Warning: This case deals with topics that are especially grave and may cause trauma invoked by memories of past abuse. If you have experienced violence and need assistance, please refer to this list of country help lines provided by UN Women.
Keywords: Domestic violence, threats of violence
Deciding body: Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women
A.T. lived in an apartment with her husband, L.F., and their two children – one of whom was severely brain damaged. For over four years A.T. suffered severe domestic violence at the hands of L.F.
In March 1999, L.F. moved out of their jointly-owned apartment – the attacks, however, did not stop. L.F. continued to visit, and would usually inflict physical violence and/or loud shouting. One year later, he moved in with a new partner and took most of the furniture and other household items with him. Hoping to keep herself and her children safe, A.T. changed the locks on their door. On separate occasions, L.F. responded by filling the lock with glue and kicking in part of the door. During one attack, L.F. broke in and severely beat A.T., which resulted in her hospitalisation for a week due to kidney damage. He also possessed a firearm and threatened to kill A.T. and harm their children.
The protection and support services available to A.T. were limited. In an effort to limit contact with L.F., A.T. filed civil proceedings regarding his access to the family home.. This attempt was not successful and L.F. was allowed to return to the apartment for two stated reasons:
- Lack of substantiation of the claim that L. F. regularly battered the author – despite the 10 medical certificates were issued in connection with separate incidents of severe physical violence suffered by A.T. between March 1998 and July 2001
- L.F.’s right to the property, including possession, could not be restricted
A.T. had also initiated civil proceeding to divide their property, but this was suspended. Two criminal procedures were also initiated against L.F. for separate acts of violence against A.T, one of which was initiated by the hospital that had helped A.T. recover from the injuries to her kidney. L.F. was never detained, nor did Hungarian authorities take any steps to ensure A.T. and her children were safe. Hungarian law did not offer protection orders or restraining orders. A.T. had repeatedly asked for help from local child protection authorities, but no action was taken. There was not a single shelter in the country equipped to meet the needs of her disabled son.
What was the decision?
Women’s human rights to life and to physical and mental integrity cannot be superseded by other rights, including the right to property and the right to privacy (para. 9.3).
Through its analysis, the Committee decided that Hungary was responsible for violating A.T.’s human rights, specifically:
- Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women
- Article 2(a), (b) and (e): Policy measures
- Article 5(1): Sex role stereotyping and prejudice
- Article 16 : Equality in marriage and family life
Recalling its General Recommendation No. 19 (GR 19; on violence against women), the Committee held that gender-based violence was included in the definition of discrimination. And, although the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (“CEDAW”; the treaty that the Committee is authorised to monitor) may not explicitly prohibit VAW, its occurrence may breach specific rights contained in the treaty. GR 19 also clarified that CEDAW applied to state and non-state actors. Therefore, when VAW occurs, “…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” (GR 19, para. 9).These “private acts” of VAW include domestic violence.
A.T.’s story demonstrated a lack of immediate protection for her and her children. While the Committee recognised Hungary’s adoption of an action programme against domestic violence, it was clear that they had not helped A.T. The Committee also noted the low priority that cases of domestic violence were given in court proceedings – in general and in A.T.’s case – emphasising that “Women’s human rights to life and to physical and mental integrity cannot be superseded by other rights, including the right to property and the right to privacy” (para. 9.3). The Committee concluded that Hungary’s failure to prevent and protect A.T. from domestic violence amounted to a violation of its obligations under Article 2(a), (b) and (e) of CEDAW.
To reach its decision on Articles 5 and 16, the Committee referred to its General Recommendation No. 21 (on equality in marriage and family relations), which stresses the importance of GR 19’s provisions in securing women’s ability to enjoy equal human rights and fundamental freedoms. Widespread gender stereotyping throughout Hungary had situated women in a subordinate position to men, which contributed to the gender-based violence perpetrated against them. In A.T.’s case, “…the facts of the communication reveal aspects of the relationships between the sexes and attitudes towards women that the Committee recognised vis -à -vis the country as a whole” (para. 9.4). Based on these findings, the Committee determined that Hungary had breached its obligations set out in Articles 5(a) and 16 of CEDAW.
For these reasons, the Committee recommended Hungary (para. 9.6):
- Take immediate and effective measures to guarantee the physical and mental integrity of A. T. and her family
- Ensure that A. T. is given a safe home in which to live with her children, receives appropriate child support and legal assistance as well as reparation proportionate to the physical and mental harm undergone and to the gravity of the violations of her rights
- Respect, protect, promote and fulfil women’s human rights, including their right to be free from all forms of domestic violence, including intimidation and threats of violence
- Assure victims of domestic violence the maximum protection of the law by acting with due diligence to prevent and respond to such violence against women
- Take all necessary measures to ensure that the national strategy for the prevention and effective treatment of violence within the family is promptly implemented and evaluated
- Take all necessary measures to provide regular training on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Optional Protocol to judges, lawyers and law enforcement officials
- Implement expeditiously and without delay the Committee’s concluding comments of August 2002 on the combined fourth and fifth periodic report of Hungary in respect of violence against women and girls, in particular the Committee’s recommendation that a specific law be introduced prohibiting domestic violence against women, which would provide for protection and exclusion orders as well as support services, including shelters
- Investigate promptly, thoroughly, impartially and seriously all allegations of domestic violence and bring the offenders to justice in accordance with international standards
- Provide victims of domestic violence with safe and prompt access to justice, including free legal aid where necessary, in order to ensure them available, effective and sufficient remedies and rehabilitation
- Provide offenders with rehabilitation programmes and programmes on non-violent conflict resolution methods
Learning from other institutions
Throughout the text of the case document, A.T.’s story were supported by what other institutions and authorities had said about violence against women, gender-based discrimination and human rights. This reinforces the legal value of international human rights standards on gender equality, and helps build a unified global commitment to tackling VAW. Some of the references to these institutions and authorities included (numbers correspond to paragraphs within the case document):
- Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women: 5.7
A.T. v. Hungary was the first domestic violence complaint submitted to and reviewed by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. The decision delivered by the Committee redefined state obligation to end domestic violence under international human rights norms and standards, setting a precedent for all other states party to CEDAW. All state parties to CEDAW are required to view domestic violence as a form of gender-based discrimination that requires appropriate action to address the underlying causes of the violation. This requires both the creation of effective domestic remedies and addressing the harmful gender stereotypes that contribute to inadequate responses by public officials when violence occurs.