Under the Spotlight: Ending Violence Against All Women and Girls

Under the Spotlight: Ending Violence Against All Women and Girls: A side event at the UN Commission on the Status of Women 

On the first day of the 62nd Commission on the Status of Women, the European Union hosted a high-level discussion on the Spotlight Initiative, a global campaign to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls (VAWG). The European Union and United Nations partnered to create this initiative, which launched in September 2017, and representatives from both organizations, in addition to civil society leaders, participated in the event. The event aimed to raise awareness about the magnitude and ubiquity of VAWG, and to highlight the gaps in current prevention and response, and the initial efforts undertaken by the Spotlight Initiative to address this issue of violence against women and girls. Of particular focus was how to ensure that women and girls in marginalized populations are engaged and included in the initiative.

The Spotlight Initiative aims to create global awareness and support of efforts to combat violence against women and girls. The European Union has initially committed 500 million Euros for targeted investments around the world, and hopes to inspire further investment in women’s rights and empowerment. The initiative intends to address all forms of VAWG, including domestic and family violence, sexual or gender-based violence, femicide, human trafficking, and labor exploitation (1). According to event materials, the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development sets the stage for the the Spotlight Initiative’s global significance. The Agenda seeks to address inequalities and discrimination, endorsing themes to “leave no one behind” and “reach the furthest behind first.” VAWG, as a pervasive form of discrimination rooted in gender inequality, is a significant global issue included in that mission, and explicitly stated in Goal 5 of the Agenda: “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls (2) (See Appendix for Goal 5 targets).


Moderator: Munizae Jahangir, News Anchor & Producer

Munizae Jahangir is a broadcast journalist from Pakistan and the daughter of the late Asma Jahangir, a prominent Pakistani women’s rights activist and lawyer who passed away in February 2018 (3). Ms. Jahangir opened the event by describing the current state of women around the world. She reported that women and girls face discrimination on multiple levels, including on the basis of national or ethnic origin, race, class, religion, socioeconomic status, and sexual orientation. She noted that violence against women and girls is very common, occurs all over the world, and is a major ongoing human rights issue. She mentioned her mother’s efforts in Pakistan to better women’s rights and gender equality, and prefaced the Spotlight Initiative as a continuation and advancement of those efforts. Ms. Jahangir introduced the speakers in the event as leaders and experts involved in the Spotlight Initiative. 

Opening Remarks

Neven Mimica, European Commissioner for International Cooperation & Development

Mr. Mimica is a Croatian politician who has held his current position since 2014, and is responsible for delivering on Europe’s commitments to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (4). He described the Spotlight Initiative as an “unprecedented movement.”. He reported that VAWG is one of the most widespread forms of violence, with an estimated one billion victims every year. Mimica stated that VAWG is most likely to affect marginalized groups, such as rural women, those displaced or disabled, indigenous populations, and minorities, and reminded the audience of the UN’s commitment to “leave no one behind.” Mr. Mimica then reviewed the work of the Spotlight Initiative to date, including a 32 million Euro request for proposals to address gender-based violence (GBV) in remote areas and a 25 million Euro program to support women migrants in Southeast Asia. Two programs in development are (1), addressing femicide in Latin America and (2) reducing sexual and gender-based violence in Sub-Saharan Africa. Mr. Mimica praised women’s rights campaigns, including “Me Too” and “Time’s Up” for raising global awareness about human rights violations of women and girls, and called for the need to take action. 

Keynote Address

Amina J. Mohammed, Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations

Ms. Mohammed is from Nigeria and was involved in public sector development prior to joining UN leadership in 2015 (5). She noted that VAWG cuts across age, class, education, and geography, and can take many forms. Ms. Mohammed pointed out that the Spotlight Initiative reflects a recent global trend supporting gender equality and women’s rights, and is a means to coordinate efforts to end VAWG globally. She described efforts since the start of the initiative to consult with people involved in women’s movements, and noted plans to develop large scale, high impact programs at the country level over the next few months. The aims of these programs will be to improve prevention and access to justice, to collect data, and to challenge social norms that sustain VAWG. Groups facing intersecting forms of discrimination and violence will be of particular focus, for example, women with disabilities. Ms. Mohammed reported that over the next few months, programs will be implemented in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico, and Argentina that focus on addressing femicide. In closing, she emphasized the need for collaboration to create meaningful change.

