Ladies and Gentlemen, it is a huge pleasure to be here with you today. I should, first, like to thank the people of Rwanda for the wonderful welcome that my husband and I have received. I have heard the saying, “God spends the day elsewhere, but he always spends the night in Rwanda” – and, having seen a little of this beautiful country and experienced your hospitality, I can quite understand why that might be the case… Thank you for your kindness and generosity to us and to the whole Commonwealth family – we were all so sorry not to be able to gather here over the past two years and are delighted that we are now, finally, together.
Yesterday, my husband and I visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial: the final resting place for more than a quarter of a million men, women and children. Our guide, who had lost both his parents in the Genocide against the Tutsi, spoke to us of how, in the wake of those appalling, unfathomable events, the people of Rwanda have embraced peace and reconciliation. And he described, with gentleness and humility, how we all have a personal responsibility to fight the discrimination and ideologies that lead to the destruction of others. It is in that same spirit of encouraging personal responsibility that I wish to speak today about a different evil that has led to the death of many thousands: violence against women and girls.
The figures are shocking. Globally, nearly 1 in 3 women have been abused in their lifetime. In times of crisis, the numbers rise, as they have, dramatically, during the Covid-19 pandemic. Across the Commonwealth, calls to domestic violence helplines have increased by up to 500% over the past two years. Whether we are aware of it or not, we all know someone who has endured sexual or domestic abuse. We can, therefore, all be part of combatting these heinous acts.
On International Women’s Day earlier this year, I was profoundly touched by President Kagame’s powerful message on social media, which read, “Equality is a right, not a favour”. We know that Rwanda is ranked 7th in the world in terms of women’s rights and opportunities. So let us bear His Excellency’s words in mind as we focus on violence in the home against women and girls today and remember that we are seeking rights, not favours.
We are seeking rights that have been denied to women and girls in every part of the world: Joanna Simpson in the UK, beaten to death by her husband while their two small children were in the next room; Noreen in Pakistan, whose husband, a drug addict, routinely abused her and alternately threw her out of the house or forbade her to go outside; and Uwaila Vera Omozuwa, murdered in Nigeria as she studied in church.
These stories are heart-breaking. But, given the statistics I have just quoted, they are, sadly, not unusual.
Ladies and gentlemen, we are gathered here with one purpose - to find solutions. It is surely significant that every single member state has unanimously agreed to support the “Commonwealth Says NO MORE” campaign and to implement initiatives to prevent domestic violence and sexual abuse.
There is power in this alliance. In the strength of our unity, we, the women and men of the Commonwealth, stand with victims and survivors, who, despite the temptation to hide away in silence, speak up so that others know they aren’t alone – whether in Africa, Asia, Europe, the Pacific or the Caribbean and Americas. In so doing, we have the opportunity to end gender-based violence and those laws and practices that discriminate against women. And each one of us must take personal responsibility not to let this opportunity be lost.
I should like to close by quoting from a speech given 75 years ago by my mother-in-law, The Queen, in Cape Town. As we work together, let us be inspired by Her Majesty’s words, her example and her deep love for the Commonwealth, which, in 2009, Rwanda joined as a new partner and friend.
"If we all go forward together with an unwavering faith, a high courage, and a quiet heart, we shall be able to make of this ancient Commonwealth, which we all love so dearly, an even grander thing - more free, more prosperous, more happy and a more powerful influence for good in the world."