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SDGs CONFERENCE 2022: In the Margins of the UNGA77

21 September 2022, Wednesday | John Jay College of Criminal Justice

SDGs Conference 2022: In the Margins of the UNGA77 was organized on 21 September 2022 at John Jay College in partnership with 36 Global Partners from 24 countries. This global platform convened 21 speakers from 15 countries and hosted notable speakers including Ministers, UN Ambassadors, journalists, civil society leaders and academicians. 

As the SDGs Conference is back to hybrid mode, the Journalists and Writers Foundation welcomed delegations of participants from Australia, Greece, South Africa, India, Philippines, and Kenya to attend a series of side events in-person including the JWF High-Level Reception, Roundtable on Journalism and SDGs Conference. The conference live streamed was accessible both on Zoom and JWF`s YouTube channel, which received over 19,000 views from 76 countries. The diversity of the SDGs Conference`s audience and the regional representation of the panelists addressed one of the utmost important missions of this global event contributing to SDG 17: Partnerships for the Goals. 

Throughout the day, in three panel sessions, high-level keynotes and expert speakers unfolded the contemporary challenges that the world leaders are also addressing at the United Nations Headquarters in New York and suggested innovative, inclusive, and sustainable policy suggestions for the full, effective, and timely implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Panel Session 2 focused on gender-based crimes in conflict zones. Conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) against women is accepted as a weapon of war by the international human rights community since the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court has addressed different forms of sexual violence as war crimes. Gender-based crimes are often used to humiliate individuals and tear apart communities. Under the widespread authoritarian regimes and armed conflicts, women and girls continue to be the main subjects of this grave atrocity. Impunity against the perpetrators of CRSV, ineffective preventative mechanisms, fear of stigma, and social exclusion remain among the most challenging barriers in combatting this systemic human rights violation.   

The role of women journalists and human rights defenders becomes even more fundamental in documenting CRSV. They continue to be at the forefront to monitor, report and raise awareness of the grave women`s rights violations under armed conflicts and undemocratic regimes. Revealing the truth and keeping the Member States accountable, women journalists, civil society leaders and peacebuilders are subjected to increasing violence of all forms, including cyber-attacks, violence against women journalists, human rights defenders, and peacebuilders. Impunity against such crimes and the arrogance of undemocratic state powers further escalates the violence against women human rights defenders. Regardless of the censorships, arbitrary detentions, systemic defamation campaigns, legal harassment, and killings, women human rights advocates continue their dedicated efforts to promote peace and security. 

Panel Session 2 was moderated by Michael Busch, the Director of Public Programs at The Polis Project. In his opening remarks, Mr. Busch spoke of structural violence, especially directed toward women, and addressed increasing gender-based human rights violations. An example Mr. Busch cited was the occurrences due to the conflict in Ukraine of rape, which has been deployed as a weapon of war. “Women are bearing the brunt of people on the ground,” he said. Other examples included Ethiopia, Iran — “and the list goes on and on,” he said. Mr. Busch stated that gender-based violence is present in the U.S. with institutional assaults on women’s rights, human rights, and increasing polarization. These realities intersect between gender and violence,” Mr. Busch said.

H.E. Ms. Helen Clark, the Former Prime Minister of New Zealand, was the first Keynote Speaker of Panel 2. H.E. Ms. Clark underlined that impunity against sexual and gender-based crimes must be resolved in order to combat violence against women. There is a lack of public awareness and effective response mechanisms. According to H.E. Ms. Clark, the reason for the gaps in systemic responses is that data is unreliable regarding victims of gender-based violence. In Liberia, a survey was performed after the country’s civil war: 1,600 women were interviewed. It was found that 92% had experienced sexual violence, including rape, during the war. “Women journalists and human rights defenders are at bigger risks,” H.E. Ms. Clark said. “We need the voices of women and girls in these processes. We need action.” She stated that it is the responsibility of all countries to condemn gender-based violence and end impunity against such crimes. 

H.E. Ms. Clark listed actions that must be enacted to combat gender-based violence. “States must integrate a comprehensive gender-supportive approach into health services and healthcare,” she said. “States must ensure that healthcare workers have support and training they need for women and children who have experienced sexual and gender-based violence.” H.E. Ms. Clark concluded that priority has to be given to addressing these needs and asked that the actions outlined are seen as essential services.

