I am writing from the beautiful city of Granada, Nicaragua. I am participating in the prestigious International Poetry Festival of Nicaragua, which honours our great national treasure Ernesto Cardenal, an inspiring figure who has contributed much to the fields of art, literature, theology and politics. He has helped to shape Nicaragua's history.
I didn't read a poem at the festival. Instead, I gave a speech. I wanted to shed light on the chronic problem of violence and discrimination against women in my home country, and all over the world.
When the international community convened in 2000 to establish the Millennium Development Goals, they omitted one crucial target. They failed to address the global pandemic of violence against women and girls.
The United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) refers to the elimination of violence against women as the 'missing MDG target.'
Violence against women is a crime. And yet it is universal. It happens in every country in the world, in every echelon of society. According to UN Women, up to six out of every ten women globally experience physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime. This is an alarming statistic. It is unspeakable.
My organisation, the Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation, and I have been asked to collaborate with UN Women on projects, in Nicaragua and elsewhere, to promote gender equality, the prevention and elimination of violence against women, their economic empowerment and political participation.
This is a cause close to my heart. After my parents divorced when I was ten years old, my mother found herself single, without a profession, with three small children to care for. I watched her being discriminated against because of her gender and status. This painful experience inspired me to commit my life to speaking up for women's rights.
My mother was a pioneer. She believed in women's emancipation at a time when most women in the Nicaragua of the sixties devoted themselves solely to home-making and were regarded as second-class citizens. During those years she exhibited great courage and strength she never gave up. My mother was my role model.
Although conditions for women in Nicaragua and throughout the world have improved since those days, gender equality is far from achieved. There has been some progress. Women are excelling in many fields. We have almost achieved equal pay in some countries. We have different lives to those of our grandmothers and even our mothers. But we still face unconscionable levels of discrimination and violence against women. The stark reality is that women are still a vulnerable group.
In South Africa, a woman is killed every 6 hours by a partner.
In Guatemala, two women are murdered, on average, each day.
Hundreds of women have been slaughtered in Ciudad Juarez in Mexico over the past decades. According to the New York Times, in 2012 alone sixty women were killed and dumped in the vast mass grave outside the city. The grave was discovered in the mid-1990s, and more bodies are dumped every year. No one seems to know what these hundreds women died for, or be able to stop it.
In countries such as Iran, Sudan and Saudi Arabia , women can be punished for the 'crimes' of adultery, or sex outside marriage by beheading, stoning and hanging under Sharia law.
We all remember the revolting video which emerged in 2012 of a woman being shot nine times in the back in an Afghan village, as dozens of men look on, cheering. A voice can be heard saying in the background, 'Allah warns us not to get close to adultery because it's the wrong way.'
In 2012, a young woman convicted of a 'sex crime' was stoned to death in a football stadium in Somalia. In 2008 a 13 year old rape victim was stoned to death in front of a thousand spectators. A lorryload of stones was brought to the stadium for the purpose.
In India in 2010, 8,391 dowry death cases were reported across the country, meaning a bride was burned every 90 minutes, according to statistics recently released by the National Crime Records Bureau in India.
In December 2012 a 23-year-old student in India returning home from the cinema one evening was violently and repeatedly gang raped on a bus, sustaining horrific internal injuries. Afterwards she was thrown, naked and unconscious, from the moving bus.
The student has been nicknamed Nirbhaya, meaning 'Fearless,' in the Indian press, for her determination to live and see her attackers prosecuted. Nirbhaya died of her injuries on December 29th.
We live in a world where rape has long been used a weapon of war.
In 1993, I went to the former Yugoslavia to document the mass rape of Bosnian women by Serbian forces as part of their campaign of ethnic cleansing. Nothing in my experience as a human rights campaigner had prepared me for the suffering I witnessed, and the stories I heard.
UNIFEM estimates that during the Bosnian war up to 50,000 women were systematically raped.
During the 1994 Rwandan genocide it is estimated between 250,000-500,000 women were raped.
