As a child, I saw images, heard stories of children who lived in the midst of war. I thought about how powerless these children were to choose a path or shape their futures. With constant conflict around them and death at their door, it was difficult for them to say ‘when I grow up, I want to be a journalist or a doctor or an entrepreneur’. This really bothered me. But the turning point for me at the age of six was the TV portrayal of apartheid violence in South Africa.
My father's urging at that tender age to my distress at the injustice of that system was: "so, what are you going to do about it". This rang in my ears throughout my childhood, and I felt compelled to do something. This nagging desire propelled my career through law, through government and now to Commonwealth Secretary-General. My entire life has been devoted to fighting injustice and violence in all its forms, but particularly domestic violence against women, children and men.
Today, we live in a world of increasing instability and uncertainty. Violence, whether it be terrorism, street crime, war or domestic abuse has infected every region and country of the Commonwealth. It is not a respecter of race, gender or social or economic status. It is for this reason that this year's theme of 'A Peace-building Commonwealth' resonates with me. It reaffirms the Commonwealth Charter’s principle that ‘international peace and security, sustainable economic growth and development and the rule of law are essential to the progress and prosperity of all’, and it calls us to action.
Peace in the Commonwealth, may seem like a big ambition, but I believe that every incremental change is a step towards a better world. So I decided to begin with the home. Why? Because one in three women and one in six men are subjected to violence in the home. Because recent research indicated that one billion children worldwide had experienced violence. Because we know that children who are victims of abuse or who grow up in homes with domestic violence are more likely to develop behavioural problems, become anxious, depressed, angry and vulnerable. Furthermore, the greater majority of those who exhibit violent tendencies have themselves been victims of violence. Because violence begets violence.
Our Peace in the home: Ending domestic violence together initiative launched in March will build a coalition of governments, businesses, civil society and citizens to choral our efforts to address domestic violence. It includes a package of special measures and toolkits to help member states build capacity for a multi-sectoral approach to ending domestic violence.
For example, we will support countries to strengthen laws, through our judicial bench book, which has already been launched in East Africa and which we plan to roll out to all our regions. We will also continue to work with traditional and religious leaders in Africa, in partnership with the African Union and national human rights institutions in countries such as Zambia, Malawi and Ghana, to prevent and eliminate child marriage. We are also working with our partners in the Pacific, Asia and Europe.
We will utilise our youth networks, which connect young people across the Commonwealth and help us to initiate youth-led programmes that make a difference. On 15 March, not only will we celebrate development work by young people in our youth awards, we will also launch an intergenerational mentorship programme.
Undertaken in collaboration with the Commonwealth Youth Council, the Commonwealth Youth Gender and Equality Network and Rotary in Canada and Rotary in the Caribbean, this programme will support young women to acquire critical life skills and progress in their careers. I believe that empowering women is a key part of this initiative because they are disproportionately affected as victims of domestic abuse; and financial dependence is often a strong factor in women’s ability to leave an abusive relationship.
Notably, a newly-established unit in my office has already begun work to counter violent extremism. Overall, the aim is to collaborate with our partners on a holistic action plan, and to integrate peace-building and gender equality into all aspects of our work.
Children do not get to choose where they are born, but every child deserves to start their life in a home, a community, a country, a Commonwealth that is stable and peaceful. It is up to all of us to bear the responsibility of making the Commonwealth a peaceful place. Every action is a ripple, and I believe together we can create a great wave of change.
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Royal Commonwealth Society.