Rampant sexual violence in the tent camps of Port-au-Prince, daily accounts of rape against women and girls in the DRC (known as the rape capital of the world), and the imprisonment of runaway wives in Afghanistan (fleeing forced marriages and abuse) are three instances illustrating the global problem of violence against women (VAW). Rape, honor killing, traffickingin the context of “human trafficking,” it is the illegal recruitment and trade of people to be exploited against their will., physical/psychological/emotional abuse, and forced marriage are amongst the many violent acts perpetrated against women around the globe.
In the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (DEVAW), the United Nations defines VAW as “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 private life.”
VAW takes place in every corner of the globe. Poverty, war, cultural norms and beliefs, weak legislation, poor enforcement mechanisms, women’s economic dependency, and unequal power relationships, are amongst the leading contributing factors. Yet these conditions do not have to lead to violence.
Historically, VAW was viewed as a private matter, not a public matter that warranted national or even international attention. In the 1970s and 1980’s, international women’s NGOs on the local, national, and international levels brought attention to VAW.1
This analysis examines an array of national, regional, and international instruments. Implementation challenges and the role of NGOs and civil society in combating the problem are also addressed.
United Nations (UN) Efforts
Nearly every UN body addresses the issue of VAW and, even more incredible, many of these bodies communicate and work together on this issue. The UN has mapped efforts in 10 categories:2
1) Inter-agency mechanisms and activities:2) International legal and policy development; 3) Enhanced capacity of UN entity in relation to violence against women; 4) Support for legislative development; 5) Support for policy development; 6) Prevention, including awareness-raising and advocacy; 7) Protection, support and services for victims/survivors; 8) Data collection, analysis and research; 8) Training and capacity-building; and, 10) Measures to address sexual violence in conflict situations.
Some of the inter- and intra-agencies efforts include:
- Secretary-General Moon’s Campaign “Unite to End Violence Against Women, 2008-2015, which proposes that countries: adopt and enforce national legislation in-line with international human rights standards; adopt and implement multi-sectoral national action plans; establish data collection and analysis systems; establish national and/or local awareness-raising campaigns; develop systematic efforts to address sexual violence in conflict situations.
- Inter-Agency Network on Women and Gender Equality Task Force on Violence Against Women, which supports and monitors the implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and other UNGA sessions and conferences.
- UN Action against Sexual Violence in Conflict, which combines efforts across 13 UN bodies that address sexual violence during/after armed conflicts.
- UN Trust Fund, which offers grant to governments, NGOs, and UN country teams to end VAW.
- Inter-Agency Standing Committee Sub Working Group on Gender and Humanitarian Action, which is a forum of UN and non-UN humanitarian partners (such as IRC and IOM) for coordination, policy development and decision-making on VAW in conflict, post-conflict, and humanitarian situations.
- Executive Committees on Humanitarian Affairs and Peace and Security UN and NGO Task Force on Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse, which is a 35- member (UN and non-UN entities) taskforce to prevent sexual exploitation and improve responses to it.
The UN has multiple conventions, policy instruments, and resolutions that guide its efforts to eliminate VAW: CEDAW; Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Traffickingin the context of “human trafficking,” it is the illegal recruitment and trade of people to be exploited against their will. in Persons, Especially Women and Children; Beijing Platform for Action and outcome documents; Millennium Declaration by heads of state to combat VAW; Security Council resolutions 1325, 1820, 1888,1889, and more. The UN Commission of Human Rights also has Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women who works with governments and NGOs.3
The UN works with various stakeholders, such as governments, NGOs, and regional bodies. It has set standards and goals within its various projects and initiatives that, if achieved, would clearly make a large dent in the problem.
