DAWN Ontario: DisAbled Women's Network Ontario

Right of Choice:
It's In Our Hands: Stop Violence Against Women

Amnesty International Report 2006

July 10, 2006


From birth to death, in times of peace as well as war, women face discrimination and violence at the hands of the state, the community and the family. Female infanticide deprives countless women of life itself. Every year, millions of women are raped by partners, relatives, friends and strangers, by employers and colleagues, security officials and soldiers. Women, children and men suffer from violence inflicted in the home, but the overwhelming majority of victims are women and girls. During armed conflicts, violence against women is often used as a weapon of war, in order to dehumanize the women themselves, or to persecute the community to which they belong.

Violence against women is not confined to any particular political or economic system, but is prevalent in every society in the world. It cuts across boundaries of wealth, race and culture. The power structures within society which perpetuate violence against women are deep-rooted and intransigent. The experience or threat of violence inhibits women everywhere from fully exercising and enjoying their human rights.

Women throughout the world have organized to expose and counter violence against women. They have achieved dramatic changes in laws, policies and practices. They have brought the violations out of the shadows and into the spotlight. They have established that violence against women demands a response from governments, communities and individuals. Above all, they have challenged the view of women as passive victims of violence. Despite the obstacles they face in many countries, women are leading the struggle to prevent violence against women. However, in many countries women's rights activists have been confronted by a "backlash" from forces that see gender equality as a threat to social stability and entrenched economic interests. In parts of the world, gains by women are being reversed or ignored.

The statistics on violence against women reveal a worldwide human rights catastrophe.

  • At least one out of every three women has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime. Usually, the abuser is a member of her own family or someone known to her.

  • The Council of Europe has stated that domestic violence is the major cause of death and disability for women aged 16 to 44 and accounts for more death and ill-health than cancer or traffic accidents.

  • More than 60 million women are "missing" from the world today as a result of sex-selective abortions and female infanticide. China's last census in the year 2000 revealed that the ratio of new-born girls to boys was 100:119. The biological norm is 100:103.

  • In the USA, women accounted for 85 per cent of the victims of domestic violence in 1999, according to the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women.

  • The Russian government estimates that 14,000 women were killed by their partners or relatives in 1999, yet the country still has no law specifically addressing domestic violence.

  • The World Health Organization has reported that up to 70 per cent of female murder victims are killed by their male partners.

Such statistics represent the tip of the iceberg. Violence against women is generally under-reported because women are ashamed or fear disbelief, hostility or further violence.

Violence in the family. This includes battering by intimate partners, sexual abuse of female children in the household, dowry-related violence, marital rape and female genital mutilation and other traditional practices harmful to women.
It also covers abuse of domestic workers such as involuntary confinement, physical brutality, slavery-like conditions and sexual assault.

Violence in the community. This includes rape, sexual abuse, sexual harassment and assault at work, in educational institutions and elsewhere. Trafficking, forced prostitution and forced labour fall into this category, which also covers rape and other abuses by armed groups.

Violence by the state. This includes acts of violence committed or condoned by police, prison guards, soldiers, border guards, immigration officials and so on, such as rape by government forces during armed conflict, torture in custody and violence by officials against refugee women.

In any of these categories, violence may be physical, psychological, and sexual.

Multiple jeopardy

Violence against women is not "natural" or "inevitable". It is an expression of historically and culturally specific values and standards. Social and political institutions foster women's subservience and violence against women. Certain cultural practices and traditions - particularly those related to notions of purity and chastity - are invoked to explain or excuse such violence.

Although violence against women is universal, many women are targeted because of their race, class, culture, sexual identity or HIV status.

Poverty and marginalization fuel violence against women and also result from it. Worldwide women have a higher incidence of poverty than men; their poverty is more severe than that of men; and increasing numbers of women are poor. While the negative effects of globalization are leaving more and more women trapped on the margins of society, it is extremely difficult for such women to escape abusive situations and to obtain protection and redress. Illiteracy and poverty severely restrict women's ability to organize to fight for change.

Young women are often subject to sexual assault not only because they are women, but also because they are young and vulnerable. In some societies, girls have been subjected to forced sex because of the fallacy that sex with a virgin will cure a man of HIV/AIDS. However, age provides no protection. While some societies respect elderly women's wisdom and afford them greater status and autonomy, others abuse those who are frail and alone, particularly widows.