Helga Schmid, Secretary- General, European External Action Service 

Ms. Shmid is a German diplomat. She called for the need to view gender equality as a fundamental human value, and strongly emphasized the need to promote empowerment of women and girls. She described empowerment as “the first and foremost prerequisite for gender equality, and the key enabler and accelerator to address current and future global challenges to peace and security.” She also advocated for efforts to provide safety and security for the bodies, lives, and futures of women and girls. She stressed the importance of engaging civil society and non-state organizations as well as governments and international organizations.  


Miki Wali, Trans and Youth Feminist, Human Rights and Gender Advocate, Fiji

Ms. Wali was asked by the moderator whether the voices of marginalized women are being heard in regards to violence and harassment. She began by praising the UN and the EU for recognizing the need for key stakeholders, including civil society, activists, and human rights defenders, to build partnerships. According to Ms. Wali, the concept of leaving no one behind is about actively engaging marginalized groups. As an activist for people of diverse sexual orientation and gender identity (LGBTQI: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning, Intersex), Ms. Wali stated that much of the violence and discrimination against these people goes undocumented. She expressed hope that the Spotlight Initiative will help bring awareness to the marginalization of LGBTQI members.

The moderator asked Ms. Wali to share a specific example of a program for ending VAWG and what lessons have been learned. Ms. Wali reported that one challenge is that there is limited data on gender-specific issues, especially for LGBTQI members. She expressed her view that the definition of gender should be inclusive of this these groups of people. Ms. Wali brought up a collaborative initiative in Fiji called Women’s Access to Justice which includes the UN Women Pacific regional office, the Fiji Women’s Rights Movement, FemLINK Pacific, and Diverse Voices for Action Equality, as well as the House of Chameleon, which she works for. This initiative seeks to improve the justice system in Fiji to be more supportive of women and the LGBTQI community. She emphasized that this effort will provide data to support the improvement of policies, and will be the first research-oriented program ever conducted on trans-violence in the pacific region. She closed by calling for the need for clarity on the specific outcomes and strategies of the current global initiative.

Ana Leticia Aguilar Theissen, Presidential Secretary for Women, Guatemala

Ms. Aguilar Theissen voiced her agreement about many groups being marginalized in terms of public policy actions and development in general. She stated that in Guatemala, 700 women are murdered yearly. Ms. Aguilar Theissen believes that the Spotlight Initiative will help design national policies for the development of women and to address violence against women. In Guatemala, these efforts will include executive and judiciary branches of government in addition to civil society. Ms. Aguila Theissen emphasized that the primary challenge is to coordinate all of the actors involved in this process, especially civil society organizations, as it is those organizations that have allowed for this movement to become prominent. The moderator  asked Ms. Aguila Theissen what Guatemala's priorities are in implementing the Spotlight Initiative and ensuring integration of women and girls facing intersecting forms of violence. She stated that the Spotlight Initiative is an opportunity to improve public policy. She reported that in Guatemala policies and legal frameworks have existed but have been ineffective. Ms. Aguila Theissen identified the need for policies to be adopted by public institutions and develop more comprehensive processes to address VAWG. She also emphasized that the issue must be positioned as central to the country’s development and considered a “national and citizen safety” problem. Ms. Aguila Theissen also expressed the need to change Guatemalan people’s views of the roles of men and women in society, which sets the foundation for and perpetuates gender-based violence.

Dubravka Simonovic, UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women

Ms. Simonovic was a member of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) for 12 years prior to taking her current position, and was also head of the Human Rights Department at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Croatia. (6). The moderator addressed her by asking what strategies are effective to bring awareness to and overcome VAWG, given that it is often hidden and has a stigma attached to it. Ms. Simonovic stated that there are human rights mechanisms (i.e. organizations), pointing out their leaders (sitting in the front row of the session), established by global and regional treaties to deal with women’s rights. These include the Convention of Belém do Pará (also known as The Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence against Women (7)), the Working Group on Discriminatory Laws, the African Commision on Human and People’s Rights, the CEDAW Committee, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and GREVIO (Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (8)). Ms. Simonovic called for a need for violence to be reported and for these bodies to take action in an integrated way. She commended a movement against femicide in Argentina that prompted action by the government as an example of responsive action. 

