How the Seed Was Planted
Human Rights Dialogue 2.10 (Fall 2003): "Violence Against Women"
November 5, 2003
Alda Facio responds to "Expanding the Definition of Torture."
In Latin America, women began fighting for our human rights when we organized against the dictatorial regimes of the 1970s, which were characterized by widespread disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial killings of those perceived by the state to be “leftists.” Although we did not frame our struggles from a women’s human rights perspective during this stage, our political use of motherhood initiated our questioning of the arbitrary division between private and public spheres.
For example, the Asociación Madres de Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, instead of passively accepting their tragedy as mothers of the disappeared, used the cultural reverence for motherhood and their own “mother’s love” (two things considered to be private, natural, and nonpolitical) to bring to the political arena the demand for the reappearance of their children. Later, this blurring of the two spheres led feminists to assert that violence against women in the domestic sphere should be considered a type of torture. “Madres” taught us that what happened in the private sphere was also political. This made us realize that we could use the same human rights approach that was helping to free our nations from formal dictatorships to free women from dictatorships in their homes.
But to achieve the acceptance of women’s human rights by mainstream activists, we needed to demonstrate the sexist bias in the interpretation of each human right, as well as in the methodology and principles. This proved a difficult task because we did not want to diminish civil society’s recognition of human rights as a useful framework for our people’s liberation. But we needed to demonstrate that women’s rights were also human rights and that many of the atrocities that happened to us—though they happened in different places and were committed by different perpetrators—should also be considered human rights violations.
A very important step toward the coalescence of this concept was the creation, in 1989, of the Women’s Human Rights Project under the Commission for the Defense of Human Rights in Central America, a Central American NGO that coordinated many national human rights NGOs. This Project became involved in the defense of a Costa Rican accused of killing her Belizean husband and facing the death penalty. A delegation from this program went to Belize to defend her on the grounds that she had been a victim of domestic violence for seven years. In the words of María Suárez, the Project’s founder and director:
After talking with the groups of women, with [the accused woman’s] church, with the human rights groups, with her lawyer, with the district attorney and with her family; after studying the laws of Belize and Costa Rica, we recognized the limits of the human rights framework and of civil and criminal law, since none of them considered domestic violence a problem, much less a crime or a human rights violation.
In spite of this, the Commission’s delegation decided to pursue a strategy linking human rights with violence against women. This case never went to trial but received international attention, since the defendant faced the death penalty if convicted, and it was the beginning of our success: the prosecutor justified to the media the dismissal of the case on the grounds that the accused was a victim of human rights violations!
The success of this strategy prompted women to reconsider their opposition to linking women’s and human rights on the grounds that human rights diluted the feminist content of women’s rights. It showed the importance of using the principles, theory, and practice of human rights to defend ourselves from abuses that in those days were not considered human rights violations per se. Although many women and feminist NGOs were linking gender violence and women’s legal rights, neither of these two subjects had been dealt with under a human rights framework.
With these successes, an important seed for international change was planted that contributed to the acceptance, at the international level, of domestic violence as a human rights violation. In December 1992, during the regional preparations for the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, our satellite NGO meeting, “La Nuestra,” was the first of many organized by women. With delegates from all Latin American and Caribbean Spanish-speaking countries and Haiti, the meeting approved 24 petitions linking women’s rights to human rights. These were later incorporated into the global petitions from women presented to the Vienna conference.
In the decade since the Vienna conference, it is gratifying to see that a mainstream organization like OMCT has taken up the challenge of using the Convention against Torture to combat violence against women, since this is one important strategy when dealing with issues that affect only or primarily women: the mainstreaming of gender into existing mechanisms, instruments, and programs to broaden the understanding of torture so that it can apply to acts occurring in the privacy of the home. But we also need to develop new mechanisms, instruments, and programs that include women’s needs explicitly. And we need to understand violence against women as a form of discrimination, growing from the lack of equality between men and women, and therefore as a women’s issue for which CEDAW, too, can be a useful tool.