Skip to main content

Lloyd Axworthy is a former foreign minister and chair of the World Refugee and Migration Council. Allan Rock is a former minister of justice and attorney-general of Canada, and a member of the World Refugee and Migration Council. Chantal Yelu Mulop is special adviser to the President of the Democratic Republic of Congo on Youth, Gender, Violence Against Women and Human Trafficking.

At the recent Global Citizen NOW conference in New York, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke of the need to reverse the backsliding of progress on women’s rights around the globe. He stressed the importance of women’s leadership, the equal roles women should have in society, and the urgent need for the world to recognize and listen to women.

But one of the most pervasive examples of withering women’s rights – which are simply, of course, human rights – is the appalling incidence worldwide of violence by men against women and girls.

In the weeks before Mr. Trudeau’s remarks, the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability released grim new statistics: 850 women were murdered in Canada over the last five years. On average, one woman or girl was killed every 48 hours. Femicides in Canada in 2022 were the highest they have been since tracking began in 2018. Indigenous women and girls disproportionately experience physical and sexual assault, and the level of violence exposed by the 2019 final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls has still not been meaningfully addressed.

A recent UN survey reported that 80 per cent of responding states saw an increase in calls to helplines for intimate partner violence during the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year, when the World Refugee and Migration Council established a task force concerning migrant crossings at the U.S. southern border, we discovered that many women and girls fleeing violence in Central and South America experienced serial sexual abuse at every checkpoint along their hazardous route. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, aid workers in camps in the country’s eastern region report that they are caring for 10 rape survivors a day. One woman described how she was collecting firewood with a group of women and girls when armed men raped them. A girl died from the assault.

Elsewhere, girls are forced into early marriages and women are trafficked across borders. There are rampant incidences of rape and “honour killings” of women and girls across Southeast Asia.

The situation is appalling. But there is a step we can take to address these human rights violations: Canada can join other countries in leading an effort to secure a global treaty to address violence against women and girls.

For decades now, piecemeal efforts have been made to combat this issue. Yet, rather than declining, violence against women and girls is escalating. In June last year, UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed observed that there has been “an unprecedented increase in all forms of gender-based violence.”

If the present system is not working – and clearly it is not – then we need a new architecture. We need an instrument that can make a real difference on the ground. A treaty is precisely that.

Treaties codify our expectations of countries and clarify their duties, going beyond voluntary statements to establish standards and accountability, catalyzing change and driving legal and policy reform at national and international levels. A treaty is also a rallying point and a bold statement backed by law. In this case, it is a declaration to the world that a woman’s right to live free from violence is a global priority.

A decade ago, a group of women’s rights activists founded a campaign called the Every Woman Treaty, which seeks to end preventable violence against women and girls worldwide. Since then, they have promoted the idea to officials in 116 countries, with the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Costa Rica stepping up to lead the effort among UN member states. Participants now include Sierra Leone, as well as Antigua and Barbuda, but what is needed is a country with the resources, experience and stature to galvanize international support.

Canada’s feminist foreign policy signals our commitment to women’s rights. This treaty is a chance for us to act on that commitment. By deploying our diplomatic and political resources at the United Nations and beyond, we can rally the global community to act on this urgent and compelling cause. Our leadership would encourage others to follow as we set the gold standard for accountability measures to end violence against women and girls. Additional countries will inevitably join.

It is said that women hold up half the sky. But their view of that sky is too often darkened by violence and abuse. Canada can help address that sad reality. By embracing the Every Woman Treaty and promoting its adoption, we can make a decisive difference in the global effort to create brighter horizons for women and girls everywhere.