Violence against women is a widespread phenomenon highlighted in various reports of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, Its Causes and Consequences. Yet, no single treaty seems to cover this specific type of human rights violation and the protection offered to women in other treaties can be qualified, at best, as patchy if not deficient. The gaps in the normative system preventing violence against women, protecting women from such violence and ensuring them access to effective remedies were underlined at a panel convened in London by the Department of Law of the University of the West of England (United Kingdom) on 5 November 2013. The general consensus was that a universal, comprehensive treaty aiming at preventing and eradicating violence against women was needed.
Ms Rashida Manjoo, UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, explained that there is no specifically legally binding instrument on the international plane. The European and African States have however risen to the challenge of eradicating violence against women by respectively adopting the Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (Istanbul Convention) and the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa. This lack of international convention means that the principles of non-discrimination and equality are the norms used to address violence against women. The 1993 Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women was unfortunately of little avail as it is a non-binding declaration and has not yet crystallised into customary international law. With regard to the enforcement of women’s right to be free from violence the principle of due diligence, albeit enshrined in international law, is poorly understood by States in this specific context as her call for information and subsequent report on the interpretation and implementation of the due diligence principle reveal. The 1993 Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women and General Comments 12 and 19 of the CEDAW Committee can to some extent offer guidance although it is doubtful that the former has reached customary nature. Is it possible to turn the Declaration into a convention? Ms Manjoo expressed her concerns that a number of States were reluctant to do so on the basis that it would lead to a proliferation of human rights treaties, that its monitoring mechanism would be costly, that it might lead to reforming CEDAW, etc. Ms Manjoo added that the mainstreaming of gender and the discourse on gender neutrality have led to substantive equality falling behind.
Joining us via Skype from New Zealand, Marai Larasi MBE, Chair of the End Violence Against Women Coalition and director of Imkaan, also criticised the lack of any legally binding instrument that would give teeth to women’s rights. She explained that whilst some States have failed to develop laws to protect women and girls others have passed inadequate laws (e.g. do not include marital rape) or fail to enforce such laws. An international legal framework at the international level would undoubtedly push towards making States more accountable. Ms Larasi also stressed that there is a need to create a legally binding document that goes beyond the elite (i.e. academics, practitioners, politicians) that works on issues relating to violence against women. Further, it must be borne in mind that women are not a homogeneous group and whilst different narratives can be heard women can work alongside each other towards the drafting of an international convention prohibiting all forms of violence against women.
The next speaker, Renée Römkens, Director of ATRIA, the Institute on Gender Equality and Women’s History (The Netherlands), who was instrumental in the drafting of the Istanbul Convention, deplored the few ratifications (6 as of today) of this extremely detailed European treaty which not only enshrines the principle of due diligence but also requires States to collect data on violence against women, to prevent such violence, to take measures to prosecute offenders and support victims, etc, the overall aim being to change attitudes and stereotypes about gender roles. Ms Römkens criticised the approach of the Convention of viewing gender-based violence through a gender neutral lens and expressed her deep concern of a gender-neutralisation discourse that seems to pervade domestic violence discourse.
Helen Griffiths, PhD candidate at Cardiff Law School, focused her attention on the due diligence framework that had been developed by the former UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women in 2006. She stressed that the principle included in General Comment 19 as well as in observations of various committees entails the State duty to prevent, prosecute, punish and offer redress to victims of violence. She lamented the lack of a clear definition of the State obligation with regard to the duty to prevent violence against women, thereby urging for the drafting of legally binding instrument clarifying this norm. Moreover she highlighted that a gendered and systemic approach was needed to understand violence against women. The multi-layered factors leading to a patriarchal framework of society needed to be challenged as well as so-called ‘cultural’ violence. What is more the principle of due diligence should not be viewed as a lesser form of State responsibility.
Reflecting upon her experience as a young woman brought to India to be married against her will and then in a separate event some years later confronted with the absolute indifference of the Indian police when assaulted on the street, Ms Vidya Sri reminded the audience of the dearth of recourse available, the lack of implementation of laws providing women’s rights and protection and the general lack of awareness that such provisions existed. Lisa Shannon, Fellow, at the Carr Centre of Harvard University, also recounted her experience, this time on the African continent, that led her to create Thousand Sisters, a grass-root NGO aimed at empowering women. With this view Ms Shannon insisted that a convention should be supportive of grass root movements and should not be an export to the Global South. She suggested launching a campaign along the lines of the campaign against landmines, i.e. first agreeing on minimum standards and then getting in touch with supportive States to eventually draft and finalise a treaty.
The ensuing debate, chaired by Jackie Jones of the Department of Law of the University of the West of England, highlighted a number of issues (in no specific order):
– Whilst one of the participants questioned law as the language and the tool used to tackle violence against women Ms Manjoo stressed that the legal framework is key to setting standards that can then be implemented. In other words, the discussion on the elimination of violence against women starts with the law. Ms Römkens reminded the participants that the Istanbul Convention provided not only a legal but a legally-based response inasmuch as it adopts a comprehensive and holistic approach which hopefully will enable a transformation from a legal to a social justice framework.
– The universality of women’s rights was stressed as a way to ensuring that all women around the world benefit from the same standards all the more as there are different regional frameworks dealing with human rights or tackling violence against women more specifically.
– The export of the Istanbul Convention on the universal level was deemed not to be a good idea. A universal convention on violence against women must come from the grass-root elements of society and cannot be imposed, though the Istanbul Convention certainly provides food for thought.
– A participant deplored the fact that despite the Declaration Against Violence against women not much had changed since them. Whilst she acknowledged it had helped a bit it was not enough. A convention was certainly needed.
Ms Manjoo closed the debate by stressing that it was her duty to listen to conversations relating to violence against women and capture them in her reports but it was not her role to shape the discourse. In other words, she welcomes any comments, suggestions made by interested parties.
Authors: Daniela Nadj, Noëlle Quénivet and Dawn Sedman on behalf of the Research Network on Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict @RNSViC
Disclaimer: The authors have taken great care in reporting the views of the speakers and participants but apologise for any errors, omissions or misrepresentations.