One area though, where the UN has not provided an exemplary model is the level of representation of women in decision-making positions on peace talks and post-conflict planning. For example, only eight percent of peace talks have included women at any level; women have never served as chief negotiator in any UN-sponsored talks; and, only two percent of peace agreement signatories were women.4
The European Union has introduced binding and non-binding legal instruments to further gender equality in its member states, but has not introduced a legally binding instrument on VAW. Member states retain their regulatory power to address this issue. The EU is developing a framework for data collection on crime, including domestic violence and traffickingin the context of “human trafficking,” it is the illegal recruitment and trade of people to be exploited against their will.. Additionally, the European Court of Human Rights has developed a body of case-law on positive state obligations to provide protection against VAW.5
The Organization of American States (OAS) adopted a legally binding convention to combat VAW (Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women), which was adopted by 32 member states. Government must report progress. NGOs can petition the Inter-American Court of Human Rights if the State commitments have not been met.6
The African Union adopted a legally binding instrument, the Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa, to protect African women from discrimination in the economic, civil, and political spheres. It also calls for protections against VAW, but does not have an independent complaints mechanism.7
The South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Convention on Preventing and Combating the Traffickingin the context of “human trafficking,” it is the illegal recruitment and trade of people to be exploited against their will. in Women addresses the issue in South Asia. Regional taskforces meet annually to monitor implementation.8
Governments are on the frontline of combating VAW. They can develop legislation to criminalize VAW; prosecute offenders in court; educate the police, military, educators, health care workers, and the general public; and, sign relevant treaties. Many of these activities are done in conjunction with civil society groups or international organizations.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the United States and the United Kingdom were the first countries to pass laws directly addressing domestic violence, resulting in changes in the criminal codes. Since the 1990s many countries have adopted or revised VAW legislation.9 For example, Sri Lanka criminalized incest and sexual harassment.10 Sweden criminalized the entire cycle of domestic violence with a law that addresses the “gross violation of a woman’s integrity.”11
Morocco reformed the Al Mudawwana, the legal code governing family life, by raising the legal marriage age to 18, establishing the right divorce by mutual consent, placing the family under joint responsibility of both spouses, rescinding the wife’s obligation of obedience to her husband, and imposing strict limitations on polygamy (the first wife and a judge must approve).12
VAW laws vary significantly in terms of scope of VAW, mandated actions, and types of law (constitutional, civil, criminal, and family). Some address it in their constitution (ie. Nepal).13 Some address it in comprehensive legislation (i.e. Austria, Germany, and Luxembourg) and some in a piece-meal manner (US).14
A 2006 UN study found that half of UN member states had legislative provisions on domestic violence and less than half had legislative provisions on sexual harassment or traffickingin the context of “human trafficking,” it is the illegal recruitment and trade of people to be exploited against their will..15 The UN offers guidelines to countries to develop legislation. They recommend:
- defining a clear legislative goal of ending VAW
- consulting with relevant stakeholders (including survivors, NGOs, service providers, human rights institutions, law enforcement, healthcare professionals, prison officials, religious leaders, etc.)
- using an evidence-based approach to legislation
- develop legislation from a human rights perspective that upholds key principles (such as ensure that survivors of violence are not “re-victimized” through the legal process).16
A comprehensive response is needed to address the issues of VAW. Legislation must protect women from imminent violence, hold the perpetrator criminally-liable, provide a deterrent, and deal with the aftermath of violence (i.e. custody and divorce issues). The provision of services for victims is important, such as shelters and hospital care. As of 2008, rape crisis centers, with trained staff and medical services, were only found in 21 out of 40 European countries.17
The UN notes that good legislation is only the first step. Measures to monitor implementation are critical. Coordination is needed amongst the judiciary, police, prosecutors, probation, advocacy groups, providers of services to complainants/survivors, and social service agencies.18 For some countries, a separate women’s’ ministry (i.e. Sri Lanka and Morocco) helps ensure the state follows its commitments.19
To learn more about different country policies and programs addressing VAW, visit The UN Secretary-General’s database on violence against women.
Role of NGOs and Civil Society
NGOs and civil society have an important role to play in combating/preventing VAW. These roles include, but are not limited to training, education, providing services and support, raising awareness, advocating and lobbying governments and international organizations for better legislations or policies, etc.
For example, in Egypt, legal services for victims of VAW are usually provided by civil society organizations. Services include legal awareness of the applicable laws and legal advice and counseling. They are part of a comprehensive support package that includes social and psychological counseling, awareness programs, economic empowerment programs, as well as legal services for other related issues such as custody, divorce, and housing.20
Grassroots efforts often supplement government efforts because laws are not always enforced. Advocacy and raising awareness by NGOs helps communities implement laws and policies. Achievements to reduce VAW in Bangladesh occurred because of efforts to target “gate-keepers.” Imams, local government officials, school teachers, NGO representatives, and youth leaders, which wield influence and help shape public opinion, were brought on board.21
The implementation challenges are vast. Some of them mirror the causes of VAW to begin with, such as cultural norms and lack of women in leadership positions in all levels (government, UN, businesses, etc).
