Remarks for Ambassador Lisa Peterson: Joshua Mzizi Memorial Lecture – Human Rights Day Commemoration

Great Seal of the United States

Secretariat for the Human Rights Commission;
Executive Director, CANGO;
Representatives from the Church Forum on HIV & AIDS, the Council of Churches, and the Conference of Churches;
Diplomatic Corps;
Business leaders;
Members of the press;
Ladies and gentlemen,

Siyanivusela Bekunene.

I am honored to join you as the key note speaker in celebration of Human Rights Day. When the United Nations General Assembly initially established Human Rights Day in 1950, it was a call to action to designate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a common standard to which all people and governments should aspire. This year, we are called to stand up for equality, justice, and human dignity.

Standing up for human rights requires moral courage, dogged persistence, and eternal vigilance, whether in Swaziland, in the United States, or elsewhere.

The U.S. Constitution was a visionary document written by a bunch of white men who saw the world through an 18th century lens that excluded women and people of color. After six decades, in 1848, the Seneca Falls Convention declared that all men and women were created equal and called for women’s autonomy, better education, and viable employment opportunities for women. After another 7 decades, in 1920, American women achieved the right to vote. For persons of color, their right to vote would come 45 years later, after decades of bloodshed and turmoil.

Swaziland’s Constitution declares that “All persons are equal before and under the law in all spheres of political, economic, social and cultural life and in every other respect and shall enjoy equal protection of the law.” Nevertheless, this great nation, like ours, was built upon a patriarchal foundation that has enabled a legacy of inequality for women and minority groups.

But these protracted battles over human rights, equality, and dignity are finding new voices with each generation. In the United States, we are seeing cracks in the wall of patriarchy as new allegations of sexual misconduct against powerful men emerge each day.

Toxic masculinity, which encompasses the social constructs and gender norms that promote male dominance, has led to such widespread human rights violations. More than two centuries after the lofty ideals of our Constitution were put on paper, many men in positions of power fail to understand appropriate behavior. To simplify, it is never okay to drop one’s pants in the workplace, make sexually suggestive comments, grope a colleague, or commit any act along the spectrum of non-consensual sexual behavior.

Therefore, we must applaud and fully support the willingness of victims and survivors – including men, women, and gender non-conforming individuals – to forcefully speak out against this conduct.

Likewise, we commend the prowess and determination of the Fourth Estate – our media champions – to call out and question perpetrators, especially within their own organizations. This is what accountability and courage looks like. And both are necessary to ensure the rights of all people are protected.

Although Swaziland’s progress in expanding the field of gender equality over the past years and decades is undeniable, far too often men commit violent acts that go unreported or unpunished.

People become most passionate about gender-based violence when stories focus on women who have been killed by an intimate partner.  This is part of what has brought such public activism to the Sexual Offenses and Domestic Violence Bill. But murder is at the top of a pyramid that covers a continuum of acts – sexual assault, harassment, verbal and emotional abuse – that all emerge from attitudes and beliefs that one gender – or one race, one form of ability, or one kind of sexuality – is superior to another.

So while it may be easy to see and work to address the symptoms that are murder or gender-based violence, it is much more difficult to see the everyday inequalities that can empower a man to believe his wife or girlfriend deserves a beating for her “insubordination.”

Many people continue to hope that the Sexual Offenses and Domestic Violence Bill will be passed, but this approach only breeds passivity. It is the responsibility of everyone – not just the Gender Consortium – to press for the bill’s enactment. So I implore all of you to keep up a steady and vocal drum beat around the bill, its contents, and its need for implementation – and encourage others to do the same.

One of the many sad parts about the ongoing need to fight gender inequality is that data tell us that equality produces better outcomes for everyone.  When women fully participate in all aspects of society – politically, economically, and socially – they effect large-scale and lasting change.  When women work, economies grow at a faster rate. According to UN Women, when girls are educated, there is a multiplier effect in numerous development areas, especially health and poverty reduction. Women also tend to reinvest their earnings in their families at a significantly higher rate than men.

One of the reasons we are all still engaged in this fight is because empowerment can be seen as a threatening concept for those already enjoying positions of power – whether they are the head of a corporation or the head of a household.  Those who are already benefiting from entrenched socioeconomic or political systems often find little reason to disrupt the status quo. So it falls largely to those seeking an equal place in these systems to become disruptors – to change how people think, behave, do business, or learn.

The 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence will soon come to a close. But in the coming days and weeks, we know there will be more women arriving at health clinics and police stations, battered and broken from yet another senseless lashing. We know that her neighbors will have heard it. Her children will have seen it. Her husband might be arrested. And if he is, he will likely go free on bail and prepare to punish her once again. This same scenario will keep playing out unless we figure out how to strategically engage within all available power structures for greater protections. The SODV Bill is not a threat to Swaziland’s cherished and storied culture but rather its languishing becomes an existential threat to the women living under inhumane conditions. National goals on development, health, and education cannot be attained without the full participation and protection of women.

Businesses, civil society, traditional leaders, government, international allies, churches, and citizens must seek a unified voice on this matter and find the courage to act. Our collective voices and strategic actions have the power to restore human dignity, render justice, and ultimately realize the Constitution’s ideals.

Siyabonga.