04/03/2013 09:44 GMT | Updated 03/05/2013 06:12 BST

End Violence Against Women and Girls

Violence against women and girls is prevalent in all societies across the world. Estimates suggest that up to seven in ten women globally will be beaten, abused, raped or mutilated in their lifetimes - and most of this violence takes place in intimate relationships.

Huyen, 16, from Hanoi and Hakima, 13, from Kampala, have travelled nearly 30,000 kilometres between them to get to the UN Headquarters in New York. They want answers to their questions. They want to know what the world is doing to resolve the problems they face in their daily lives just because they are girls.

In Huyen's community girls are constantly harassed by boys and men in their neighbourhood. They cannot go out after dark and regularly face sexual advances by strangers and sometimes by those known to them. Hakima, on the other hand, is fighting hard to make schools safe for girls in her community. She holds weekly sessions to discuss incidents of violence reported by other girl pupils. The perpetrators range from boys in the school to male teachers who inflict both physical and sexual violence on girls. Very often, girls in Hakima's community drop out of education to save themselves from abuse.

Huyen and Hakima are leading child rights initiatives in their communities supported by children's organisation Plan. They have joined thousands of campaigners who have descended in New York from across the world in persuading UN member states to take action to end gender-based violence as the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) starts its 57th annual session at the UN Headquarters today.

This year's priority theme is: "Elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls" and the Commission is faced with the usual challenge of convincing States to make commitments. The discussions leading up to the Session have occurred amidst global coverage of two high-profile cases of 2012 - the shooting of Pakistani schoolgirl and girls' education activist Malala Yousafzai, and the gang-rape on a bus and subsequent death of a 23-year-old student in New Delhi.

The principal global policy-making body dedicated exclusively to gender equality and advancement of women will be using strong language at the session to get its message across. Among several recommendations, it is urging states to refrain from invoking any custom, tradition or religious consideration to avoid their obligation to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls.

Speaking before a packed audience of girl delegates on Sunday, Michelle Bachelet, executive director of UN Women, set the tone for what is likely to be a keenly debated session. The former President of Chile said that too often states were using local customs and traditions as excuses for failing to act to stop violence against women and girls. She explained that lack of action meant little progress was being achieved to tackle issues like child marriage and girls dropping out of education.

Plan girl delegate Marcela from El Salvador asking question to Michelle Bachelet, Executive Director of UN Women. Davinder Kumar/Plan

The statistics cannot be ignored. The practice of early marriage, a form of sexual violence, is common in different parts the world. More than 60 million girls worldwide are married before the age of 18, primarily in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Further, up to 140 million women and girls alive today are estimated to have undergone female genital mutilation/cutting, mainly in Africa and some Middle Eastern countries.

Violence against women and girls is prevalent in all societies across the world. Estimates suggest that up to seven in ten women globally will be beaten, abused, raped or mutilated in their lifetimes - and most of this violence takes place in intimate relationships. According to World Bank data women aged between 15 and 44 are more at risk from rape and domestic violence than from cancer, car accidents, war and malaria.

The cost of violence against women is huge. In the United States alone it exceeds $5.8 billion per year for violence inflicted by an intimate partner. Of this, over $4 billion is for direct medical and health care services, while productivity losses account for nearly $1.8 billion. For Vietnam the cost of violence against women is almost 2% of the national GDP. Similarly, a 2004 study in the United Kingdom estimated the total direct and indirect costs of domestic violence, including pain and suffering, to be £23 billion per year.

There are robust international legal treaties and agreements specifically dedicated to women's and girls' rights. They provide effective guarantees and protection for women and girls to enjoy respect, dignity, choices and fundamental freedoms. However, despite important progress made over the last few decades, there still remain significant challenges in ending violence against women and girls. For example, more than 125 countries have specific laws that penalise domestic violence. Yet, over 600 million women live in countries where it is not considered a crime.

In recent decades it has become obvious that there are severe gaps between commitments made by nations and actual action taken by them. It is not uncommon for states to sign up to agreements but fail to follow up with adequate implementation of legal and policy frameworks. There are additional problems in the form of lack of allocated funding and resources and no mechanisms in place to monitor or evaluate the enforcements.

Even though the CSW is faced with acute challenges, it still has great value in setting global standards to advocate for gender equality. Year on year it is relentlessly defining state obligations and creating tools for campaigners like Huyen and Hakima to fight for basic human rights in their social and political landscapes.

For thousands gathered in New York and millions beyond, the message going out is loud and clear - gender equality is critical to achievement of human rights, sustainable development, peace and security and economic growth.

Ending violence against women and girls is not an option for states. It is an urgent priority.

(Davinder Kumar is part of Plan International delegation at the 57th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women, United Nations Headquarters, New York.)