Breaking the silence surrounding violence against women

In July, the IPU and the National Council of Austria held the Fifth Annual Meeting of Women Speakers of Parliament in Vienna, which addressed two key questions: violence against women and girls and women and the global economic crisis, two often interlinked problems. The women Speakers and Deputy Speakers of 15 national parliaments and one regional parliament highlighted how the financial crisis increased women’s vulnerability to violence. Economic independence and gender equality, they said, were the best means of prevention. In Vienna, the participants visited a shelter where women and children can find protection when they escape from their violent husbands or partners.

The IPU President, Dr. Theo-Ben Gurirab, said that the IPU had launched a campaign to support parliaments in their efforts to end violence against women, which targets three main areas: building a strong and effective legal framework, securing effective implementation of legislation and reinforcing awareness, sensitization and visibility of violence against women.

Ms. Barbara Prammer

Ms. Barbara Prammer, Speaker of the Austrian National Council

We must ensure that anti-discrimination programmes are expanded

Ms. Barbara Prammer, Speaker of the Austrian Parliament, and host of the meeting, pointed out that parliaments must not leave it to government alone to enhance gender mainstreaming processes. “We as parliamentarians play a crucial role in this process and we must ensure that anti-discrimination programmes are expanded. Those countries that have not yet ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) should do so now. The same applies to the ILO Conventions on gender equality and regional conventions and legislation such as European Union’s directives”.

Ms. Joyce Adeline Bamford-Addo

Ms. Joyce Adeline Bamford-Addo, Speaker of Parliament of the Republic of Ghana

Political participation: a sine qua non for democracy and governance

For Justice Joyce Adeline Bamford- Addo, Speaker of Parliament of the Republic of Ghana, women’s rights are human rights. The significance of violence against women is that it is the cause and effect of the denial of a range of other human rights. “Gender-based violence which denies or impairs the enjoyment of rights by women constitutes discrimination. Poverty and unemployment for example increase opportunities for exploitation of women, including trafficking and sex tourism. The incidence of war leads to the rape of women and girls”. Traditional norms and culture have embedded practices that dehumanize women and girls. “Political participation, a sine qua non for democracy and governance, is compromised when women experience violence, resulting in the challenges that face many of our countries with regard to representation in political structures”, she said.

Ms. Ntlhoi Motsamai

Ms. Ntlhoi Motsamai, The Speaker of the National Assembly of Lesotho

Women should not be viewed only as victims

The Speaker of the National Assembly of Lesotho, Ms. Ntlhoi Motsamai, believes that women should not be viewed only as victims, but also as agents of change. “Governments must come up with policies that take everyone on board and most importantly, priorities that promote gender equality and women’s empowerment. History has shown that, through women’s empowerment, the United States and Latin America survived the Great Depression of the 1930s. There is a need to expand economic opportunities for women and increase their access to credit. Women need to be involved in policy-making, including the budgeting processes”. Parliaments have also to amend and/or promulgate laws intended to remove social, cultural and legal barriers to gender equality

Baroness Anne Gibson of Market Rasen

Baroness Anne Gibson of Market Rasen, Deputy Speaker of the House of Lords (UK)

Economic crisis and violence against women are often interlinked

Almost all the participants underlined the fact that economic crises and violence against women are often interlinked. Baroness Anne Gibson of Market Rasen explained that “if women lose their jobs, the consequent stress is inevitable. Most women take on jobs in the first place because their income is needed to keep the family afloat. Without this extra help, financial strain rises alarmingly. If the woman’s partner loses his job, the stress he goes through affects his partner and the family generally. And if a woman is a single parent, she can be quickly plummeted into despair. The loss of her job will put her and her children back in the lowest economic category in our society. The frustration of job loss, creating instability in family life, can be a recipe for violence in the home, and we heard about the appalling effects of domestic violence”.

Legislators could ask their governments to be vigilant and ensure that the recession does not lead to an increase in discrimination against women and to ensure that women’s skills are not left untapped or underutilized as the economies recover, added the Deputy Speaker of the UK House of Lords.

Ms. Katalin Szili

Ms. Katalin Szili, Speaker of the National Assembly of Hungary

Provide equal opportunities for women

Although men and women are affected differently by the economic crisis, the Speaker of the National Assembly of Hungary, Ms. Katalin Szili, insisted that measures to provide equal opportunities for women should be continued. “We should provide all the help we can, especially to women with the highest level of schooling, so that these women can access jobs that are in line with their education and skills. We should make sure that the aspect of equal opportunities for women is never neglected when working out crisis management measures”.

“At every intervention, we should examine what impact its introduction will have on women and men. We should calculate with the effect of discriminatory elements, especially when social welfare services are being cut”, she said, adding that the improvement of the situation of women is good for men as well, and it is good for the whole society.

