PEN International at the UN Committee on the Status of Women

Sarah Clarke writes about PEN International at the UN Committee on the Status of Women. In March, I attended the 57th Session of the UN Committee on the Status of Women (CSW57) with PEN International’s Women Writers Committee representatives Lucina Kathmann and Tsung Su who have been attending the CSW for over 15 years. The priority theme of CSW57 was Violence against Women (VAW), one of the most attended and discussed subjects at all the CSW sessions over the past 18 years.

PEN International’s Oral Statement to the UN General Assembly
PEN International was one of a handful of NGOs chosen from among 6,000 delegates to deliver an oral statement to the General Assembly on the issue of violence against women writers. The statement, given on 14 March, was an unprecedented opportunity for PEN to educate on this issue and raise the profile of our work with women writers across the globe. The text of PEN International’s statement can be accessed on the UN CSW website.

CSW Agreed Conclusions
PEN is delighted that, unlike last year, the CSW adopted agreed conclusions at the end of the annual session. More than 130 Member States agreed on an outcome document on the prevention and elimination of all forms of violence against women and girls. It urges governments to translate the outcome of the historic gathering into concrete actions to protect and promote women’s human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Violence against Women Journalists
The growing interest in the issue of violence against women writers was reflected in the attention that the topic received at the CSW. At the ‘Safety of Women Journalists’ side event sponsored by UNESCO, the panel (including UNESCO’s Director General Irina Bukova, the Costa Rican and Austrian Ambassadors to the UN, CBS’s Pamela Falk and Women’s Media Center’s Lauren Wolfe) discussed the specific risks faced by women journalists, with a focus on the safety of women journalists and media coverage of violence and trauma.

The speakers noted that there has been a rise of at least 33 per cent in the reporting of violence against women journalists. These women have been subjected to killings, kidnappings, imprisonment, open violence, harassment, blockades of communications and attacks on data. Furthermore, in newsrooms where there is a male-dominated atmosphere, women journalists are often intimidated and harassed. The main perpetrators of violence against women journalists are believed to be both State and non-State actors including armed groups, drug-traffickers, human-traffickers and fundamentalists. Furthermore, women journalists are also often harassed by perpetrators of domestic violence to prevent them reporting on the issue.

According to Lauren Wolfe, at the time of the vicious sexual assault of CBS reporter, Lara Logan, in Egypt’s Tahrir Square in 2011, there was very little information on sexualised violence against journalists. In the years that have followed, there has been an increase in reporting on this issue as women journalists have begun to speak out. From preliminary reports on the issue, it appears that three main types of violence against women journalists: rape as intentional targeting, rape as mob violence and sexual violence when used as a tool of control in detention.

Reporting this violence remains a huge obstacle to improving the safety of women journalists. In many parts of the world, women journalists stand to lose their jobs, homes and husbands if they report that they have been the victim of sexual violence. In newsrooms, incidents of violence are not reported by women journalists because they fear being considered too vulnerable, too weak to do investigative work in the field, and the repercussions of reporting incidents.

The issue of violence against women journalists in Egypt emerged again at the parallel event on hazards facing female journalists ‘Media as Strategic Partners in addressing violence against women and girls’. Here Abeer Saady, vice-chair of the Journalists Syndicate of Egypt, noted that the level of violence against women protesters and journalists in Tahrir Square has been unprecedented. She went on to say that while initially women in Egypt were loath to speak out, facing the surge in violence, they have begun to overcome stigma and recount painful testimonies. These women are insisting they will not be intimidated by a campaign aimed at preventing them from partaking in the public and political events shaping the country. Quoting these women, Abeer stated, ‘We are not victims, we are revolutionaries. What happened to us has made us stronger and we will continue’ to take to the streets.

At both events, experts on the issue of violence against women journalists noted that there are key steps to be taken to address the issue:

1. Breaking the silence and reporting violence against women journalists is key to transforming social understanding of violence against women journalists and in developing responses. Social media is an exceptional tool to increase awareness of the issue. Twitter, in particular, has been the strongest social media source on women’s issues.

2. Training women journalists on gender-specific safety issues is essential (see the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists below).

3. Long-term education on eliminating and preventing violence against women at all levels of society including for men and boys and women and girls.

4. Ending impunity for perpetrators of violence against women journalists by encoding in law and implementing laws which fairly punish perpetrators of violence against women journalists (see the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists below).

UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity
One way that PEN International is addressing the issue of violence against women writers is as a partner in the Implementation Strategy of the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists. The Strategy outlines more than 100 concrete actions to be put in place over the coming two years by different UN agencies working in conjunction with NGOs including PEN International, as part of joint efforts to secure the safety of journalists. Among the measures set out are:

• Enhancing special measures for women journalists in response to the increasing incidence of sexual harassment and rape;

• Creating UN internal co-ordination mechanisms to harmonize the UN actions in this field;

• Supporting governments to develop laws on safeguarding journalists and mechanisms favorable to freedom of expression and information;

• Conducting awareness-raising activities so that citizens understand the importance of the right to freedom of expression and access to information;

• Providing training for journalists on the issue of safety and online safety;

• Promoting good working conditions for journalists developing their professional activities on both a full-time and freelance basis; and

• Establishing real-time emergency response mechanisms.

PEN is deeply interested in strengthening our existing networks such as our partnership in the Implementation Strategy of the UN Plan of Action. We are eager to engage with partner organisations and intergovernmental bodies concerning the protection of women writers. For further information, please contact Sarah Clarke, International Policy and Advocacy Officer, at