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Communications are letters sent by the SR-VAW to state governments and/or their related bodies when credible and reliable information is received on acts or threats of violence against women are taking place. Submissions to the SR-VAW are acted upon differently than the UN Treaty Bodies and other human rights institutions. The SR-VAW, like the other Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council, does not serve a judicial or quasi-judicial function, and therefore cannot issue decisions on the violation of a woman’s human rights resulting from acts of gender-based violence. By engaging states in a dialogue on information she receives, the SR-VAW’s communications aim to ensure effective prevention, investigation and punishment of all acts of gender-based violence. This includes, where appropriate, compensation for survivors of such acts.
Communications sent to governments may concern acts of VAW committed by state officials, their related agencies and/or private actors. They may also be written on bills, legislation, policies or practices failing to comply with international human rights law and standards. In general, there are 3 types of communications the SR-VAW can send (individually or jointly with other Special Procedures) to states when information is received on acts of gender-based violence:
**Note: If you are currently experiencing abuse, feel threatened or unsafe and need urgent assistance, there is a list of country help lines to assist you. You may also download and submit an individual complaint form and send it to the SR-VAW by email or post (address can be found at the bottom of the ‘Civil Society Engagement’ section of this page).**
When the SR-VAW receives information on an imminent threat of gender-based violence, which includes life-threatening situations, or ongoing or irrevocable damage of a very grave nature (for example, the return of a girl seeking asylum to a country where she is likely to be subjected to FGM), she may choose to send an urgent appeal to the state concerned.
Urgent appeals request a response from states as soon as possible and may seek clarification on the information contained in the appeal or urge states to secure immediate and effective protection for the victim.
When the SR-VAW receives reliable and credible information on an act of gender-based violence that has already taken place, she may choose to send an allegation letter to the state concerned.
Allegations letters request a state response within 60 days of their receipt and do not necessarily require immediate action. These letters are sent to states for clarification on the substance of the complaint received and can relate to individual violations and/or general pattern of VAW.
Bills, legislation, policies and/or practices that reinforce gender inequality are a violation of international human rights law and standards, and sustain general patterns of VAW through structural discrimination. When the SR-VAW receives reliable and credible information on a state’s legal framework and its application contributing to widespread acts of VAW, she may choose to send a letter to the state concerned.
These letters may seek clarification on the information received and/or remind a state of its obligations under the international human rights treaties it is a party to. The letter may also request follow-up information on steps taken to align the state’s legal framework with those international human rights treaties and other agreements to ensure the issue of gender inequality and VAW are being addressed.
Recognising that women may face unique and complex risks due to membership of marginalised groups or certain contexts, the SR-VAW works jointly with other special procedures to ensure all forms of discrimination women suffer are brought to the attention of the state concerned. Together, the SR-VAW and other Special Procedures can issue joint communications to raise awareness of the range of human rights violations that intersect in different situations.
Want more? Communications issued by the SR-VAW, along with other Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council, are recorded on the OHCHR website
Civil Society Engagement: Individual Complaints and Submission of Information
When a woman, or group of women, are threatened by or subjected to acts of VAW, the SR-VAW can be an important first point of contact for urgent help. Or, in some cases, a last resort when other remedies have been unable to address the situation. Unlike the UN Treaty Bodies, the SR-VAW does not require applicants exhaust domestic remedies before submitting their complaints, nor does action rely on state ratification of a human rights treaty.
The SR-VAW, as with other special procedures of the Human Rights Council, operates according to a code of conduct (Human Rights Council, Resolution 5/2). According to Article 9 of the code of conduct of the Special Procedures mandate-holders of the Human Rights Council, the SR-VAW’s communications:
- Should not be manifestly unfounded or politically motivated
- Should contain a factual description of the alleged violations of human rights
- Should not be exclusively based on reports disseminated by mass media
- Should be submitted on the basis of credible and detailed information
- Should not use abusive language
The SR-VAW may not take action on information received when doing so would violate any of the above principles. Therefore, civil society and/or other actors must provide as much detailed information as possible from credible sources that do not rely wholly on mass media. At a minimum, information sent to the SR-VAW should include:
- Identity of the victim(s) concerned
- Identities of the perpetrators of the violation (if known), as well as detailed, reliable and credible information on all actors involved in committing the violation – including non-state actors where relevant
- Identities of the persons or organisations submitting the information
- The date, place and detailed description of the circumstances of the incident(s) or violation that have occurred, are ongoing or are about to occur
It should also be noted that the SR-VAW may only send communications to states on issues that fall within the scope of her thematic mandate. This means individual complaints and other submissions must concern threats or acts of violence directed against women because they are women. These acts are determined according to the definition of gender-based violence under the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (GAR 48/104):
Article 1 For the purposes of this Declaration, the term “violence against women” means 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.
While the gender-based discrimination that underlies acts of VAW is the primary concern of the SR-VAW, it is not the only form of discrimination analysed and addressed in her work. In 2001, the SR-VAW called for urgent action to raise awareness of the multiple forms of discrimination experienced by marginalised women and implementation of an intersectional approach to tackle VAW. Gender-based violence in relation to racial discrimination, indigenous women, various cultural contexts, women with disabilities and so forth, require an intersectional application of the SR-VAW’s mandate. Submissions to the SR-VAW may also draw attention to the multiple forms of discrimination that intersect and give rise to acts of VAW.
Want more? Read the SR-VAW’s 2011 report (HRC Resolution 17/26) on the multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination women face
In order for the SR-VAW to take action on an individual complaint received, the identity of the survivor concerned must be included in information sent to state authorities.
If the survivor concerned is under the age of 18, or has the status of a minor under domestic law, or if there is reason to believe that revealing her identity might place her at further risk, the identity of the survivor may be included in contact with the state but left out of public reports. It may also be requested that the survivor’s name be excluded from public reports. Requests to keep the identity of the survivor and/or any other details applicants would like to remain confidential may be included in the submission of information to the SR-VAW.
Unless agreed otherwise, the source providing information provided in the complaint is always kept confidential.
Anyone contemplating submitting a complaint to the SR-VAW is strongly advised to also review the guidelines on the OHCHR website.
Submissions may be made to the SR-VAW online, through email (a separate email address is provided for cases needing urgent attention – see below) or by post. A model individual complaint form is also provided on the SR-VAW’s webpage to help guide documentation of cases of VAW.
Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women
8-14 Avenue de la Paix
1211 Geneva 10,
Fax: + 41 22 917 9006