Rape victims in Afghanistan can be jailed for adultery. In one case in 2011, a woman was freed from prison after being forced to marry her attacker.
Globally, 60 million girls are sexually assaulted on their way to school each year.
100 to 140 million girls all over the world, predominantly in Africa, have been subjected to female genital mutilation.
Trafficking ensnares millions, destroying lives, trapping many women and girls in modern-day slavery and prostitution. Women and girls form 79% of the estimated 800,000 people trafficked across national borders annually, with the majority trafficked for sexual exploitation.
These horrifying numbers speak for themselves. They indicate a culture of tolerance of violence against women all across the world.
I fear that this is only the tip of the iceberg. Many women are afraid to speak out in cases of domestic abuse. Much violence against women goes unreported.
A study of fifteen countries by the World Health Organisation showed that between 15 and 71% of women have been seriously physically or sexually assaulted by their partner. And one fifth of them had never told anyone but the surveyor about the abuse.
Indigenous women are particularly at risk. In May 2012 UN special rapporteur Rashida Manjoo presented a report, 'On Violence against Women, its Causes and Consequences,' to the General Assembly. It makes for shocking reading. For example, 'In Guatemala, the current experience of massive and violent killings of indigenous women has a legacy stemming back to colonial times, further increasing during the 36-year armed conflict. Indigenous Maya women constituted 88% of victims of sexual and systematic attacks, with such attacks being publicly and intentionally perpetrated, mainly by military and paramilitary personnel.'
The report concludes that worldwide, 'the main failings by the authorities are the failure of police to protect aboriginal women and girls from violence and to investigate promptly and thoroughly when they are missing or murdered.'
The list goes on and on. Violence against women seems to be entrenched in our societies. It shouldn't be. We must stop it. We must put an end to the worldwide culture of impunity.
Those who perpetrate violence against women should of course be prosecuted with the full weight of the law.
But how much weight does the law carry? Not much, in some cases.
The highest court in the United Arab Emirates ruled in 2010 that under sharia law a man is permitted to beat his wife and children, as long as he leaves no marks.
A judge in Saudi Arabia stated in 2009 that a man has the right to hit a wife who spends money wastefully.
In Turkey, where wife beating is ingrained in the culture, a hospital survey showed that 69.0% of the female and 84.7% of the male medical staff agreed that spousal abuse was justified. Accepted justifications for domestic violence included women lying to or criticising the male partner, and not taking sufficient care of children.
In many countries there are deeply embedded cultural perceptions of women as inferior. Women around the world face severe restrictions on their freedom and are even condemned to death for violating biased moral and religious codes in misogynistic, patriarchal cultures.
70 million girls each year are denied the right to the most basic education. 64% of the 774 million illiterate adults worldwide are women.
We must call for all countries to achieve gender parity in education. We must strive to change the discriminatory attitudes that treat women as second class citizens. Perhaps just as vital, we must all as individuals teach our children to love and respect women.
Here Nicaragua there is a lot to be done.
In 2011 there were 37,000 recorded cases of domestic or sexual violence. About 80 women a year were being killed by their spouses. In a country with 6 million inhabitants this is an appallingly high number, which the World Health Organization considers as signalling an epidemic of violence.
The first study on the prevalence of spousal abuse against women in Nicaragua, entitled Confites en el infierno ("Candies in Hell"), was made in 1995. According to the study at the time one of every two women in Nicaragua has been physically abused at some point by her husband or companion, and one in four women had been the recipient of violence during the last 12 months.
Rape and sexual abuse are still widespread in Nicaragua. Amnesty International reports that between 1998 and 2008 the police recorded 14,377 cases of rape in this country. More than two thirds of these (9,695 cases) involved girls under the age of 17. Again we have to face the fact that these numbers are not the full story: countless rape cases are never reported.
Too often women who are victims of violence or sexual abuse are intimidated or ignored by a patriarchal legal system.
According to Amnesty International in 2010 a mother reported to the police that her daughter had been repeatedly raped by her partner, the girl's stepfather. The police arrested the mother for not reporting the violation earlier. She was sentenced to 12 years for being 'complicit in the crime of sexual violence.' No efforts were made to detain the perpetrator.
