The Issue: Violence against Women
and the International Response

Violence against women persists in every country in the world as a pervasive violation of human rights and a major impediment to achieving gender equality. Such violence is unacceptable, whether perpetrated by the State and its agents or by family members or strangers, in the public or private sphere, in peacetime or in times of conflict. ... [A]s long as violence against women continues, we cannot claim to be making real progress towards equality, development and peace. —In-Depth Study on All Forms of Violence against Women: Report of the Secretary-General, 2006

At least one out of every three women around the world has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime — with the abuser usually someone known to her. Violence against women and girls is a universal problem of epidemic proportions. Perhaps the most pervasive human rights violation that we know today, it devastates lives, fractures communities, and stalls development.

Moving the Issue into the Public Eye

For the most part, the human cost of gender-based violence is invisible. Fear and shame continue to prevent many women from speaking out, and data collected are often insufficient and inconsistent. There has been significant progress in the last two decades, however, to bring the issue into the open and place it firmly on national and international policy agendas.

Women’s organizations have taken the lead in developing innovative efforts to tackle the issue, including providing services, drafting and lobbying for legislation, raising awareness through advocacy, education and training, and building national, regional and international end-violence networks.

According to the Secretary General’s In-Depth Study on All Forms of Violence against Women (2006), 89 states currently have some legislative provisions on domestic violence against women, including 60 States with specific domestic violence laws, and a growing number of countries have instituted national plans of action to end violence against women. This is a clear increase in comparison to 2003, when UNIFEM did a scan of anti-violence legislation and only 45 countries had specific laws on domestic violence. However, absence of adequate resources and political will to implement policies continues to hamper progress.

Taking Safety into Their Own Hands

Networks that have been created by women’s groups at national, regional and global levels are growing in strength and impact. These networks, such as the Pacific Regional Network against Violence against Women, the Women, Law and Development Network in Africa, the South Asian Forum against Human Trafficking, and numerous others have come to play a leading role in raising awareness and pursuing positive change in community attitudes and practices related to gender-based violence.

These networks have inspired a wide range of campaigns that have brought the issue front and centre. The 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence (25 November – 10 December) is an annual campaign that is symbolic of the global women’s movement and end-violence networks. Its starting day, 25 November, is observed each year to honour the Mirabal sisters, three political activists from the Dominican Republic who were assassinated on the same date in 1961. The end of the 16 Days is marked by 10 December, International Human Rights Day. Coordinated by the Centre for Women’s Global Leadership since 1991, the 16 Days of Activism involve hundreds of organizations around the world in activities ranging from media programmes to demonstrations, conferences, exhibitions and performances. In 1999, the UN joined the campaign by designating 25 November the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.

The 16th anniversary of the 16 Days of Activism was celebrated in 2006. The overall theme of the 2006 campaign focused on the human rights aspects of eliminating violence against women, thereby reinforcing the understanding that advancing human rights and ending violence against women are closely linked. Two key components include strengthening the human rights focus of measures to eliminate violence against women and honouring the work of women’s human rights defenders. This year’s campaign also addresses the ongoing UN reform and the Secretary General’s In-Depth Study on All Forms of Violence against Women.

UN agencies have also joined with non-governmental organization (NGOs) and governments to conduct regional campaigns to raise awareness and mobilize community action. UNIFEM, as part of its deep involvement in the global fight to eradicate violence against women, took the lead in coordinating several UN inter-agency regional campaigns over the last years, in Africa, Latin America, Asia and the CIS region. UNIFEM also spearheaded organizing of a global videoconference on ending violence in 1999. The conference, a groundbreaking collaboration between UN agencies, linked five sites — Strasbourg, Nairobi, New Delhi, Mexico City and New York — to discuss innovative strategies to address the issue globally.

The International Community’s Response

The dramatic changes in norms, laws, policies and practices that address the issue have been matched in recent years by responses from the international community. This has led to a global recognition of violence against women as a human rights abuse.

The 1981 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) recognizes violence against women as a particularly egregious form of discrimination that must be eradicated. Although CEDAW itself does not explicitly mention violence against women, the Committee to Eliminate Discrimination against Women, which is responsible for monitoring the implementation of CEDAW, has clarified in its General Recommendation No. 19 (1992) that States parties to the Convention are under an obligation to take all appropriate means to eliminate violence against women. Further comprehensive international policy statements aimed at ending violence are the UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1993, and the Platform for Action from the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. Both documents define gender-based violence as a violation of women’s human rights and a form of discrimination that prevents women from participating fully in society and fulfilling their potential as human beings. Both documents commit signers — UN member States — to taking action to safeguard women and girls.

In 1996, the United Nations General Assembly established the UN Trust Fund in Support of Actions to Eliminate Violence against Women. The Trust Fund is managed by UNIFEM and is the only multilateral grant-making mechanism that supports local, national and regional efforts to combat violence. Since it began operations in 1997, the Trust Fund has provided more than US$10 million to 198 initiatives in 100 countries. Raising awareness of women’s human rights, these UNIFEM-supported efforts have linked activists and advocates from all parts of the world; shown how small, innovative projects impact laws, policies and attitudes; and helped break the wall of silence, moving the issue onto public agendas everywhere.

In 2006, the Secretary-General published an In-Depth Study on All Forms of Violence against Women. While significant progress has been made in elaborating international standards, norms and policies, the study concludes that States around the world are failing to fully implement international standards and to tackle violence against women with the necessary political commitment, visibility and resources. Based on existing examples of good practice implemented by States and NGOs, the study identifies recommendations to States and the United Nations to respond to violence against women in a comprehensive and systematic manner.

Rising to the Challenge — Not a Minute More

Substantial progress has been achieved in raising awareness of the scale of the problem. Despite this progress, however, today’s world is no safer than it was two decades ago. There is increased violence in societies in general, and a continuing gap between political commitment and adequate resources. Interventions to combat violence will not be effective until the level of resources matches the scale of the problem.

Violence against women remains prevalent, pervasive, systemic, and even sanctioned. The key challenge that remains is to move the issue from awareness that it is a human rights violation and a crime, to making it socially unacceptable and counter to community norms. Governments, NGOs, civil society, the private sector and international bodies must work together to face this challenge head-on, and to provide the political will, commitment and courage to finally eradicate this scourge from human life.

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