Violence against women is an age-old problem. Recently, however, a new-found commitment to women's equality resulted in the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (UN Declaration), the appointment of the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Violence against Women, and the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence Against Women (Inter-American Convention). Many women's rights activists feel that while these efforts are promising, additional emphasis must be placed on the need to prevent private acts of violence against women.
In December 1993, the international community took a significant step in combating violence against women when the General Assembly adopted the UN Declaration (Resolution 48/104). This document specifically recognizes the need to focus upon domestic violence, which was traditionally believed to be outside the purview of international law because it involves private rather than state action. The UN Declaration also shows little tolerance for the assertion of cultural defenses to violence against women. Article 4 declares that "[s]tates should condemn violence against women and should not invoke any custom, tradition or religious consideration to avoid their obligation with respect to its elimination." In addition, the UN Declaration obliges governments "to modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women and to eliminate prejudices, customary practices and all other practices based on the idea of the inferiority or superiority of either of the sexes and on stereotyped roles for men and women." Specific abuses enumerated in the UN Declaration include violence within families, dowry-related violence, and female genital mutilation. "[O]ther traditional practices harmful to women" are also cited for correction in spite of their culturally-sensitive nature.
Despite the progress represented by the UN Declaration, some have questioned its effectiveness. Many of the UN Declaration's provisions are worded so that they may be construed as recommendations rather than obligations. Also, the UN Declaration may be interpreted to excuse inaction by poorer governments, as it provides that states may implement the provisions "to the maximum extent feasible in the light of their available resources."
In March 1994, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights fortified the UN Declaration by appointing Radhika Coomaraswamy of Sri Lanka to the post of Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women for a term of three years. Ms. Coomaraswamy's responsibilities include reporting annually to the Commission and preparing a draft report on the subject of violence against women for the Economic and Social Council. Her authority allows her to visit states to investigate allegations of violence against women and to issue urgent action appeals to governments to end abuses against women. As Special Rapporteurs are generally considered to be highly effective in their ability to bring issues to the forefront of international awareness, Ms. Coomaraswamy s appointment may have a significant impact in decreasing violence against women.
In the American hemisphere, the Organization of American States (OAS) approved the Inter-American Convention in June 1994. This document is significant as under Article 12, it provides for individual standing before the Inter-American Commission. It also represents an important contribution to the growing concern for violence against women in stating that the "recognition and full respect for all rights of women is an essential condition for their development as individuals and for the creation of a more just, united and peaceful society." The Inter-American Convention's requirement that it be ratified by only two OAS members in order for it to take effect further emphasizes the growing commitment of states to women s equality.
Women's rights activists maintain that the international community has yet failed to address the importance of state responsibility for private actions that violate human rights. Recent events indicate that this criticism may be gaining acceptance. In March 1994, the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women considered testimony from non-governmental organizations (NGOs)on the discriminatory effects of judicial practices adopted by states in prosecuting private acts of sexual violence. Witnesses testified that extensive evidentiary requirements, refusal to accept the testimony of the victim as credible, demands that the victim prove her chastity, and disproportionately low rates of conviction foster an environment in which women are discouraged from reporting sexual assaults. As evidenced by increasing numbers of NGO testimonies and reports, there is a growing international concern over the issue of state accountability for private acts of violence.
As described by the United Nations, women's inequality flows from the family to all levels of society and is caused by the systemic nature of discrimination. Consequently, mechanisms employed to remedy women s equality must seek to effect change among all strata of society and strike at the heart of the causes of women's subordination and abuse.
© Copyright 1994 The Human Rights Brief
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