Remarks at the Action Ministerial on Gender-Based Violence in Humanitarian Emergencies

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Palace Hotel
New York City
October 1, 2015

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you very much. (Applause.) Thank you all very, very much. I’m shying away from sports analogies after my – breaking my leg. I don’t think I can – I have to earn my respect back. (Laughter.)

Thank you all for coming; particularly grateful, as Anne said, this is sort of the end of a whirlwind few days. I’m still here tomorrow and will be going at it. But this is a particularly important gathering, and I’m very grateful to all of you for being here. I’m particularly proud of the leadership that Anne Richard and Cathy Russell are offering on this and many other issues – Anne has her hands as full as anybody I’ve ever met – with respect to refugees right now, obviously, and we’re seeing a particular challenge. And Cathy is standing up for and fighting for the rights of women all around the world.

So we have a big agenda, and all three of us could not be happier than to know that this initiative is going to be guided by the stalwart, strong vision of Foreign Minister Wallstrom. And we’re really pleased that Sweden is stepping up to play this role.

Last year, the United States accepted the responsibility to lead the Call to Action on the Protection of Gender-based Violence in Emergencies. And I’m really happy to be here today with Margot as we hand over the baton, and I very much look forward to working with Sweden going forward. We’re not going to step away; we’re just going to step aside. But we’re going to work alongside you.

And to begin with, let me be very clear about this: This is not a sideline issue from my point of view at all, not when close to a majority of the world’s population is as affected as it is by choices that are made in various parts of the world. Preventing and dealing with the effects of gender-based violence is a fundamental moral issue; it’s a basic question of right vs. wrong. But it’s also about our collective security, so people who don’t get motivated by the moral issue or a sense of right and wrong at least hopefully can be motivated by some pretty practical choices, and when security – I mean, we have learned in painful and searing ways that gender-based violence can rip families apart, rip communities apart, and attack state structures. And too often, in too many countries, it perpetuates conflict and creates instability for generations.

And in place after place where we face up to the responsibilities of protecting women and empowering women, we find that almost without exception, women contribute to the building of community, to peacemaking, to the structures of the state – in many cases, in far more ways than men. So we have to understand that.

And in Syria and in Iraq, terrorists from Daesh have willfully separated women and girls from their families, literally attached price tags to them, modern-day slavery, selling them in the most grotesque ways in an open market, and bragged about it. And in Somalia and Nigeria, terrorists have abducted scores of young women and forced them into sham marriages characterized by degradation, by violence, and by abuse. And the world, I think, has made it clear that it’s not going to tolerate this.

This is part of the fight against Daesh/ISIL, against Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, and other groups that act without any sense of responsibility of any kind whatsoever. They have no agenda other than the service of their own desires and their own recklessness. There’s a reason that much of human history and literature writes about the struggle between good and evil, and that’s because there is evil in the world, and what we’re seeing today is a profound manifestation of that evil. So that’s why we are partners in the Call to Action.

Now, obviously, this meeting is not just about shared commitments. It is a plea to governments and people everywhere to stand up and make a difference. I mean, there’s a human slavery chain out there and human trafficking. And too often, it’s sex trafficking, but it’s not always that; it is also labor, working, and sometimes in places and in situations where it just defies anybody’s sense of moral rectitude. And I include – even in our country, there are places we have found where people are subjected to this kind of slavery.

So we feel a responsibility to answer that call, and two years ago, here in New York, I launched the Safe from the Start initiative. Today, I’m pleased to announce that over the last year, we provided more than $17 million in support of the activities, bringing our total funding for the initiative now up to 40 million, and we’re going to continue to be supportive.

We have used Safe from the Start funding to help our partners assist thousands of displaced Iraqis, including counseling sessions and family support. And we used Safe from the Start to also train refugees from the Central African Republic in how to respond to sexual exploitation and abuse.

And in the Congo, we’re helping to establish security patrol teams to install solar lights in communities so that women and girls are able to venture outside after sundown. And I remember being in a refugee camp in Darfur where I heard the stories of women who had to go out to collect firewood and you had to go out further and further because it was all gone and they were subject to sexual abuse. You had a choice between cooking and eating and surviving, and going out and subjecting yourself to this kind of violence.

So we need a zero-tolerance policy toward gender-based violence against anyone – men, women, and children.

And two, we have to treat the survivors of violence with the sensitivity and the dignity that – and respect that they deserve.

Three, we also need to bring perpetrators to justice because if you live in a place of impunity regarding this, it just perpetuates itself. So we have to undo the corruption, undo the indifference, and force people to take on their responsibility to protect people and to live by a more decent standard.

So finally, I think it’s clear that we all need to work together, and I applaud all of you for being here today to join in this effort. Governments, private sector, civil society, religious leaders, faith communities – all of them need to come together to prevent gender-based violence. And that’s why we’re making this empowerment of women and girls a priority for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. I’m glad. That was a huge thing to embrace it within that initiative.

It’s also why we’re launching the Call to Action Roadmap, which sets clear objectives over the next years – the next five years. And these objectives are going to allow us to hold each other accountable as we go forward. And it will measure progress in our efforts to deal with gender-based violence. So I hope everybody here will renew commitments and use this as a roadmap, a guidepost if you will, and obviously, this work is absolutely essential.

My concluding note is very simple and a personal one. I’m a father of two daughters, the grandfather of young girls, and I want to say thank you for all of you not accepting injustice. And thank you for not being willing to wait, for being impatient regarding this. We need to translate our impatience into greater embrace by many more countries with this effort, and I think you for your commitment to dignity and to peace in the world.

This can make an enormous difference. We can be voices for people who don’t have a voice. And we can provide protection for people who’ve never had the luxury of that kind of protection. And I think there is nothing in our efforts as diplomats, foreign ministers, those of us who are assistant secretaries, under secretaries, whatever role you play – our job is to get the job done. And that’s what we’re trying to do here today. So thank you very much. (Applause.)