“To your great accomplishments that we have heralded previously we add the global spotlight you are shining on the need to uplift the status of women and to end the proliferation of weapons. These heavily negative aspects of your society that long have been dominant in the collective consciousness now are in the forefront of the public eye.”
This blog has always followed the path of focusing on what remains of darkness in our world while at the same time fully emphasizing the spread of light. Nowhere is darkness more apparent than in the treatment of women in our world. What follows is an extract from an Amnesty International report on violence in France. What I have excerpted are the introductory comments on violence against women generally.
Feb. 14, 2013 has been set aside as a day to protest gender-based persecution in the world. I join Matthew in holding that it’s time to look at the global treatment of women and rid the planet of gender-based violence.
Amnesty International, France: Violence against women: a matter for the State, 6 February 2006, EUR 21/001/2006, available at: http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/docid/45be000f2.html [accessed 21 January 2013]
CHAPTER 1: Beyond appearances: definitions and mechanisms
Violence against women today still remains largely unrecognized and greatly underestimated. It is tightly bound up with enduring gender-based discrimination. This is what distinguishes it from other kinds of violence: it is committed against women first and foremost because they are women. This common denominator forms a common thread known as the “continuum” of violence against women.
In the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (hereafter referred to as CEDAW*), discrimination against women is defined as “any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women […] of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field” .3 Sexism is the refusal to see another human being as an equal.
Laws constitute a crucial normative framework for fighting against discrimination but are not in themselves sufficient. They are only a first step in moving towards the eradication of violence against women. Such laws need to be enforced throughout the country and accompanied by a genuine change in attitudes. It is this change, which is bound to take much longer, that will make the difference in practice.
Violence against women is fuelled by a system of discrimination which keeps women in a subordinate position. Not all such discrimination leads to violence, however. Nevertheless, because it is often hidden, commonplace and an integral part of the norms and practices of social functioning, discrimination against women is an ideal breeding ground for violence. It still, even today, generates relationships of power and domination and is often translated into a sense of ownership of women’s bodies and minds.
Violence against women is gender-based violence. Sexual identity is not only determined by biological identity, it is the result of a particular process of socialization. Any violence that is founded on that identity thus constitutes what is known as “gender-based violence”. Such violence is all the more powerful in that the inequality that it both leads to and fuels is a societal norm.
1.1 Defining violence against women
Violence is difficult to define. International law has put forward a universally-accepted definition of violence against women and the discrimination in which it is rooted. International human rights texts, in particular the Universal Declaration on Human Rights4 (hereafter referred to as the UDHR*), have established equality for all and due respect for all the rights enshrined in such texts as a fundamental and inalienable principle.
Violence against women is first and foremost a violation, or series of violations, of the fundamental human rights that apply to any human being and which are protected by the main human rights treaties, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (hereafter referred to as the ICCPR*), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (hereafter referred to as the ICESCR*) or the Convention against Torture and Other Forms of Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
These rights include the right to live free from any form of torture or degrading or humiliating treatment5, the right to life6, the right to consent freely to marriage7, the right to better working and living conditions, the highest standards of health and equal protection under the law8, and the right to live free from any form of discrimination based on gender, race, religion or social origin9.
The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was adopted on 18 December 1979. It recognizes conscious and deliberate forms of discrimination against women as well as the discriminatory consequences of certain social, economic and cultural behaviour or provisions. Article 1 specifies that:
” … the term “discrimination against women” shall mean any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field”.
In its recommendation N° 19, the CEDAW Committee* expressly recognized violence against women as a form of discrimination and called on States to combat it in all its manifestations. The CEDAW Committee recommendations are the authoritative interpretation of the rights contained in the Convention, rights which States are under an obligation to implement, respect and guarantee.
The United Nations(UN) General Assembly committed itself to eliminating violence against women in December 1993. It defined it as follows:
“any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life “.10
The Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women is not legally binding but does provide a universally-applicable definition of violence against women. It encompasses, but is not limited to, the following forms of violence:
“(a) Physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring in the family, including battering, sexual abuse of female children in the household, dowry-related violence, marital rape, female genital mutilation and other traditional practices harmful to women, non-spousal violence and violence related to exploitation;
(b) Physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring within the general community, including rape, sexual abuse, sexual harassment and intimidation at work, in educational institutions and elsewhere, trafficking in women and forced prostitution;
(c) Physical, sexual and psychological violence perpetrated or condoned by the State, wherever it occurs”.11
Moreover, the preamble to the Declaration states that this violence “is a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women” and adds that it “is one of the crucial social mechanisms by which women are forced into a subordinate position compared with men”.12
1.2 The obligation on States to take action
International human rights law imposes certain obligations on States, the most obvious being to bring their own legislation into line with the treaties they have signed and ratified and to ensure that their officials respect all human rights.
