Violence Against Women and International Law

Violence Against Women and Girls is the most widespread human rights violation on earth. Despite international outcry, for the most part it is not a violation of international law, and action from individual states continues to be discretionary. This approach leaves women open to arguments of culture and religion, with little or no legal protection against violence for hundreds of millions of women.

For decades, leaders in the international women’s movement have worked doggedly to advance women’s rights in every corner of the globe – and they have had many hard-won victories. CEDAW, the Istanbul Convention, Belém do Pará among many treaties and conventions have played a critical role in advancing women’s rights.

For example, Bangladesh had no law against sexual harassment in 2009. However, resting upon Bangladesh’s High Court’s responsibility to protect fundamental rights that the Constitution implicitly covered, it relied heavily on foreign and international law, notably CEDAW, to uphold and delineate the rights of petitioners to be free from sexual harassment at work and schools.

In 2007, Mexico passed a comprehensive VAW law, which incorporated many of CEDAW’s recommendations, including data collection on VAW, shelters, and special training protocols for police and prosecutors pursuing VAW.

Yet, violence against women and girls remains the most widespread of human rights violation on earth. One out of three women on earth will be a victim. All of us know survivors- likely someone very close. As advocates working on the most wide-spread human rights violation of all time, each of us must engage a basic question:

Is the current legal framework sufficient to address violence against women worldwide?

Despite growing global outcry, for the most part violence against women is not a violation of international law, and protection from individual states continues to be discretionary, leaving billions of women and girls with little or no legal protection against this breed violence in its varied forms.

While we may privately- or even publicly- say “no” to violence against women, the laws of the vast majority of the world’s nations say “yes”.

There is a powerful step United Nations member states could take to fill these gaps: UN Conventions, when signed and ratified, translate to domestic law. Even if new standards fail to be instantly integrated into the interpretation of domestic law practice, they provide a legally binding structure that women’s rights advocates can use on the ground to drive better implementation of existing laws and a new global standard of accountability.

What might this achieve?

“…treaties change the priorities of governing leaders, the reasoning of courts, and the demands of groups of potential rights claimants place on the rights in question and the likelihood that mobilization will succeed in realizing them…..ratified treaties can influence agendas, litigation, and mobilization in ways that should be observable in government policies post ratification. Treaties change politics- in particular, the domestic politics of the ratifying country. While their enforcement internationally tends to create collective action problems that state actors have few incentives to overcome, the consequences locally can be profound.”– Beth Simmons, Professor of International Affairs, Harvard University