On December 6, 1989, 14 young women were murdered at the École Polytechnique (Faculty of Engineering) of the Université de Montréal by a gunman determined to eliminate feminists. The Global 16 Days Campaign now marks December 6th, the day of the Polytechnique massacre, as the International Day of Remembrance for the Victims of Femicide. 

2021 is an important landmark: this year marks the 30th anniversary of the Global 16 Days of activism against gender-based violence. The Global 16 Days Campaign was initiated in 1991 by the Center for Women’s Global Leadership, a feminist leadership and policy institute. The 16 Days run from November 25th (International Day Against Violence Against Women) until December 10th (International Human Rights Day). Thirty years ago, violence against women was a deeply neglected, hidden issue, widely considered a “private” matter by political leaders, the police, and human rights advocates alike. Very few understood the role that violence or the threat of violence play in the lives of women as a key enforcement mechanism for gender inequality. For example, the 1979 international treaty on the rights of women, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), does not contain the word violence. Not once! Isn’t that incredible in retrospect? 

It wasn’t until 1989 that the experts charged with the enforcement of the Convention (the CEDAW Committee) issued a brief General Recommendation requiring governments to provide information on violence against women in their periodic reports to the Committee. And only in 1992 did the Committee issue a first, full General Recommendation on violence against women. A year later, at the 1993 International Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, feminist activists from around the world successfully lobbied governments to recognize violence against women as a human rights violation. In December 1993, the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women. And of course, at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, an entire chapter of the Platform for Action was dedicated to the subject. Earthshaking!

Each year, the Global 16 Days Campaign produces materials for use by over 6,000 organizations in 185 countries, and has become so influential that it is now endorsed and serves as a reference for the United Nations, media organizations and many governments around the world. It is an amazing resource. In 2021, the campaign focused its advocacy on femicide, the killing of women just because they are women. In that context, it raised specific attention to the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, which continues to rage with impunity from Canada to Mexico and beyond.

While there are times when we feel as though we’ve only just begun dealing with the scourge of violence against women, we have to remember how much has been accomplished, at least at the level of awareness and understanding. Detailed data on intimate partner violence and sexual violence is now collected in over 130 countries, and regularly and painstakingly analyzed by a consortium led by the World Health Organization (shout out to Claudia Garcia-Moreno, Avni Amin and their team at WHO!). We now know that violence against women varies significantly across countries, which suggests that it is amenable to change. We now have the words, a better understanding of the phenomenon, and some of the solutions to stop it at the source, as outlined in the RESPECT framework.

Prevention and accountability are on the feminist agenda, and a world where women and girls are FREE of violence, abuse and harassment, the ultimate goal. In the words of our sisters from Argentina, we want “Ni Una Menos”—literally, “Not One Less”—that is, not a single woman and girl taken away from us!

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Global 16 Days of activism against gender-based violence: how far have we come?