States also have an obligation to ensure that these rights are given concrete expression in practice, both with regard to punishing the perpetrators and taking preventive action, as well as with regard to providing reparation to victims. What is more, this does not only apply to the acts and omissions of state officials. The State must ensure that human rights are respected by private actors and, if they are not, they must investigate and prosecute those responsible for any violations of these rights.
The State is therefore responsible for its actions as well as its omissions. That being the case, the failure on the part of the State to punish an act of violence or to take all possible steps to protect someone who is at risk of serious violence can be considered to be a breach of its international commitments. This is known as the duty of due diligence. It means that the State has a duty to act diligently to prevent, investigate, punish and provide reparation for any violations of international rights. The State is responsible for ensuring that all women’s human rights are respected by its officials as well as by private actors and that any failure to do so is punished in accordance with the law.
At international level, several UN bodies, such as the General Assembly, the Security Council and the Human Rights Committee*, have confirmed, when adopting declarations and resolutions, that these various levels of obligation apply in the struggle to stop violence against women.13
The CEDAW Committee stated that “discrimination under the Convention is not restricted to action by or on behalf of Governments.[…] Under general international law and specific human rights covenants, States may also be responsible for private acts if they fail to act with due diligence to prevent violations of rights or to investigate and punish acts of violence, and for providing compensation”. It recommended that “States parties should take appropriate and effective measures to overcome all forms of gender-based violence, whether by public or private act”.14
This principle encompasses various mutually reinforcing obligations which allow a “virtuous circle” of good practice to be created:
- Respect: the State is responsible for ensuring that all of women’s human rights are respected, both by its own officials and by private actors, and that any failure to do so is punished in accordance with the law.
- Punishment: the State must investigate any actual or alleged violence and ensure that the perpetrators are prosecuted.
- Protection: the State is responsible for protecting women who are known to be at risk.
- Prevention: the State must take whatever ad hoc measures are necessary to prevent any potential harm being done to women. This means that the State has an obligation to use all the means at its disposal to combat sexist behaviour, in particular by incorporating this approach into its educational tools and school curricula, carrying out regular publicity campaigns and training its officials from an egalitarian perspective. However, that also means ensuring that the perpetrators of domestic violence do not go unpunished and that the State does everything it can to ensure that women have genuine access to justice.
- Reparation: the State must take action to ensure that women obtain fair compensation for any injuries they suffer. Over and beyond compensation, reparation also means that the violence and the rights violations to which they have been subjected should be acknowledged and that the perpetrator should be appropriately punished in keeping with national law.
Combating impunity, namely the failure to prosecute and punish those responsible for human rights violations, is at the heart of these obligations. Impunity itself is a violation of the rights of the victim in that it denies them access to justice and reparation, as well as the right to be recognized as a victim. Impunity helps to perpetuate violence because leaving perpetrators unpunished only bolsters their sense of domination over women.
1.3 What violence are we talking about?
There are still a number of preconceived ideas about this: that alcoholism is involved, that either the perpetrator or the victim have mental problems, that they come from a disadvantaged culture or social class, and so on. However, violence affects all women, regardless of origin or occupation.
In cases of violence against women, the perpetrator is often known to, or indeed a close relative of, the victim. It is often this closeness that stands in the way of the woman obtaining justice. Many police officers, public prosecutors and doctors still think that such violence is simply indicative of interpersonal conflict. It is largely unrecognized and underestimated and, even today, is very rarely denounced. It is often the women themselves who do not dare, or do not know how, to talk about it.
Whatever form it takes, violence against women is accompanied and fuelled by a form of leverage, a complex system of domination governed by control and fear. Most women who are subjected to domestic violence are trapped: they are aware of their situation but they cannot, or often do not know how to, escape from it.15 Numerous studies carried out in France and Europe confirm that such women face real danger when they denounce such violence, in terms of possible attacks on their physical and mental wellbeing and even attempts on their lives.16 According to professionals, it is at the point of break-up, which is supposed to bring the violence to an end, that there is greatest risk of it increasing exponentially.
The leverage the perpetrator has is fuelled by the fact that such violence often remains hidden and the relationship between the perpetrator and the victim is an intimate one. The women involved are usually isolated and under constant threat, and face a real risk of reprisals. Given that the perpetrator of the violence may be the father of their children or a member of their family, and that women may be perceived as lacking respect for the family, feelings of guilt keep them quiet. Some feel responsible for the failure of the relationship, a feeling that is all the stronger given the particular image that the role of the woman within a relationship has.
This ambivalence is further heightened by the risk that they will end up in an extremely precarious situation (with no income or accommodation) as well as by the fear of losing their children. In the case of women who have been subjected to trafficking, the main reason why they do not report what has happened to them is that they face a real risk of threats and attacks on their lives and there is no specific alternative open to them to enable them to escape the violence.