H.E. Ms. Sophia Tesfamariam Yohannes, the Ambassador of the Permanent Mission of Eritrea to the UN was the next Keynote Speaker of Panel Session 2. H.E. Ms. Yohannes spoke about the psychological traumas that women face due to gender-based conflict, and how these issues are “swept under the rug.” There are myriad long-term consequences that are, on the surface, invisible but shape lives. Ambassador Yohannes criticized that in Africa, survivors are not part of the solution. “When the storm is over, there are so many traumatized individuals within the societies” said Ambassador Yohannes. She stressed the fact that gender-based conflict continues to remain as one of the most critical issues in Africa and called for an inclusive action plan where survivors` empowerment will also be a part of the solution.

Khalida Popal, the Founder and Director of Girl Power Organization, was the first panelist of Panel Session 2. She spoke about violations faced by women human rights defenders under authoritarian regimes. Ms. Popal focused her remarks on violence against women in Afghanistan, citing August 2021 when Afghanistan collapsed, and the Taliban took over causing a great backfire on women`s rights. She outlined what Afghan women face: girls are forced to marry, and women cannot live single in an apartment by themselves. School girls are abused and violated on their way to school, and female police and female activists are forced to leave the country. Other women are not allowed to access a passport, and if they are, a male chaperone is required for travel. Female journalists disappear, and female lawyers are forced into hiding. “Women in Afghanistan are fighting for their rights. They want people to support women`s rights. They feel they are forgotten. They feel alone,” Ms. Popal said. She requests the global community to show their support by uniting against the source of violence. “We don’t want the girls of Afghanistan to be child brides. We need voices and support to put pressure on the Taliban.”

Carlos Pedro Mondlane, Judge and President of the Mozambican Judges Association, took the floor as the next panelist. He spoke of the progress of SDG 5.2: the elimination of all forms of violence against women and girls. Mr. Mondlane referenced attacks on media freedom and on journalists as a “global phenomenon,” which is not limited to women only, but women experience stigmatization at the highest levels. “Attacks against the media take many forms,” he said. “They erode our ability to tell the story.” There is a second pandemic of gender-based violence in South Africa, according to Mr. Mondlane. “South Africa is not a safe space for women.” Misogyny, sexual harassment, and abuse are rampant. But these atrocities no longer shock our society, he said, and because they are so commonplace, news outlets typically do not cover them. 

Mr. Mondlane expanded the area of gender-based violence out of conflict zones. “The biggest war zone in the world right now is on the internet, on social media.” Millions of dollars are spent on disinformation and fake news campaigns, and the concocted images are still out there. There are multiple battlefronts women journalists face: violence in the physical world, and psychological violence online. But Mr. Mondlane offered the reality of combating these issues as one must either “put up or shut up.”

Ranjeni Munusamy, Head of Media Relations at GAPP: Government and Public Policy from South Africa overviewed the challenges of reporting for women journalists with a particular focus on South Africa and covered occupational hazards. She underlined that attacks on women journalists target to dehumanize, escalate fear, and erode their ability to tell the true stories. According to Ms. Munusamy, in patriarchal societies with distinctive cultural abusive practices, the violence against women human rights defenders, and media personnel is even higher. Ms. Munusamy underlined that with the increasing authoritarian practices, it takes an instance only for women to be deprived of their role as functional members of society. “The root of the problem is that violence against all women in different professions is normalized,” said Ms. Munusamy. 

The last speaker of the session was Jelena Pia-Comella, a Senior International Consultant. She spoke of conflict-related sexual violence as a weapon of war under the International Criminal Court and Rome Statute. In her remarks, Ms. Pia-Comella referred to normative frameworks. She said that “acts of violence have been under-recorded” and cited the power of institutions. 

Ms. Pia-Comella said that “sexual and gender-based violence has been widely present in times of armed conflict and yet, due to patriarchal norms and the unequipped national and international criminal laws and systems, these acts of violence have been underreported and under prosecuted as crimes.” According to her, there has been a tendency on the one hand to underestimate the seriousness of sexual and gender-based violence in times of armed conflict, and on the other hand to over-estimate the challenges of investigating it. The result has been an under prosecution of conflict-related sexual and gender-based crimes pre-1990s. She concluded her remarks by underlining that the Rome Statute constitutes a robust legal framework that defines and criminalizes conflict-related sexual and gender-based violence. However, this framework is not always fully implemented, and advocacy efforts to support it remain siloed. Therefore, according to Ms. Pia-Comella, it is so important to have the Rome Statute universally ratified and implemented.