Ms. Anna Burke

Ms. Anna Burke, Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives of Australia

Economic hardship can exacerbate domestic abuse

Ms. Anna Burke, Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives of Australia, highlighted the fact that economic hardship also poses a threat to women’s physical and emotional freedom from domestic violence. “Incidences of domestic violence are not confined to developing countries. Indeed it appears that reports of domestic violence linked to the global economic crisis are more prevalent in developed countries. This indicates that economic hardship can exacerbate existing domestic abuse. This may be in part because out-of-work abusers have more opportunity to batter. It may also be because victims are already economically enslaved, as abusers deny them access to money. Hard economic times simply compound an existing situation”.

She explained that a sufficient and sustainable social security system is important for many women on low incomes to maintain economic security. In Australia, for example, the pension reform is intended to address the inadequacy of the single pension, which will be of benefit to women who are disproportionately reliant on incomes from the social security system.

Ms. Jozefina Topalli

Ms. Jozefina Topalli, Speaker of the Parliament of Albania

Women make change happen

Ms. Jozefina Topalli, the first woman Speaker of the Parliament of Albania, believes that “women are the ones who make change happen”. She highlighted the contribution of Albanian women to the development of her country. “Women constitute about 51 per cent of Albania’s population, 56.7 per cent of them work as experts in public administration, and 31.8 per cent as heads of departments. Women comprise 40 per cent of the employees in ministries and other State institutions and they make up about 47 per cent of the employees in small enterprises, about 71 per cent of employed persons in clothing manufacturing and about 12 per cent in construction industry. In urban areas, activities which boast the highest percentage of women employees are: education with 64 per cent and public health with 77 per cent. With the inclusion of a new share of 30 per cent women to be part of the new Parliament, the new electoral code adopted in 2009 marked a step forward. The key to the success of Albania, which used to be the poorest country in Europe, is the level of women’s education, which is equal and often even higher that that of men, according to Speaker Topalli.

Ms. Huda Fathi Ben Amer

Ms. Huda Fathi Ben Amer, President of the Arab Transitional Parliament

Exacerbation of violence among minorities and refugees

The President of the Arab Transitional Parliament, Ms. Huda Fathi Ben Amer, highlighted the exacerbation of violence among minorities and refugees or those living in popular districts, poverty belts as well as areas of tension, and especially against young women. This problem “has extended to trafficking in women and slavery in its different forms”.


Ms. Chiara Simoneschi-Cortesi (right) and Ms. Pascale Bruderer (left)

Ms. Chiara Simoneschi-Cortesi, Speaker of the Swiss National Council

Physical, sexual or mental violence within couples is as widespread in Switzerland as it is in the rest of Europe

The Speaker of the Swiss National Council, Ms. Chiara Simoneschi- Cortesi, said that physical, sexual or mental violence within couples is as widespread in Switzerland as it is in the rest of Europe. One in every five women experiences some form of physical violence or sexual abuse from her partner during her lifetime. On average, 25 women a year die as a result of domestic violence in Switzerland. “The risk of becoming an abuser increases among persons who have themselves experienced violence either directly or indirectly during their childhood. It is also higher among persons who present antisocial or criminal behaviour outside the home and among alcoholics. Violence breeds easier in couples with unequal power relations and where quarrels are not resolved through constructive dialogue”.

She added that “since 2004, the Swiss Criminal Code punishes acts of domestic violence and provides for their prosecution. This provision strengthens the position of women, because victims of domestic violence in most cases end up withdrawing their complaint because they often are dependent financially, socially, psychologically and emotionally on their partner. It provides that the aggressor - the husband, partner or father - must leave the family home, and no longer the woman, who had to do so sometimes with her children. This new rule will have a positive effect if it goes hand in hand with measures to protect the victim and, where necessary, her children. These are related to counselling and legal assistance. Victims of abuse also require assistance in finding a job so that they do not fall back into the vicious circle of dependence and violence”.

Ms. Rose Mukantabana

Ms. Rose Mukantabana, Speaker of the Rwandan Chamber of Deputies

Most victims remain silent and do not demand justice

Ms. Rose Mukantabana, Speaker of the Rwandan Chamber of Deputies - the parliamentary chamber with the highest percentage of elected women legislators in the world per 56.3 cent - said that “most victims remain silent and do not demand justice”. She recalled that “the leading causes of violence against women and girls are male domination - be it political, economic or social - and a patriarchal system that is not conducive to the involvement and participation of women in managing the household in particular and the country in general”.

Ms. Mukantabana explained that Rwanda had ratified all international human rights treaties and women’s rights treaties, including CEDAW. She added that “the law also provides for prosecuting and punishing persons guilty of genocide, rape and other forms of sexual abuse”. Her country also passed a law governing marriage and inheritance that accords equal rights to men and women, girls and boys. The Speaker of the Rwandan Parliament said that her country had adopted a law on the rights of the child and on the protection of children. The Rwandan Constitution stipulates a 30 per-cent women’s quota in all decision-making bodies. In addition to 56.3 per cent of women in parliament, over 40 per cent of posts in the police service and local authorities are reserved for women, which is an important factor in protecting them from violence and repression.

