For Eleanor Nwadinobi, it’s as simple as a pack of cigarettes.
No matter where you fly to in the world — Lagos, Los Angeles, Kabul — if you are riding a commercial airline, you will be told you can’t smoke cigarettes or any other tobacco product. No matter where you land, whether you pick up a pack of cigarettes at a duty-free shop or a street cart, there will be a physician’s warning on the package.
Nwadinobi, a Nigerian physician, noted that the reason for this uniformity is simple: a 2003 international treaty, negotiated through the World Health Organization, that set international regulations for the sale, promotion and education around tobacco products.
She wants to see those same standards, that same commitment applied to a “public health crisis of pandemic proportions” — gender violence.
“The time is right. The time is ripe. And the time is now,” Nwadinobi said.
Nwadinobi, alongside more than 260 women’s rights activists from 64 countries, signed a public letter released Wednesday calling for an international treaty to end violence against women and girls.
Addressed to the leaders of the U.N. Generation Equality Forum, which will take place in Paris from June 30 to July 2, the letter calls for a legally binding agreement that would mandate laws, training, education and accountability protocols to help reduce the violence women and girls experience around the world. Vice President Harris is set to lead the United States virtual delegation and is expected to provide opening remarks.
The Generation Equality Forum, which brings together heads of state, as well as international organizations, activists and business leaders, has named fighting gender violence among its top priorities. Activists argue that doesn’t go far enough.
“For far too long, women’s rights activists like ourselves have shouldered the burden of responding to violence against women in the face of huge obstacles, and to the best of our abilities,” the letter says. “In doing so, we put our own lives on the line each and every day.”
“This is not about one country telling another country what to do,” the letter continues. “This is about nations coming together to take a stand on ending violence against women and girls once and for all.”
Not everyone is convinced that a new treaty could move the needle on safety from gender-based violence.
In a 2018 paper, Marsha Freeman, director of the International Women’s Rights Action Watch, argued that although human rights treaties might make a difference in government behavior, it’s hard to overcome a lack of political will and resources.
“The effectiveness of any treaty depends on the financial resources available to support the cost of monitoring State compliance,” Freeman wrote. “We have no reason to believe that adopting another treaty will somehow unlock U.N. resources to service it,” she continued, adding that it would more likely drain available resources, “leaving all treaty bodies even more underserved.”
But to Najla Ayoubi, a treaty is “the only solution” to ending the gender violence she’s witnessed and experienced.
Ayoubi fled Afghanistan for the United States after receiving death threats for her advocacy.
She recalled the indignity of living under Taliban rule, and how she, a prominent judge, would have to hire her neighbor’s son, a 4-year-old, to go with her to the grocery store because she wasn’t allowed to leave her home without a man accompanying her.
Her father, her brother and her friends were assassinated for their activism, she said.
Earlier this year, the World Health Organization released a report that found 1 in 3 women around the world — about 736 million — experience physical or sexual violence.
Violence against women starts early. According to the WHO, by the time women are in their mid-20s, 1 in 4 will have already experienced violence at the hands of an intimate partner. Inequality and crises also increase the risk women will experience violence: The rate of violence is much higher in the poorest countries, where an estimated 37 percent women will experience sexual or physical harm from a partner.
The pandemic heightened those dangers for many women, no matter the country they lived in (in a recent report, the United Nations called this wave of violence a “shadow pandemic”). In the United States, rates of domestic violence spiked in some parts of the country. In Nigeria, Nwadinobi said, child marriage increased when schools closed down. When human rights activists were forced to stay home or draw down their operations, cases of female genital mutilation also went up.
These trends are “rolling back the gains” that had been made in recent decades, Nwadinobi said. In her eyes, a legally binding treaty would be the “pinnacle of global commitment” to addressing the gender violence, as well as cover women who are not protected by existing laws.
Right now, there are regional treatments to address gender violence in Latin America, Africa and Europe, but these cover only a quarter of all women, Nwadinobi explained.
There is also the 1979 United Nations treaty, the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), but it doesn’t explicitly call out gender violence. Since its passage, the CEDAW committee has released multiple recommendations expanding the agreement to include gender violence.
But CEDAW puts the onus on women harmed by violence to come forward, and only after they have exhausted all other possibilities in their home country, said Every Woman Treaty CEO Lisa Shannon, one of the leaders spearheading the letter. This means only women with the time and resources can have their cases addressed by the U.N. committee.
The new treaty Shannon and other advocates are proposing would be “complementary” to CEDAW and would create a standard for nations to follow. This includes overhauling legal codes, along with other recommendations: training (and accountability measures) for first responders to gender violence, such as doctors, judges, nurses and law enforcement officers; and violence prevention education programs for all genders.
The group is also calling for a system of monitoring unusual in human rights treaties but similar to existing treaties around tobacco use and land mines: metrics-based reporting so countries can confirm their progress. Are there laws that punish women for reporting rape, or arrest women for false accusations? Are police trained to properly investigate domestic violence? How many schools are teaching children how to prevent gender violence?
To help give the treaty some teeth, advocates are also asking for $4 billion to help fund these goals — a dollar for every woman and girl in the world, Shannon said.
Shannon, who is American, emphasized the global nature of the problem. “The worst place to be a woman often is her own home,” she said.
“This is a moment of unprecedented opportunity,” Shannon said. “You can’t achieve gender equity without addressing the bedrock that is women’s safety.