Control of women's sexuality is a powerful means through which men exert their dominance over women. Women who do not conform to accepted standards of femininity often face severe punishments. Men's ability to control women's sexual expression and their reproductive lives is reinforced by the actions or inaction of the state.

Reproductive rights - the right to reproductive health care and the right to reproductive autonomy - are central to women's control over their own lives.

Women have the right to decide freely and responsibly the number, spacing and timing of their children. They have the right to attain the highest standard of sexual and reproductive health. This requires access to healthcare and information and education about contraception. Women have the right to make decisions free from discrimination, coercion and violence.

Violence in conflicts devastates the lives of both men and women, but systematic rape, as seen in many recent conflicts, is primarily directed at girls and women. Rape, mutilation and murder of women and girls are common practices of warfare, committed both by government forces and armed groups.

Gender-specific forms of violence are also endemic in militarized or war-torn societies. In societies heavily influenced by gun culture, the ownership and use of arms reinforces existing gender inequalities, strengthening the dominant position of men and maintaining women's subordination. Violent disputes in the home often become more lethal to women and girls when men have guns.

Violence unchecked

As long as the perpetrators of violence against women can commit their crimes without fear of prosecution or punishment, the cycle of violence will never be broken. In some countries, discrimination against women is written into the law. Even where laws are not discriminatory, the actual practices of government agencies, police and prosecutors often foster discrimination and violence against women. In many countries, the laws are inadequate, the police force is uninterested and the criminal justice system is remote, expensive and biased against women. Unless a woman can show physical evidence of the violence she has suffered, police and other law enforcement authorities are often unwilling to believe and assist her. Many communities are complicit in excusing or condoning violence against women, and tacitly approve state failures to bring perpetrators to justice.

Impunity for violence against women is complex - many women are unwilling to pursue members of their family through the legal system because of emotional attachments and the fear of losing custody of their children. Women are also discouraged from seeking justice through the courts because too often criminal justice systems hold them responsible for violence, asserting that it was "incited" or "instigated" by the woman's own behaviour. Since women are often denied equal access to economic and social rights, many do not have the resources to access the legal system.

The human rights framework

One of the achievements of women's rights activists has been to demonstrate that violence against women is a human rights violation. This changes the perception of violence against women from a private matter to one of public concern and means that public authorities are required to take action. The parallel development of international and regional human rights standards reinforces this accountability.

Framing violence against women as a human rights issue creates a common language for the work of anti-violence activists and facilitates global and regional networks. These networks are taking their own governments to task, and instigating new international legal standards and practices. The explicit inclusion of rape as a war crime and crime against humanity in the statutes of international criminal tribunals exemplifies these new standards.

The human rights framework also specifies governments' obligations under international law to promote and protect women's human rights. It provides mechanisms for holding governments to account if they fail to meet these obligations.

One of the most powerful features of the human rights framework is the core principle that human rights are universal - all people have equal rights by virtue of being human. The appeal to universality counters one of the most common excuses used to justify violence against women, that it is acceptable because it is part of the society's culture. All human rights should be enjoyed by all people, and culture or tradition do not excuse the violation of women's basic human rights.

The struggle to establish women's rights as human rights has not been easy. Non-governmental organizations, civil society groups and political parties are not immune from prevailing social attitudes, and some still do not recognize women's rights as human rights. Undoubtedly, some include men who are themselves perpetrators of violence against women. In communities or societies which view the woman's role as confined to family responsibilities, women's human rights activists have to overcome the prejudice against women taking a leadership role. Women protesting against discriminatory laws and practices are often accused of being traitors to their faith or culture or enemies of the state. Activists promoting rights central to women's identity and autonomy, such as sexual and reproductive rights, face particular hostility.

Despite the risks, programs and projects to address, combat and prevent violence against women have flourished over the past decades. An enormous range of anti-violence initiatives now operate in all parts of the world. Some are run by small grass-roots women's groups, others by large international agencies, and still others by governments. Moreover, growing research efforts have resulted in an increasingly detailed and sophisticated understanding of the causes and consequences of violence against women. Yet the violence continues.


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