One set of challenges deal with enforcement/interpretation of policies. The UN’s problems with enforcement/interpretation of its “Zero-tolerance policy” for peacekeepers exemplify this challenge. The policy relies on informants to interpret and/or enforce the policy. The informants underreport (a universal problem for VAW crimes) and are dis-incentivized (do not want to report colleagues/friends).22
A second set of challenges deals with bureaucratic problems. Governments, such as the U.S., often do not track VAW spending/programs since it is diffused across numerous initiatives in different agencies. Without the coordination, governments cannot integrate the combating of VAW into assistance and foreign policy mechanisms.23
Other countries, especially those in the developing world, are not fortunate enough to have a vast array of programs. They do not have the political, legislative, nor financial infrastructures to establish and maintain problems and polices to combat VAW. Compounding the issue is the lack of consensus on the most effective way to address it. Existing VAW research does not contain comparative data. Most of the government, NGO, and international anti-VAW programs are not evaluated for effectiveness, last 1-2 years, and have small budgets.24
Some countries are trying to address the roots of the problem. In Bangladesh, the “Advocacy to End Gender-based Violence through the MoWCA” project, implemented by the Ministry of Women’s and Children’s Affairs, raised awareness of the broad perspective of VAW (now including psychological abuse).25
People in one Bangladeshi community that was surveyed became aware child marriage, dowry and domestic violence laws. Community pressure decreased incidents significantly. Judges became less likely to register underage marriages and teachers pressured parents to stop underage marriages. Cruelty to wives to extract dowries from families became rarer because of lack of community support and a law criminalizing this behavior. Incidences of wife-beating and other forms of abuse decreased.26
While abuse still occurs, these steps are starting to address the underlying causes of the problem and decreasing the incidents of abuse. These outcomes were achieved because of the involvement of the whole community. There was buy-in of community religious and political leaders. Extensive, mediated discussions were held for different leadership groups. A culturally-sensitive approach was taken to separate meetings by gender, thus creating the space for dialogue on gender-specific topics. The active involvement of men was crucial to mitigating the problem.
All member of society must get involved to ensure the root causes of VAW are addressed thereby decreasing the circumstances that arise to the problem in the first place.
1 Blanchfield, Luisa and Rhoda Margesson, Clare Ribando Seelke,Tiaji Salaam-Blyther, and Nina M. Serafino. “International Violence Against Women: U.S. Response and Policy Issues.” Library of Congress. March 31, 2008.
2 “Inventory of United Nations system activities to prevent and eliminate violence against women.” September 2010.
4 Kanani, Rahim. “An In-Depth Interview With Zainab Salbi, Founder and CEO of Women for Women International.” Huffington Post. January 11, 2010.
5 Final Activity Report. Council of Europe Task Force to Combat Violence against Women, including Domestic Violence (EG-TFV). September 2008.
8 “Gender Related Issues.” South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation.
9 Good practices in legislation on violence against women. Expert group meeting organized by United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. May 2008.
10 “Violence Against Women in South Asia: A regional Analysis.” UNFPA Bangladesh and Country Technical Services Team for South and West Asia.
11 Final Activity Report. Council of Europe Task Force to Combat Violence against Women, including Domestic Violence (EG-TFV). September 2008.
12 “Morocco: Pulling Together to Protect Women’s Rights.” Programming to Address Violence Against Women. July 2008.
13 Interim Constitution of Nepal, 2063 (2007). The UN Secretary-General’s database on violence against women.
14 Final Activity Report. Council of Europe Task Force to Combat Violence against Women, including Domestic Violence (EG-TFV). September 2008.
15 Good practices in legislation on violence against women. Expert group meeting organized by United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. May 2008.
17 Final Activity Report. Council of Europe Task Force to Combat Violence against Women, including Domestic Violence (EG-TFV). September 2008.
18 Good practices in legislation on violence against women. Expert group meeting organized by United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. May 2008.
19 “Violence Against Women in South Asia: A regional Analysis.” UNFPA Bangladesh and Country Technical Services Team for South and West Asia.
20 Zaki, Amal and Ashgan Abdel Hamid and Mozn Hassan and Hala Abdel Kader “Egypt Violence Against Women Study.” USAID and Combating Violence Against Women and Children Project. April 2009.
21 “Bangladesh: Community Pressure Groups Challenge Age-old Views on Violence Against Women.” Programming to Address Violence Against Women. July 2008.
22 Jennings, Kathleen M. “Protecting Whom? Approaches to Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in UN Peacekeeping Operations.” Fafo Report. 2008.
23 Blanchfield, Luisa and Rhoda Margesson, Clare Ribando Seelke,Tiaji Salaam-Blyther, and Nina M. Serafino. “International Violence Against Women: U.S. Response and Policy Issues.” Library of Congress. March 31, 2008.
25 “Bangladesh: Community Pressure Groups Challenge Age-old Views on Violence Against Women.” Programming to Address Violence Against Women. July 2008.