Introduction: Violence Against Women

Human Rights Dialogue 2.10 (Fall 2003): "Violence Against Women"

November 5, 2003

The 1993 World Development Report estimated that worldwide, “violence against women is as serious a cause of death and incapacity among women of reproductive age as cancer, and a greater cause of ill-health than traffic accidents and malaria combined.” As defined in the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, violence against women is a prevalent harm to the basic rights, freedoms, health, and welfare of women. It occurs in many settings and at many hands, including those of relatives, acquaintances, employers, and the state. Yet until at least the early 1990s, most forms of violence directed specifically against women were met with silence not only by the state but also by much of the human rights community.

In the last fifteen years, however, the engagement of human rights activists in the problem of violence against women has increased exponentially. Why and how this change has occurred is an important piece of the history of the women’s and human rights movements, with major implications for both. Dialogue readers may recall an earlier issue on women’s rights (Summer 2000), which included articles on violence. In the current issue, activists from around the world discuss how women’s rights activists are using human rights instruments to combat violence against women and, in turn, how the human rights movement is being enlarged and enriched by their approach.

A striking theme in the testimonies gathered here is the use of classical human rights tools in activists’ work to combat violence against women. This general tendency to use human rights is significant: contributors to earlier issues of Dialogue frequently expressed reluctance to refer to human rights in their work, generally because of arguments that the concept of human rights is a foreign import and the belief that references to human rights would either be ineffective or lead to a backlash.

A crucial advance in the campaign against violence against women came from the insight of feminists like Australian National University legal scholar Hilary Charlesworth, who pointed out in 1984 that women’s experiences are rendered nearly invisible in international law and traditional understandings of human rights because both originally operated on the assumption that the public and private domains are sharply differentiated. Not only was the beating, rape, or mutilation of a woman in her home at the hands of relatives viewed as a private matter, but the abuses themselves were unacknowledged to the point that statistics on many forms of abuse remain difficult to collect.

The inclusion of the private sphere within the purview of human rights is a development that underlies this issue of Dialogue. Six contributors challenge the public/private split as an explicit part of their strategy to combat violence against women. Leylâ Pervizat fights the widespread perception in Turkey that “honor killing” is not a human rights abuse like extrajudicial killing but rather a personal matter in which men have the right to defend and redeem their masculine honor. In her response to Pervizat, Zehra F. Arat points out the double standard that the state applies to violence when it involves women and their sexuality. Pervizat finds the relegation of honor killings to the less-urgent sphere of “women’s problems” to be common among Turkey’s mainstream human rights defenders, an obstacle also facing Lydia Alpízar in the struggle that she and other women’s rights activists are waging against the systematic killings of women in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, which have continued unchecked since at least 1993. Alpízar’s struggle is to get both mainstream Mexican human rights organizations and regional human rights bodies to take violence against women at the hands of private actors as seriously as they take violence carried out by the state. Charlotte Bunch responds to Alpízar’s essay, pointing out how the bridging of the public/private divide in Mexico has opened doors for the human rights movement to address other important issues, such as nonstate actors and the integration of civil, political, economic, and social rights. Christopher Harper discusses his successes working with men to change the belief that human rights apply to everything except what they do in their own homes. And Lisa W. Karanja documents the deeply entrenched belief in marital privacy that has prevented the Ugandan government from taking into account domestic abuse and rape as violations that contribute to the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Cultural institutions, particularly religion, are often cited for their role in violence against women. The frequency with which women, the family, and the home are seen to overlap with culture—indeed, to be the main vessels for the maintenance and continuation of cultural and religious traditions—is striking. Activists must challenge the defense of keeping this sector separate from what many view as the encroachment of western-inspired concepts of rights.

Ayesha Imam’s description of her fight to strengthen women’s rights through the Sharia courts in northern Nigeria is a retort to those who claim that religious traditions are inevitably a source of women’s oppression. She locates the problem in Sharia’s implementation, not in Sharia itself, pointing out that Sharia court decisions have yielded improvements for women in personal and family law in Nigeria, despite Sharia’s politicization and the problematic implementation of Sharia penal codes in twelve Nigerian states. In their responses, however, Uché U. Ewelukwa and Albaqir A. Mukhtar express their reservations about reliance on Sharia, citing gender-discriminatory principles beyond the level of implementation (Mukhtar) and the greater likelihood of achieving judicial reform through recourse to Nigerian constitutional law and international human rights legal obligations (Ewelukwa). In Turkey, Pervizat finds that traditional conceptions of masculinity, not Islam, are used as justifications for honor killing. Harper and his organization counter the argument that women’s rights are an imperialist concept hostile to South African culture by demonstrating that many native beliefs contain the core concepts of equal regard for the right of all humans, men and women, to live free of violence, which underpin human rights. And June Munala, working to eradicate female genital mutilation (FGM) among refugees in Kenya, uses a combined approach: she finds that both appealing to a range of human rights, especially the right to health, while mobilizing a wide range of actors, including, significantly, Muslim and traditional community leaders, to oppose the practice is the most effective method to overcome it. In response, however, Anne Gathumbi-Masheti insists on prioritizing a legal approach that criminalizes the practice. Even Gathumbi-Masheti, though, acknowledges the positive potential of culture in her suggestion that implementing an alternative coming-of-age ritual for girls can help to eradicate FGM by satisfying a cultural need in a nonviolent way.

Finally, an important theme that emerges in this issue of Dialogue is the complexity of issues involved in violence against women and the concomitant need to draw on both first- and second-generation rights. Alpízar shows compellingly the relevance of economic and social factors to the Juárez murders: the victims are all young, poor, uprooted, and marginalized female maquiladora workers in a city where economic exploitation, human trafficking, and drug-related crime are rampant. Their economic deprivation makes it easier to ignore these women’s deaths, just as impunity under these conditions has apparently emboldened killers. And Carrie Cuthbert and her colleagues in the U.S. state of Massachusetts have achieved a partial victory in their efforts to cast the situation of battered mothers in terms of human rights violations: their appeal to a system based on the indivisibility of rights and government accountability won the hearts and minds of survivors, who now see themselves as bearers of human rights instead of only as victims.

Despite the slowness of the human rights movement to address violence against women, four essays report on successes in the effort to mainstream gender into the major international human rights institutions. Rhonda Copelon explains how women’s rights activists forced a sea change in international law that resulted in the codification of rape as a war crime in the International Criminal Court. Carin Benninger-Budel and Lucinda O’Hanlon of the Geneva-based World Organization Against Torture detail their efforts to show how many types of violence against women should rightly be considered forms of torture. They argue that taking advantage of the strengths of the most developed human rights conventions can bring violence against women off the periphery and into the mainstream. In her response to their essay, Alda Facio describes how women living under Latin American dictatorships in the 1970s began to make connections between the state’s torture of political prisoners and the domestic violence that women endured. And LaShawn R. Jefferson describes how women’s rights activists began to use human rights tools, such as nondiscrimination, due diligence, and the rights to life and health, to push violence against women into the purview of mainstream human rights, challenging the traditional conception of human rights abuses as state-perpetrated only and thereby expanding the legitimacy of the human rights movement.