DR Congo

Press conference by Charlize Theron, United Nations Messenger of Peace

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Actress and humanitarian Charlize Theron, star of films like Monster and North Country, today made her first official appearance, at a Headquarters press conference, as United Nations Messenger of Peace -- with a special focus on ending violence against women -- saying she looked forward to serving the Organization on an issue that was both "dear" to her and "disturbing".

"Being born and raised in a country like South Africa, it was very evident to me that violence against women and children was something that wasn't going to go away and, as a matter of fact, had just gotten worse," Ms. Theron explained, describing the transition to post-apartheid South Africa as being far from smooth.

Kiyo Akasaka, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, who was present at the press conference, said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had named Ms. Theron Messenger of Peace last month, and that she had received a dove pin and Messenger of Peace certificate from Deputy Secretary-General Asha Rose Migiro this morning.

Mr. Akasaka told journalists that Ms. Theron's desire to help "end the scourge of violence against women" was something the Secretary-General had welcomed.

Joining them today, Rachel N. Mayanja, Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women, recalled the campaign launched by the Secretary-General in February, "UNite to End Violence against Women", which was intended to galvanize the global community around the issue. Outlining the severity of the problem, she talked of women and girls being "maimed, burned, sexually abused, stoned to death and killed at the hands of family members, caregivers and even teachers" throughout the world. Moreover, the systematic use of sexual violence and rape, as well as sex slavery, had reached such an enormous scale in places of conflict that the Security Council had felt compelled to pass resolution 1820 (2008) last June, dealing specifically with the issue.

Responding to journalists, Ms. Theron expressed hope that working with the United Nations would provide her with access to information that she would not get on her own. "I have a great knowledge and understanding about what was happening in my own home country. My excitement in working with this wonderful Organization is that I am now in a position to be given access and to really understand the issues in places [like] Latin America, Asia."

She said she had become active at the Cape Town Rape Crisis Centre in South Africa in 1999, at a time when violence against women was especially rampant. The Centre had run a campaign noting that a woman was raped every 26 seconds, and that one out of three women would be raped in their lifetime. At the time, South African society had found it difficult to discuss issues such as rape, and there was little response from the Government to promote zero tolerance of that crime.

Ms. Theron said her involvement at the United Nations would not mean that she would focus less attention on events at home, where the high incidence of HIV/AIDS and persistent sexual violence was "problematic". As a testament to her commitment to social causes, she had founded the Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project, aimed at improving the lives of children and families suffering from HIV/AIDS. Her work had shown her it was possible to change situations for the better, one person at a time, by "giving people the tools -- the education, the understanding that raping a virgin does not cure HIV, that you can't wash a condom and use it twice".

As she interacted with journalists, Ms. Theron was asked to describe why she thought sexual violence was so prevalent in Africa, including in countries not in conflict, to which she responded: "When you're dealing with a continent like Africa, you're dealing with a lot of different cultures. There's miseducation, there's a misunderstanding of what's right and wrong."

She contrasted a place like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where sexual violence was pernicious because of prolonged civil war, with a country like South Africa, where sexual violence was used "under different circumstances", stressing that "neither was easier to take".

Asked how she would handle controversial matters, such as the involvement of United Nations peacekeepers in cases of sexual violence, Ms. Theron stressed the importance of exercising personal responsibility to address issues of concern. "If I knew of something that was bothering me that I would feel comfortable enough to raise my voice and have it be heard, that's my responsibility to myself. I don't need to be an ambassador of peace to take that responsibility on."

She said her work as an actress had always reflected social conditions, no matter what role she took on, but explained that she viewed her work as a humanitarian as different from her job as an entertainer. She added that she had never tried to force the two together, saying: "I always find it interesting that the pressure gets put on Hollywood when we really should be putting the pressure on the public."

She demurred from answering how she would measure success, only saying that her goal was "to be as effective a servant as I possibly can with the help of this Organization".

Several times during the press conference, Ms. Theron described her excitement at the possibility of working with like-minded people at the United Nations to tackle the issue of gender-based violence, which she said would be more powerful than working on her own -- whether to address problems in rural areas reminiscent of her childhood, or to establish DNA centres in South Africa to support the court system.

"I hope that was why I was given this appointment, and not because of my great fashion," she joked. She also told correspondents that she was excited to get "more support and noise from journalists when I go and do my work, so that this message is always out there."

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