Violence against women and girls occurs in every country in the world and takes many forms. It is one of the most extreme manifestations of gender inequality and a significant violation of human rights.
Violence against women is defined as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or mental harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.” (Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women UN General Assembly, 1993). Other definitions include economic harms (Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, 2003; Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, 2011).
According to the best available statistics, one out of every three women worldwide has experienced either physical and/or sexual violence.
In 1992 the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women changed the way violence against women is understood, recognising it as a form of discrimination that constitutes a violation of women’s human rights as it “impairs or nullifies the enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms under general international law or human rights conventions” (CEDAW, General Recommendation No. 19). When women are subjected to discriminatory forms of gender-based violence, they are denied their human rights and fundamental freedoms.
Violence against women is both a consequence and cause of women’s inequality. Violence or threat of violence penetrates every sphere of life and can limit women’s and girls’ engagement in all fields: political, economic, social, cultural and civil. In public spaces, women’s access to education, work, political participation and leadership is reduced by societal forces that sustain discrimination and violence. In private spaces – the home – violence including marital rape, female genital mutilation, forced and early marriage, destroys women’s and girls’ equal enjoyment of their human rights, notably their right to physical and mental integrity. Such violence is committed by public officials and by private actors, partners, family members, acquaintances and strangers.
Of course acts of gender-based violence are also crimes. This means that states have the obligation to prevent the occurrence of, protect women from and adopt integrated policies to ensure women can access justice when their rights are violated. However, in the vast majority of cases, states fail to investigate, prosecute and punish the perpetrators of these crimes. Nor do they provide appropriate redress. Impunity and non-accountability for crimes of violence against women are widespread throughout the world. The inevitable result of failing to investigate and prosecute acts of gender-based violence is the general acceptance of those criminal acts, their normalisation. Or, as the UN Secretary-General has said:
Impunity for violence against women compounds the effects of […] violence as a method of control. When the State fails to hold their perpetrators accountable, impunity not only intensifies the subordination and powerlessness of the targets of violence, but also sends a message to society that male violence against women is both acceptable and inevitable. As a result, patterns of violent behaviour are normalised.
In over several decades, women’s civil society organisations have worked to raise awareness of how gender-based violence limits the human rights of women and girls. They have supported normative development through their engagement with international and regional institutions for drafting instruments and initiating and supporting litigation related to the gender-based violence women have experienced, seeking to hold states responsible for their failure to exercise due diligence in its prevention and punishment. They have urged inquiries into cases of grave or systematic violations by a state (Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, 1999) and worked with independent experts. That human rights bodies are responding is testified to by the growing body of jurisprudence, recommendations and reports on specific issues, practices and countries.
Through this work, our understanding of gender-based violence as a discriminatory violation of women’s human rights has continued to grow. Courts, treaty bodies and special mechanisms around the world are learning from and reinforcing each other, weaving together the traditions of each institution to create a consistent force against all forms of violence against women.
What this website does
The combined knowledge of these institutions is a vital tool in combating violence against all women: their age, race or religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, ethnicity, status as a member of an indigenous or minority community, their physical and mental health together impact on how different women experience violence and its consequences. Multiple and intersectional discriminations form a complex picture, which must be recognised if the goal is to end violence against all women. This website aims to be an intermediary project – bringing together regional and universal human rights standards and jurisprudence, to make them accessible.
It seeks to identify opportunities for advocacy in each system and to provide information on the most progressive and gender-inclusive standards emerging in different regions around the world. These standards can be used as models for individual case advocacy in domestic, regional or global forums and as a template for legal and practical reforms within states. Simply put, our goal is to provide information on opportunities for intervention – it is up to our users to take action and provide the information, individual experiences, different perspectives and overall substance of that intervention.
As an exercise in hope, we also include a timeline of the fight to end violence against women, which includes pivotal moments when cases were decided, when human rights institutions made their conclusions, when artists expressed ideas about gender equality in books, documentaries, films and more. To complement our shared history reflected in the timeline, we will launch an interview series ‘In Visibility’ with contributions from feminists around the world whose work has brought women’s lived experiences into the public sphere, sharing with us the readings, role models and advocacy that inspired their journey.
Given the variety of institutions working to tackle violence against women, this is necessarily a work in progress. It is aimed to be a tool for your use. Please let us know if it works for you – what changes we can make – and your views.