The UN women's agency kicked off 16 days of activism against gender-based violence Monday, targeting the often-unpunished crime of rape that afflicts women and girls in every country and has been used as a weapon in conflicts from Bosnia and Rwanda to Syria and Myanmar.
Around the world, tens of thousands of women marched on the International Day to End Violence Against Women to support the campaign, "Generation Equality Stands Against Rape!"
The executive director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, said rape "can have life-changing, unchosen effects — a pregnancy or sexually-transmitted disease, immense trauma and an unwarranted sense of shame."
"If I could have one wish granted, it might well be a total end to rape," she said.
Despite headline-grabbing movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp, UN Women said that "sexual violence continues to be normalized and embedded in our social environments."
It said there is a "rape culture" that includes the trivializing of rape, victim-blaming, the use of misogynistic language and the "objectification" of women's bodies and glamorization of violence in advertisements, on television and in movies.
Exact numbers or rapes or sexual assaults are notoriously difficult to determine due to many victims' fears of reporting sexual abuse.
But the UN says approximately 15 million adolescent girls worldwide ages 15 to 19 have experienced forced sexual intercourse or other sexual actions. And one of every three women worldwide is estimated to have suffered either physical or sexual violence, or both, from an intimate partner, or sexual violence by a non-partner.
Secretary-General Antonio Guterres reiterated the UN's commitment to end all forms of violence against women, saying in a message that "these abuses are among the world's most horrific, persistent and widespread human rights violations."
"Sexual violence against women and girls is rooted in centuries of male domination," he said. "Let us not forget that the gender inequalities that fuel rape culture are essentially a question of power imbalances."
Oscar-winning actress Nicole Kidman, a UN Women goodwill ambassador, urged people everywhere in a statement to join the campaign "to stand against rape and be a part of the efforts to end all forms of violence against women."
Marches against gender violence began over the weekend with more than 10,000 people marching in Rome on Saturday and around 10,000 protesting in Brussels on Sunday. In Switzerland on Monday there was a vigil to remember women killed by their partners. In France, the government pledged to seize firearms from abusive spouses and improve police training to reduce the number of women killed by their partners.
But there was also negative reaction. In Turkey, a march turned violent and police used pepper spray to break up the crowd. In Madrid, the general secretary of the nationalist-populist Vox party, Javier Ortega, faced angry feminists when he used an event against gender violence to call for abolishing a 2004 law aimed at protecting women. At a protest in Russia, women expressed concern that a new bill to toughen punishment for domestic abuse might be watered down.
Mlambo-Ngcuka said in an interview ahead of the campaign that there will be events with survivors, with men and boys "who are in the forefront of offending, with law enforcement officials on where they see breakthroughs and what works, and with lawmakers especially in countries where laws are poorly implemented.
"Even though more than 80% of the countries now have legislation that criminalizes all forms of violence against women, including domestic violence, marital rape is still not a crime in about 45 countries," she said.
Mlambo-Ngcuka said rape at home, by spouses or relatives, or in conflict causes trauma for women that can last their lifetimes.
"Society just does not get the extent that this harms and hurts women," she said.
"We want also to emphasize the language that profiles the perpetrator, rather than women — so less about so many women are raped, rather than so many men rape," she said.
She said UN Women also wants to address the attitude that rape and violence against women is just something that happens.
"We want to continuously emphasize that this is a crime, this is a violation of a woman's rights, and this is not to be sorted in families but to be prosecuted," Mlambo-Ngcuka said.
She said it's estimated that only around 10% of victims report rape or sexual abuse, and far fewer cases move to proper trials, convictions and sentencing.
"So women still live alongside their perpetrators who are unrepentant because they have not paid any price for their behavior," she said.