Ms. Simonovic was asked by the moderator what human rights mechanisms are available to eradicate VAWG. She restated those mechanisms and stressed the importance for international cooperation. She said that there is not sufficient visibility, resources, or implementation of the movement to end violence against women, and this can be bolstered by collaboration. She called for further support from countries, mentioning that Switzerland, South Korea, and Spain have already voiced support to continue the Spotlight Initiative for two years.  Ms. Simonovic mentioned a recent meeting on violence and harassment against women in politics as an example of the usefulness of the initiative as a platform for collaboration. She also reported that some of the aforementioned mechanisms released a joint statement praising the “Me Too” movement.

Tarcila Rivera, Indigenous Rights Activist, Peru

The moderator presented Ms. Rivera with the issue of how to ensure that marginalized groups are included, given the importance of leaving no one behind as stated in the UN 2030 Agenda. Ms. Rivera noted that there are 370 million indigenous people globally. She pointed out that there are multiple forms of violence against indigenous women, namely historical and structural violence. She emphasized the need for indigenous women to be educated on their rights and for non-indigenous populations to also be educated on the challenges indigenous people face. These include a lack of access to basic services, poor education opportunities, and being monolingual. Ms. Rivera also highlighted the need for investment in a means of justice in indigenous communities, as women continue to be exploited despite advancement of knowledge of their rights. When Ms. Rivera was asked for a recommendation to take the Spotlight Initiative forward, she stated that governments must prioritize the issue of violence against women, invest to improve policy and the education of citizens, and promote respect for women’s rights. Regarding indigenous women, she called on national governments to respond to the structural exclusion and prejudice that exists towards them, primarily through investment in education.

Lizzie Kiama, Disability Rights and Inclusion Professional, Kenya

Ms. Kiama reported that women and girls with disabilities are 10 times more likely to experience violence, and face multiple forms of discrimination. She described violence as a means of power and control, and that women and girls with disabilities are seen by society as needing to be controlled and lacking the ability to be independent. Their rights have not been acknowledged, and therefore a way to include this group would be to give them back power and control of their own lives. To do so, Ms. Kiama recommended investing in their leadership and education, and seeking to disrupt existing systems that traditionally exclude these women.When asked to provide a recommendation for the Spotlight Initiative, she advocated to prioritize working with civil society, particularly organizations led by women with disabilities. She also recommended investing in these women and looking to change the way they are thought of. This would entail a shift from treating women with disabilities as targets for medical and charity assistance, to viewing them as rights holders.

Closing Remarks

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director, UN Women

Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka has been a political leader in South Africa since 1994 (9). She described the Spotlight Initiative as a broad collaborative effort among the UN, EU, nation states, and civil society. She noted the involvement of multiple international bodies, including the UN Populations Fund (UNFPA), UN Development Program (UNDP), UN Women, and International Labor Organization (ILO). According to Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka, the Spotlight Initiative is intended to be broad and inclusive, and bring awareness to women who have not received much attention, but experience the same types of violence. She acknowledged that domestic violence is particularly difficult to endure, given its intimate nature. She also noted the prevalence of sexual harassment, which had become normalized in societies, but that we are at a critical point of changing violence and harassment as social norms. Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka applauded the Me Too movement for using its media visibility to bring awareness to violations of women’s rights. She also voiced the need for women to come together, and emphasized that civil society needs the space and support from governments to lead the fight to end VAWG.

Reported by David Pilla, currently a first year Masters student in Clinical Psychology at Teachers College Columbia University and a student in Dr. Judy Kuriansky’s class on “Psychology and the United Nations.”


(1)  The spotlight initiative to eliminate violence against women and girls. United Nations. Retreived from

(2)  Sustainable development goals: 17 goals to transform our world. UN Web Services Section, Department of Public Information, United Nations. Retrieved from

(3)  Asma Jahangir: Pakistan human rights champion dies. (2018) BBC News. Retrieved from

(4)  Commissioner Neven Mimica. International Cooperation and Development. Retrieved from

(5)  Amina J. Mohammed: Deputy Secretary-General. United Nations Secretary-General. Retrieved from

(6)  Dubravka Šimonović, Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, its causes and consequences. United Nations Human Rights, Office of the High Commissioner. Retrieved from

(7)  About the Belém do Pará Convention. OAS. Retrieved from

(8)  Istanbul Convention: Action against violence against women and domestic violence. Council of Europe Portal. Retrieved from

(9)  Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. UN Women.Retrieved from