There are many such unconscionable examples of women being assaulted and killed with impunity in Nicaragua.
Sandra Ramos, founder and director of the Maria Elena Cuadra Movement for Working and Unemployed Women has said that Nicaragua is "very male-chauvinist and patriarchal... the revolution did not recognize their rights as women, as feminists," she said. "The Sandinistas lifted people out of poverty, but they were very slow to move on women's rights."
Nicaragua's Law on Violence against Women, which entered into effect on June 22, 2012 is a step in the right direction. But we need to do more, much more.
Not all the news is bad. I have seen some initiatives during my visit that give me hope for Nicaragua and for the world.
I participated at the Regional Consultation on the Prevention and Elimination of Violence against Women in El Salvador on the 11th and 12th of February. The conference was hosted by UN Women and the first lady of El Salvador, Dr Vanda Pignato, who is the director of ISDEMU.
While in El Salvador I visited City of Women, in Santa Ana, an inspiring project with the capacity to empower women and effect change in their lives. The services offered include medical, legal, and economic support in a secure environment.
UN Women hopes that Nicaragua and other countries will soon have similar projects. City of Women is a pioneering model that needs to be replicated not only in Nicaragua and Central America but all over the world.
Eve Ensler, author of the Vagina Monologues, organised a global movement, One Billion Rising, on February 14, 2013 - a call 'to break through the patriarchal wall of oppression and denial, to transform the mindset that has normalised violence, to bring women survivors into their bodies, their strength, their determination, their energy and power and to dance up the will of the world to finally make violence against women unacceptable.' One Billion Rising called for women all over the world and men who love them to leave their schools, offices, homes - and dance.
From flash mobs in Palm Springs, Florida, to crowds dancing to dangdut music in Jogjakarta, Indonesia, to a zumbatron here in Nicaragua, which I attended... millions of women and men in 203 countries rose and danced in a global demonstration of unity.
It was an important and rousing event. A statement from women across the world: that they refuse to endure the continued violence, abuse and rape. That it must be stopped.
Artists, writers, poets and film makers play a vital role in standing up for democratic principles, in defence of human rights, civil liberties and freedom of expression. Throughout history artists have recorded and denounced the abuses and horrors of their time.
The Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation works closely with artists. Our first fundraising event, 'Arts for Human Rights,' celebrated the great Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who is still under house arrest in Beijing, unlawfully detained for his political beliefs.
We have a great tradition of politically and socially engaged poetry in Nicaragua. Poets can make us understand human suffering in a way that no statistics can. You have only to read the moving depiction of the plight of women in the poem 'The Peasant Women from Cua,' by Ernesto Cardenal, to see that this is true. It begins,
Voy a hablares ahora de los gritos del Cua
Gritos de mujeres como de parto...
I urge you to read the poem, if you don't know it.
I call on women across the world to embark upon a non-violent revolution: a call to arms, without weapons. I hope that all men of conscience will join us. Movements like One Billion Rising, City of Women, and Nicaragua's "Law on Violence against Women" are a good start.
But it's not enough.
I call on leaders throughout the world to do what it takes to end violence against women, and achieve gender equality. We must demand that all countries adhere to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and meet the Millennium Development Goals to eradicate extreme poverty, achieve universal primary education, improve maternal health, reduce child mortality, and combat HIV/AIDS.
We cannot afford to be apathetic, for the sake of the women suffering violence, persecution and injustice. Violence is a cycle, and it perpetuates itself. It is not only our generation, but our daughters and granddaughters who will suffer if we do not stand up and call a halt to this epidemic. By doing nothing, we jeopardize their future.
Gender equality is not only possible, but necessary. Achieving the Millennium Development Goals will be impossible if we don't address the 'missing MDG target:' ending violence against women. Discrimination and violence keep us from becoming a free and equal society. Violence against women and girls is a crime against each and every one of us.
Let's end violence against women and the culture of impunity. Let's bring the perpetrators to justice.