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Expert Voices

Violence Against Women: Why It Persists and What We Can Do

By Alexandra Sevett, Senior Advisor for Risk Management
Published March 6, 2019

Alexandra Sevett is CVT executive assistant and risk management coordinator.

The other day while scanning the daily international news, I came across this article: “Women Killed at ‘Alarming’ Rate in Brazil, Rights Body Says.” I was struck by the content of the article—femicide happening so often that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) called it “alarming.” In the era of the #MeToo movement, gender inequality and violence against women have become topics of near constant discussion, both here in the US and abroad. Attention is also turning to the multitude of forms in which violence against women specifically is manifested as a human rights abuse.

Last year, CVT published “CVT Clients Too,”  which highlighted how our staff, here in Minnesota as well as abroad, see clients who have experienced various forms of sexual violence and rape. Their stories are hard to read, but demonstrate how violence against women can have lasting effects on those who experience this type of human rights abuse worldwide. On this International Women’s Day, it is important to remember how pervasive the issue of violence against women really is and how many women worldwide are affected by its aftermath.

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that global estimates indicate that about 1 in 3 women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime. It occurs in all countries and crosses ethnic and economic boundaries. There are ways in which the human rights, health and global communities are working to combat it, yet the problem persists. In 2018, the World Bank reported that 1 in 4 countries have no law against domestic violence. More than 1 billion women globally lack legal protection against domestic sexual violence. 359 million women worldwide are not legally protected against sexual harassment in the workplace and 139 countries have exceptions to laws that state the legal age to marry is 18, perpetuating the problem of child marriage. Even with laws on the books, implementation and enforcement can be unequal and not effective in many countries around the world.

Given these statistics, I wonder, is there more that can be done to ensure that states are truly doing everything they can to prevent and combat all forms of violence against women? As a grad student at the Humphrey School, I was fortunate to be able to work with the organization Global Rights For Women to research this issue in depth. Our team found that current international efforts to combat violence against women are inadequate, stemming from a lack of consistent framework. Current efforts have laid important groundwork, providing somewhat unified standards and practices, but ultimately do not provide a truly cohesive and legally binding set of standards to ensure a unified global effort to combat violence against women.

When it comes to human rights abuses such as torture, for example, CVT and other human rights organizations rely on both national laws that criminalize torture, as well as binding commitments from the international community such as the Convention Against Torture (CAT), a treaty ratified by states who agree to adhere to its provisions. In the case for violence against women, there are national laws and regional treaties that provide legal frameworks for combating and preventing it; however, there is no international, legally binding treaty or convention that specifically addresses the issue of violence against women.

Currently, the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is the only legally binding international treaty that directly addresses women’s human rights, yet it does not contain a specific reference to violence against women in its text, which is critical. Violence is discussed within the context of the convention, but critics believe that as a mechanism to specifically combat the many forms of violence against women, CEDAW is not effective. Regional, binding treaties have emerged on the issue but these do not apply worldwide. Internationally, declarations, platforms for action, reports and UN bodies are also working to address issue; ensuring states are making progress on implementing laws and standards for ensuring women a life free from violence. However, critics again argue that these are not effective mechanisms for combating the issue as they are disjointed and ultimately do not provide a binding set of standards for states to follow.

NGOs and other organization around the world have taken up this issue and are pushing for a global treaty specifically addressing the many facets of violence against women. An organization called Every Woman Everywhere brings together a global coalition of more than 1,700 women’s rights advocates, lawyers, scholars, and organizations in 125 countries working for a safer world for women and girls worldwide. They argue that a treaty will unify the efforts to combat violence against women and begin the work of changing global norms. In addition, a treaty will provide specific interventions such as stronger laws, training and accountability, violence prevention education, services for victims and survivors, and funding that will help to lower instances of violence against women worldwide. They argue that a treaty is the only way to truly hold states accountable in the effort to combat violence against women.

The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is #BalanceforBetter, a campaign to build a gender-balanced world. In order to build gender balanced boardrooms, government, media coverage and wealth as the campaign discusses, we need to ensure that women’s most basic human rights are being protected and championed. A new international treaty may be the answer but regardless, to experience full equality, women need to be able to live a life free from violence and harassment.

About The Author
Alexandra Sevett
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