Ms. Margot Kraneveldt-Van der Veen

Ms. Margot Kraneveldt-Van der Veen, Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives of the Netherlands

Perpetrators of violence must also be treated

Ms. Margot Kraneveldt-Van der Veen, Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives of the Netherlands, said that “violence against women and girls often passes on to subsequent generations: negative role modelling and copying behaviour seem to be key factors. Therefore, prevention and the empowerment of women and girls are important. In most cases violence against women and girls remains hidden. It is committed within the intimate relationship between partners, parents and children”.

Loyalty and dependency prevent victims from stepping forward and seeking help. That is why a pattern of repeated violence frequently occurs. Therefore, assisting victims in reporting what happened to the police is very important. An inequal balance of power between those using violence and their victims almost always play a key role; such inequities are mostly gender related. The use of violence against women and girls is often related to cultural and religious aspects, such as violation of honour and female circumcision. Therefore in our integration programmes a lot of attention is focused on equal rights and sexual integrity of women.

“Over the past few years the Dutch Government has invested a lot of energy and money in offering shelter and help to victims of violence and in tackling the offenders. Municipalities are responsible for the implementation of action plans. The aim is to get the victims into immediate and safe shelter and to provide them with professional help to relieve their physical and mental suffering. Perpetrators of violence are also treated. Apart from criminal proceedings brought against the perpetrator, agencies provide for supervision and behaviour training”.

Ms. Akja Tajiyewna Nurberdiyewa

Ms. Akja Tajiyewna Nurberdiyewa, Speaker of the Mejlis of Turkmenistan

Unequal distribution of men and women in official hierarchies

The Speaker of the Mejlis of Turkmenistan, Ms. Akja Tajiyewna Nurberdiyewa, explained that income disparity in Turkmenistan is not so much linked to gender discrimination as it is to professional segregation. There is horizontal segregation based on profession, which is due to the unequal distribution of men and women in different occupations and in sectors of the economy. The majority of women (more than a half) are employed in fields such as health care, social services, education, the textile industry, etc. She added that vertical segregation involves the unequal distribution of men and women in official hierarchies. This is manifest in a greater proportion of men in the top positions of State organs and at the local level.

Ms. Fahmida Mirza

Ms. Fahmida Mirza, Speaker of the National Assembly of Pakistan

Change of mentality hinges on more democratic and more tolerant societies

Dr. Fahmida Mirza, Speaker of the National Assembly of Pakistan, the first woman Speaker not only of Pakistan but also the entire Muslim world, stressed that abused, harassed, marginalized and threatened women lead a miserable life under the constant shadows of violence, discrimination and poverty. “What is even more alarming is society’s collective response to it. Despite being considered as a major obstacle to development, violence against women has not been made a priority of our governments. This apathy is the outcome of the general indifference of our respective societies, because regardless of our cultural differences, violence against women in all societies has by and large been perceived as “a private affair”.

“So as we ponder upon the vital issues of strengthening national action plans or introducing protective laws, we must also change the very mind-set that either sanctions or at best ignores women’s abuse. Such a change of mentality cannot come about unless we enable our societies to be more democratic, more tolerant and more open to ideas. The rights of the vulnerable cannot be protected under dictatorships”. Dr. Mirza explained that two years ago, the Parliament of Pakistan had passed an important bill - the Women’s Protection Bill - liberalizing aspects of 1979 legislation that relegated women to literally second-class status. Similarly, another amendment to the Criminal Act now categorizes honour killings as “cold-blooded murder”. The Domestic Violence against Women and Children Bill 2009 seeks to eliminate the age-old pattern of treating women as private property.

Ms. Slavica Djukic-Dejanovic

Ms. Slavica Djukic-Dejanovic, Speaker of the National Assembly of Serbia

Progress and setbacks

Ms. Slavica Djukic-Dejanovic, Speaker of the National Assembly of Serbia, explained that there is no exact data on the extent and incidence of violence against women in Serbia and most of the information was collected with the assistance of nongovernmental organizations. Their studies have indicated that this form of violence is widespread. Patriarchal relations between sexes, difficult economic crises, exile, wars and displacement of people, as well as the process of breaking with tradition, are factors which also contribute to this situation. “The most common forms of violence against women in Serbia are domestic violence by an intimate partner, sexual violence against women and trafficking of women”.

Ms. Djukic-Dejanovic explained that in the past years “positive developments have been observed in the legislative domain, with the adoption of the Criminal Code, the Family Act, and the Constitution of the Republic of Serbia in 2006. Nevertheless, there are still serious problems to be tackled. One is a lack of capacities for the application of legislation and other instruments”. She added that a cross-party Standing Committee of the National Assembly had been established; it was composed of representatives of all parliamentary groups. The Gender Equality Committee had prepared and adopted the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Violence against Women, which would soon be adopted in plenary session”.