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  This module is a resource for lecturers  

 

Topic 1 - Ending violence against women

 

Violence against women was first recognized as a human rights problem in the early 1990s, in two key foundational texts: the UN General Assembly Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (GA Resolution 48/104), and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination's General Recommendation 19, which recognized violence against women as a form of discrimination.

It is useful to start this session by considering the UN General Assembly Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (GA Resolution 48/104). This is a comprehensive factual and policy document describing in detail aspects of the prevalence of different forms of gender-based violence against women and girls, how violence against women and girls contravenes human rights norms, and comprehensive recommendations for change. This Declaration has been the foundation for all further international legal developments to address violence against women. It is significant as a statement of global concern and commitment to secure change, as it was adopted unanimously, by all States in the world, participating in the global norm-setting space of the General Assembly.

While it is now more than 25 years since all States agreed this document as a legal and policy approach to combating violence against women, we are still in a situation where one in three women and girls will be subjected to gender-based violence (World Health Organization, Department of Reproductive Health and Research, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, South African Medical Research Council, 2013). However, concern and political commitment to end violence against women has increased vastly due, in part, to the presence of online information sharing, outreach and activism.

Feminist civil society organizations have campaigned on a variety of issues - including women's right to vote - over centuries. Campaigning on violence against women as a global issue began in the 1970s, with advocacy particularly for women's services such as refuges and rape crisis support. With the identification of violence against women as a human rights issue in the early 1990s, a new phase in campaigning began, an international network of local campaigns was initiated by the Center for Global Women's Leadership at Rutgers University in the United States of America. This umbrella movement was called 'the 16 Days of Activism' as it focused on a period of 16 Days, between 25 November (world day on violence against women) and 10 December (Human Rights Day).

Digital communication technologies contribute to the speed and reach of advocacy efforts to end gender-based violence against women and girls. The global V-Day movement used a theatre piece, the Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler, as a creative hook for other activism in local languages. V-Day is now a diverse global movement based on theatre, dance, and solidarity campaigning with women in other places in the world, including provision of a place of healing, learning and activism called the City of Joy in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Internet sites have been established which permit women to report their experiences of violence and to seek solidarity and support from other users - for example, the Hollaback sites in a variety of countries, which allow women and girls to report acts of street harassment and violence, and share information about keeping safe.

The #MeToo movement has moved beyond organized civil society campaigning to immediate, individual responses using social media as a method of providing individual testimony, solidarity with other survivors, and a method of demanding social change. It has proven to be extremely flexible across borders as a method of drawing out from the broader theme violence against women important local strands of ideas and arguments leading to social change. To understand some of the current debates, lecturers and students are invited to look at three online presentations, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Laura Bates and Tarana Burke and to direct students to watch these as preparation for the class.

 

Diverse forms of gender-based violence against women and girls

There are various forms of violence against women, including physical, sexual and psychological violence perpetrated by the State, perpetrated in communities, and in families (United Nations General Assembly, 1993). Across all settings, gender-based violence includes: gender-based killings; rape and sexual violence; forced marriage - which includes child marriage of children under 18; sexual harassment in workplaces, schools, and in public places; female genital mutilation (FGM) and other harmful practices; trafficking and online violence against women; economic violence, including dowry abuse; as well as psychological abuse. Women and girls who are further marginalized because of other aspects of their identity - for example, living with disability, or being lesbian, bisexual or transgender women and girls - are more likely to be targeted by perpetrators (UN Women, 2017).

While these forms of violence are diverse, they are also inter-related. For example, child marriage, a practice which takes place in all regions of the world, is correlated with increased levels of domestic violence, including rape within marriage. The life-cycle approach sheds further light on the diverse forms of gender-based violence, by identifying that perpetrators target girls and women at various ages for various different kinds of violence.

 

The economic and social costs of gender-based violence against women and girls

The costs of gender-based violence are not only born by the direct victims. Indeed, the estimated economic costs of violence against women are of concern internationally. The following remarks, by the United Nations Assistant Secretary-General and Deputy Executive Director of UN Women, indicate the scale and complexity of these costs:

Research indicates that the cost of violence against women could amount to around 2 per cent of the global gross domestic product (GDP). Violence against women and girls brings huge economic costs to any society. The negative impact on women's participation in education, employment and civic life undermines poverty reduction. It results in lost employment and productivity, and it drains resources from social services, the justice system, health-care agencies and employers. (UN Women, 2016)

It is clear that in addition to the personal and acute harms suffered by victims of gender-based violence, the financial costs of this violence are borne by communities as a whole. If gender-based violence were eliminated, funds currently spent on violence prevention and response could be directed into other community services (healthcare, education, and development projects, for example).   

 

Addressing the root causes of gender-based violence

Yet taking effective steps to eradicate violence against women and girls requires an understanding of the causes. The "ecological model" considers how "layers" of entitlement and permission -laws within a State, in social attitudes in communities, families, and held by individuals - promote violence against women, and the dominance of men over women in political, cultural and economic power. The ecological model first proposed by Lori Heise in 1998 (Heise, 1998) has been summarized in an article by Lara Fergus (2013) entitled "What causes violence against women? Ending violence against women requires change at all levels of the socio-political system".

Causal factors in States, societies, communities and families interact to perpetuate the structural discrimination which allows violence against women to thrive and persist. The problem, therefore, must be understood systemically. "Explanations for violence that focus primarily on individual behaviours and personal histories, such as alcohol abuse or a history of exposure to violence, overlook the broader impact of systemic gender inequality and women's subordination" (Fergus, 2013).

While the term "vulnerability" is sometimes used to describe why women and girls experience various forms of violence, this is a form of victim-blaming, that diverts attention from both the structural causes of violence, and the individuals who perpetrate acts of gender-based violence. A more accurate way of looking at it is that "perpetrators choose to target women and girls" in different ways, according to their stage in the life cycle, but also because of other aspects of their identity, such as sexual orientation, race, or disability. In presenting the various forms of violence against women and girls, it is useful to consider the ways in which women and girls are expected to present themselves (their clothing, their behaviours, life plans etc) to fit into stereotypes and to avoid being targets of gender-based violence. It is even more illuminating to consider how even these proactive steps are insufficient to safeguard women and girls from violence. This is an important point, because it illustrates that the problem of violence against women and girls is not a problem for which women and girls are either the cause, or the solution. It is not about what women and girls do or do not do - it is about how women and girls are cast and constrained by entrenched attitudes and patterns of behaviour that operate at the levels of family, society and State.

 
Next: Topic 2 - Human rights approaches to violence against women
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