16 Days in Context
When the Center for Women’s Global Leadership first launched the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence in 1991, along with the participants of its Global Institute, we had no idea that decades later it would be the most widely recognized and longest-running campaign for women’s rights in the world. Its reach and power has been made possible by the thousands of grassroots activists and organizations that give it life as a truly global movement.
The 16 Days campaign was born during a formative moment for the international women’s movement. Since the 1970s, international women’s rights networks had been growing and expanding, facilitated in part by the UN World Conferences on Women. While today we take for granted that “women’s rights are human rights,” the reality is that it took feminists decades to secure the mere recognition that violations of women’s rights — and particularly violence against women — were not simply private acts outside the purview of the state, but constituted violations of human rights under international law.
The First Breakthrough
CWGL launched the first 16 Days Campaign in 1991 in collaboration with feminists from the Global North and the Global South who agreed on the pressing need to address violence against women as a key human rights issue. Their efforts began with a worldwide petition drive aimed at the United Nations World Conference on Human Rights that was held in Vienna in 1993, calling upon the Conference to comprehensively address women’s human rights and to recognize gender-based violence as a human rights issue. Prior to the widespread use of email or the Internet, the petition was circulated to 124 countries and translated into 23 languages. Thanks to the efforts of countless feminists around the world, violence against women was finally formally recognized as a human rights violation at Vienna, and one year later the UN appointed the first Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women. CWGL chronicled this historic process has been chronicled in Global Feminist Journeys, an interactive timeline documenting the evolution of the international women’s movement launched on the 25th anniversary of adoption of the Vienna Declaration and Platform for Action.
16 Days Evaluated
When celebrating 27 years of the Campaign, we knew there were many best practices and insights to discover, among grassroots organizations leading the 16 Days campaign in communities around the world. In the fall of 2015, CWGL invested in an in-depth evaluation of the campaign where dozens of participating organizations shared their thoughts, experiences, critiques, and recommendations.
Over the years, 16 Days has played a key role in galvanizing women’s rights activists and in demonstrating the relevance of transnational advocacy to domestic struggles. It became both an engine for and a reflection of the emerging efforts to seek accountability and redress for all forms of gender-based violence by using a human rights framework. The most successful campaign strategies remained strongly focused on calls to seize strategic opportunities to encourage governments to honor previous commitments and translate them into legislation, policies, and practices that would reduce gender-based violence at the local and national level.
However, another common thread emerged from those conversations: all the years spent fighting to raise awareness about gender-based violence has not brought about lasting, fundamental change. It has not brought about the radical systemic and cultural shifts we hoped it would, and it has not made gender-based violence against women a universally unacceptable act.
16 Days Re-Imagined
While the strength of the 16 Days campaign lies in its flexibility as a tool that anyone can adapt to their local context, it became clear to us that there was a strong desire for collective, global action. This feedback led CWGL to articulate a new vision for the 16 Days campaign. While a historic accomplishment for the international women’s movement, we still find ourselves struggling against the same things, fighting the same fight, and continuing to demand dignity, autonomy, and justice. There has been a shift in consciousness — gender-based violence against women is now broadly recognized as an injustice against women — but there has not been an adequate shift in practice to end violence against women.
CWGL will continue to lead the global coordination of the 16 Days campaign to achieve further monumental breakthroughs for women, as well as support and amplify the work of women all over the world, by evolving our focus in three ways:
1- Making the shift from Awareness to Accountability
Since its inception, the 16 Days Campaign has focused with great success on raising awareness on gender-based violence against women. This is an important part of the struggle, but alone it is not enough. Now is the time to step up the demand for full accountability for violence against women and the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women which underlie gender-based violence and the impunity that sustains it. Governments must be held to their commitments to ensure the human rights of all women and to prevent rollbacks.
2- 16 to 365
The 16 Days campaign evaluation underscored one thing: All of you who have built this movement want to be more involved, more often. We are committed to continuing to build on the success of the 16 Days campaign from November 25 to December 10 every year. We also firmly believe that the fight to end gender-based violence against women needs to continue with the same vigor throughout the year. We will hope to hear from you frequently, and you’ll hear more from us, over the coming months, including through our new platform launching November 21.
3- A Global Call to Action
The 16 Days campaign has always been bold, unapologetic, and clear about our demands. This year, we introduced a call to action for all campaigns around the world to join to secure another breakthrough for women — and on June 21, 2019, we did it. With a new orientation expanding the focus of the campaign from a two-week burst of energy to a sustained engagement throughout the year, CWGL harnessed the power of the 16 Days towards a targeted global advocacy goal: ensuring that the International Labor Organization (ILO) adopted a legally binding convention to end gender-based violence in the world of work in June 2019. We were thrilled when the ILO formally adopted the first global standards focused on ending GBV in the world of work. We will continue with efforts to demand that governments ratify the convention, and that its implementation is as inclusive and effective as possible.
These efforts are meant to complement the local and national actions and campaigns that are held every year between November 25 and December 10 at a more global, systemic level, and to contribute to a global feminist solidarity around a shared goal.
Another Breakthrough: A Global Campaign for a convention on GBV in the World of Work
Feminists in the 1990s achieved a truly monumental breakthrough when they secured the formal recognition of women’s rights as human rights, and of violence against women as a human rights violation. This work continues, in new ways, as gender-based violence continues unabated. With an expanded and updated 16 Days campaign, we are gearing up for another breakthrough: adopting new, legally-binding international standards to eliminate gender-based violence in the world of work.
In 2015, the ILO — the only tripartite UN agency with government, employer, and worker representatives — decided to launch a standard-setting process on harassment and violence against women and men in the world of work.
In June 2018, the ILO began a series of discussions on a potential new instrument on violence and harassment in the world of work at the International Labour Conference, in a committee composed of representatives from governments, employers, and worker unions.
In June 2019, the ILO committee adopted a legally binding convention supplemented by a recommendation. The convention includes clear guidance for governments, employers, and trade unions to identify and eliminate discriminatory behaviors and address the discriminatory outcomes of unequal power relations that lie at the heart of gender-based violence.
To date, the largest global advocacy campaign for the adoption of a strong convention on gender-based violence in the world of work has been led by unions and labor organizations. The feminist movement has largely been absent from these advocacy efforts, which is a gap we aim to address. As feminists, we will strengthen the global demand for a convention by harnessing the power and leveraging the reach of the 16 Days Campaign, and we encourage strong grassroots mobilization to demand government ratification of the convention and broad implementation in accordance with women’s human rights.
In 2021, we celebrated 30 years of the Global 16 Days Campaign. Going back to the foundations of the Campaign and the focus on women’s rights as human right, we adopted a special anniversary theme of Ending Femicide, or the gender related killing of women and girls. Femicide is the most extreme and lethal form of violence against women, and perpetrators often walk free. This is an issue that must be addressed immediately, and the Campaign will continue its work on ending femicide in 2022.